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New Orleans Pelicans are an incomplete puzzle and Rajon Rondo sits in the crosshairs

Pelicans are 7-3 over their last 10 games but making some changes look best in the long run.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Rajon Rondo seems destined to remain one of the most polarizing figures in the league.

On the one hand, New Orleans Pelicans teammates adore their starting point guard and coaches have praised Rondo at every turn since the start of training camp. Furthermore, his raw statistics have sparkled since the beginning of December — about the time he had finished getting his feet wet after returning from injury.

Over his last 24 games, Rondo is averaging 7.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.2 turnovers in approximately 26 minutes of action. More impressively, he’s shooting 48.8% from the field and knocking down 37.9% of his three-point attempts.

Those stats look ridiculously good on paper, probably bordering along the most optimistic of predictions made before the start of the season by even his staunchest supporters. But on the flip side, an argument can be crafted to show he’s been an ill-fitting addition with the starters, whether through numerous eye-test instances or based off of damning on/off numbers.

At the start of January, I made mention of Rondo’s listless effort against the Jazz, while countless of other New Orleans followers, including writers from The Bird Writes and Bourbon Street Shots, smartly brought to light a lot of data that pointed to the team performing significantly better with Rondo off the floor.

The starting lineup combination of Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have compiled a very uninspiring -3.8 Net Rating in 386 minutes. Only two other lineups have surpassed the 300-minute mark and posted a negative Net Rating in the NBA this season — the Detroit Pistons (Jackson, Bradley, Johnson, Harris and Drummond) and Chicago Bulls (Dunn, Holiday, Valentine, Markkanen and Lopez). Among those teams whose lineups have also cleared the 200-minute barrier include the Hawks, Lakers, Magic, Mavericks and Knicks. New Orleans is sharing company with a group that has a combined W/L record of 109-172.

That’s not playoff caliber, folks!

Obviously, this news alone is troubling, but things look infinitely worse when examining Pelican lineups without factoring Rondo into the equation. For instance, the Holiday-Moore-Davis-Cousins foursome minus Rondo has a +11.6 Net Rating in 400 minutes. Things get even rosier when looking at just the minutes of the Pelicans Big Three without one or both of the other two typical starters. Have a look at the following chart with comparisons to some of the most prominent and dominant three-man lineups around the league.

minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Cousins-Davis-Holiday w/o Rondo-Moore 106 112.6 85.0 +27.6
Curry-Durant-Green (GSW) 502 121.6 104.7 +16.9
Ariza-Gordon-Harden (HOU) 509 120.0 104.5 +15.5
Cousins-Davis-Holiday w/o Rondo 506 109.1 94.1 +15.0
George-Roberson-Westbrook (OKC) 693 108.8 95.1 +13.7
Covington-Embiid-Simmons (PHI) 575 112.0 98.3 +13.7
Butler-Towns-Wiggins (MIN) 1185 113.6 102.0 +11.6
Beal-Porter-Wall (WAS) 839 110.3 100.1 +10.2
Cousins-Davis-Holiday 952 108.1 102.8 +5.2

The core is set — Cousins, Davis and Holiday are as dominant of a trio as the NBA has to offer when surrounded by the right pieces, and Darius Miller, Ian Clark and Moore have proven to effectively enhance the Big Three. For example, a Cousins-Davis-Holiday-Miller-Moore lineup has a +39.7 Net Rating and a Clark-Cousins-Davis-Holiday-Moore grouping has a +27.4 Net Rating.

However, a six-man rotation is not even remotely close to being deep enough. Nearly half of the season remains and the Pelicans have been very fortunate that key contributors have stayed healthy. The hope is the return of Solomon Hill and Tony Allen will help and Holiday shouldering more minutes at the point guard position will raise the level of performances, but General Manager Dell Demps needs to unearth several upgrades. Such variance as indicated above demands a playoff-hopeful front office actively seek improvements for the roster.

A lineup that boasts two All-NBA talents and a third player in Holiday, who is playing at a level very comparable to his lone All-Star season, should be worlds better than a -20.8 Net Rating in 127 third quarter minutes since the start of December. How many more lulls must we endure out of halftime before it takes a toll on the team’s winning percentage?

Further, can Davis, Cousins and Holiday sustain their latest work loads? They’re all averaging right around 40 minutes per game in January — easily the highest individual monthly totals of the season — and the finish line still sits far off in the distance. At the current pace, New Orleans is risking of falling across the finish line like a completely winded Olympic sprinter that could result in a repeat of the conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign: getting swept out of the first round.

Look, Rondo isn’t useless every time he steps out onto the floor. In the loss to the Memphis Grizzlies two weeks ago, he was the best player for the Pelicans during the first quarter, scoring in a variety of ways, pushing the pace and being engaged defensively.

Plus, I feel Rondo is committed to helping New Orleans win, and his knowledge is of use to our inexperienced roster. And we can’t forget the endgame is certainly to utilize playoff-Rondo, a player who is known for elevating his game in the postseason.

However, in the meantime, I’m afraid that Head Coach Alvin Gentry’s strategy of allowing the three previous quarters to dictate his rotations coming down the stretch of games may not be enough.

“I just think by feel,” said Gentry before the Pelicans latest win against the Grizzlies at home. “In the last game, I just felt like with Ian (Clark), Ian gave us so much movement. I don’t really look at his shots. I just think that part of what we did offensively with the movement that he had, he creates other movement also, so I just went with him. You know we’ve gone with (Rajon) Rondo. A lot of times we will go with Jrue (Holiday) because we like the defensive set up there, so it’s just by game feel really.”

The starting lineup has dealt with plenty of consistency issues throughout the season. They’ve had bouts with both getting out of the gates or finishing games strongly, but this third quarter bug-a-boo has remained a significant thorn in their sides.

Something should be done — whether that’s making a change to the starting lineup, adding more productive personnel to the roster to give Gentry a chance to rest his stars more often, or both. There seems to be something special brewing in New Orleans, but the team needs a hand in getting out of it’s own way first.