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New Orleans Pelicans in midst of launching NBA’s next revolutionary style of play

With so many unique skill sets, size and athleticism on the roster together, modern small-ball is officially on notice.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans, to the casual follower, appeared to be as directionless as they were disjointed throughout much of the early Anthony Davis’ years. Before the start of every season, the front office tried to patchwork together a competitive team around the young superstar. All too often, the results did not materialize as intended.

The Pelicans have preached continuity year after year, yet they consistently experienced a good deal of roster turnover. For example, the team watched Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson hit the open market after the 2015-16 season — without any compensation in return. That’s regarded as a cardinal sin in a league where it is pretty much written in stone that you must always gather as many assets as possible. Then, in an effort to remain competitive and keep Anthony Davis happy, the Pelicans rolled the dice on DeMarcus Cousins. It didn’t work out accordingly, but through trial and error, New Orleans may have discovered the kyrptonite to the league’s growing embrace of “small ball” and the next viable path to break through the glass ceiling in the Western Conference.

It’s small ball, but retro-fitted with #DoItBig artillery.

Since the Warriors broke through in 2015, the league has completely transformed. Fast tempo, small-ball offenses have taken the league by storm and redefined how we look at positions. Gone are the days of plodding space-eaters who clog up the paint — the image of Omer Asik getting played off the court by the Warriors still burns vividly in too many memories. It wasn’t Asik’s fault though, the league changed at the drop of a hat and bigs started being asked to do things that they simply didn’t have to do before. They had to mimic the play of guards. This is why in recent years teams have strayed away from lineups featuring two bigs in favor of more athletic versatile players who can get out, run, pass, and obviously, shoot.

What the 2018-19 New Orleans Pelicans have done is take all of those contrasting theories and blended them in together; the finished product is now pushing the boundaries of small ball to new limits.


Throughout all of the changes that the Pelicans have undergone on the roster, one thing has remained a constant: the union of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis. Those two are the pillars of the team, the perfect complements to one other and the engine that makes the Pelicans system possible.

Davis is obvious. He entered the league as a once-in-a-generation type of talent and possesses all of the skills necessary to dominate the modern game. Holiday, on the other hand, is a different story. He almost became a forgotten man in New Orleans, a talent that nearly succumbed to injury and heartache. Then he re-signed for a lot of dollars, and to the surprise of many, lived up to that contract. Holiday is now entrenched as one of the most valuable players in the league because of his two-way abilities.

Holiday’s perimeter defense sets the tone and allows Davis to roam and be a force everywhere else on the floor that’s required. Those that have not closely followed the Pelicans have failed to witness the growth of these two players. The chemistry has never been higher.

This video clip clearly demonstrates why the Pelicans tandem was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. The James Harden-Clint Capela pick-and-roll is one of the most lethal combinations in the league and the Pels just completely swallowed up the action. Holiday funneled Harden towards the help and Davis’ ability to guard both the roll man and ball-handler stymied the attack.

But, lets give credit where credit is due: good team defense isn’t about just two players; its a team effort and for the Pelicans to play as big as they do it requires Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle to guard opponents on the perimeter.

This is the reigning MVP of the league driving to the rim and Randle completely swallows him up, without fouling. Holiday switches onto Melo while Randle picks up Harden. Normally, this is food for Harden when he isolates a big, but Randle backs up and uses his size and strength to block Harden. It was a special play and yet another example of why teams are going to have trouble matching up with the size of the Pelicans.

The additional wrinkle for the Pelicans though, is not only that they are big, its that they can play small really damn well. Its an advantage on both ends of the court and allows them to take advantage of switch heavy defenses. The offense isn’t just predicated on pounding the rock and iso’ing a mismatch; it’s attacking early and being decisive with every movement.

Holiday and Elfrid Payton operate as the conductors, pushing the ball and setting the desired quick pace. Mirotic is the team’s sniper, but he plays so hard that he contributes in other ways as well. E’Twaun Moore is the perfect fifth option — who rarely gets the appreciation he deserves but always produces when called upon. He has the versatility to score on numerous floaters amongst the trees or drilling home open threes. Randle is the team’s X-factor, who can break open a close game by feasting on second units. Of course, then there’s Anthony Davis. He is the heart of all the mayhem, the league’s most unique player, who poses as a nightly nightmare for all opponents. Davis’ ability to score on and off the ball opens up the offense and gives them the perfect release valve for when things get stagnant.

The Pelicans currently rank fourth in pace, first in offensive rating and second in net rating. That’s to be expected when you’ve dropped 131, 149 and 116 points on the opponent, but notice it’s not how many they've scored but how they’ve converted. The rebounding percentage sits top-5 in the league as New Orleans is limiting teams to one shot but garnering extra chances on the offensive glass themselves. The Pelicans are first in points in the paint, fourth in fast break points, and surprisingly sixth in three point percentage.

That’s a lot of numbers to throw out at you, but it doesn’t feel like most of them are completely unsustainable. The Pelicans are generating easy looks at the basket and punishing teams with size and pace. If a team goes big, they’re too slow to keep up; if teams go small, the Pels just bully them to death without giving up foot speed.

Now, its been only three games, yet after last year’s success and the carryover we’ve seen after the first week, its hard to not feel like something special is brewing. New Orleans went big while the rest league went even smaller, but ironically it appears most opponents will not be able to keep up! Today’s most exciting offense is leading the league in post-up attempts, and at the same time, are champions of the assist category — a testament to not only the unselfish nature of the squad but the dynamic, quick-strike offense in place.

Prior to the start of training camp, Charlie warned everyone about a possible revolution. Don’t look now but the Pelicans are in the midst of changing the status quo. A league that was dominated by the Steph Curry’s and Russell Westbrook’s is suddenly under siege by a much bigger — yet equally as fast — opponent: the 2018-19 New Orleans Pelicans.