Thanks to Solomon Hill’s injury the New Orleans Pelicans rotation is much more muddy than head coach Alvin Gentry envisioned just a few months ago. A starting five that was all but assured is gone and now Gentry may take a platoon approach to the small forward spot if his comments at media day and to ESPN’s Zach Lowe come to fruition. Hill’s injury has impacts down the rotation and even to the roster itself. It’s not difficult to surmise that if Hill was healthy Tony Allen may not be in a Pelicans uniform.
Alvin Gentry and his staff now look at a roster overflowing with guards capable of contributing and short on forwards. This has less to do with position than roles on the floor and importantly match-ups defensively. Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Ian Clark, Tony Allen, and Jordan Crawford are all 6’4” and under yet deserving to some degree of rotation minutes. Between those six men and the twin towers of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins lie Dante Cunningham and Darius Miller. Building a rotation from those ten men (with all due respect to Alexis Ajinca and Cheick Diallo) is a difficult task, even from a theoretical standpoint. In practice it means that while the Pelicans motto is #DoItBig they will likely field small lineups beyond their two superstars.
After trying to hash out my own Pelicans rotation I found myself leaning on specific lineups or principles I felt important for this franchise’s success. (For a different perspective, check out Michael McNamara’s rotation piece over at Bourbon Street Shots.) Rather than lay out my own idea on who specifically should play when let’s lay instead a foundation that New Orleans would do well to build their rotation upon.
Play your best players the most: Sounds simple, but it will require players frequently playing out of their position as deemed by their height or the game program. No one would debate who should be at the top but after the four entrenched starters who should play the most minutes? I assert here that E’Twaun Moore, Dante Cunningham, and Tony Allen should earn the lion’s share of minutes beyond Davis, Cousins, Holiday, and Rondo. While we are enticed by the hot steaks of Jordan Crawford (in games that did not matter) or grainy tape of Darius Miller in the fourth or fifth best European league there are actual NBA players on this roster more deserving of minutes. Do not assume that uncertainty is hidden potential.
Keep Jrue Holiday aggressive: Asking Holiday to flip between an aggressive approach as a secondary ball handler and as the table setter point guard has proven ineffective through four years in New Orleans. Stop trying the old failed plans of the past. This means that Ian Clark (most likely) functions as a point guard for reserve units and that he and Rondo shoulder the load. One way to ease Clark’s burden as a point guard would be to utilize those minutes with smaller lineups (and with Holiday alongside) with just one of the two big men on the floor.
Focus on your strengths: The NBA has moved to space and pace. Three point shots bomb away behind the arc. That’s not one of the Pelicans core competencies regardless of what you’ve read about Rondo’s three point shooting in the last three seasons when the moon is waxing. This team is big up front and their top ten players can all be characterized as decent defenders or better. Defense must carry the day. Against teams with great wings (Golden State, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, San Antonio) Tony Allen should play heavier minutes despite his obvious limitations on offense. New Orleans is not built to beat these teams at their own game, their best shot is to change the entire method of attack.
Always have AD or Boogie on the floor: This means almost no available minutes for Ajinca or Diallo. That’s fine. Resting DeMarcus Cousins early in the first quarter means he should play shorter stretches throughout the game while also allowing him to feast on bench units. Enes Kanter made a killing out of this when Russell Westbrook sat in Oklahoma City last year. Kanter isn’t fit to hold Boogie’s headband. Let the big man eat.
Be patient: Gentry is a tinkerer. While the Pelicans have been ravaged by injuries he has rarely allowed any units, even those who could have, play consistent long minutes. These first eight games might be rough out of the gate. Commit to a few specific groupings and allow them to take their lumps.
Finish consistently: For all our hope of the Finishing Five they hardly played together even though they could have when healthy. Monty Williams treated it as some weapon of mass destruction only to be used in very specific circumstances. Out with that. Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins is the best five this team can roll out. While these five probably won’t start games, to lighten Holiday’s load a bigger SF (Cunningham or Miller) should start, they should finish them. Give these five players 4-6 minutes at the end of every half (8-12 minutes a game!) together to learn how to win. There are no mysteries on who the best five (healthy) players are on this team. There should be none on who takes the floor in crunch time.