This coming season is an important one for the New Orleans Pelicans in a variety of ways for their future. As I’ve touched on already, one of the major points of emphasis will be ironing out the big man rotation; specifically among Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle. However, the most compelling and alluring situation remains a lineup in which not just two but all three bigs see the floor together for stretches, especially in crunch time.
To examine upon this a bit further, we’re going to take a brief trip back in time to the NBA’s Jurassic Period, 1997.
The 1997-1998 season was vastly important for myriad reasons. It was the final season for Michael Jordan with the Bulls, along with Chicago’s last NBA Championship to date. It also happened to be the rookie season of Tim Duncan on the San Antonio Spurs.
Duncan’s arrival was immediately consequential for the entire league. He was a four-year star at Wake Forest who made the All-NBA First Team as a rookie — unheard of in the modern era on many levels. Also important was the Spurs and Duncan’s insistence on playing him almost exclusively as a power forward. These were still the halcyon days of Malone, Barkley, Kemp and Rodman, right before the mantle transitioned to Duncan, Garnett, Nowitzki and eventually Gasol as enormous power forwards who would exclusively play center today.
With Duncan at the four, the Spurs had the luxury of playing two future hall-of-famers on the blocks as Robinson joined him at the five spot. But the Spurs weren’t done and might as well have coined the phrase “Super Size Me”. Journeyman center, albeit quite successful, Will Perdue was also on the Spurs roster, and he had started much of the previous season in Robinson’s stead. Perdue was a skilled player at 7’1, with a solid jumper and good court vision. This, along with Duncan’s finesse, allowed a young Gregg Popovich to legitimately play three 7’ tall players at the same time.
Unfortunately, specific lineup data was not available to me at the time of this piece, but the Spurs finished 56-26, allowing a preposterously minute 88.5 points per game. They were second in the league in defensive rebound rate and fourth in overall rebounding. Duncan clocked 39.1, Robinson 33.7 and Perdue 18.9 minutes per game respectively and the trio was 16-5 when starting together. Of course the Spurs also won the ‘99 Championship with the same trio, utilizing Perdue to a lesser extent in the lockout-shortened season.
Today, the game is dramatically different. The 88.5 points allowed by the 97-98 Spurs squad would be 11.3 points better than their league-leading defensive 99.8 points per game allowed last season. Still, I believe there is a comparison and lesson to be learned for the 18-19 Pelicans within the makeup of that old school Spurs team. Principals, defense and playing your best players together are the inherent traits for success along with having at least one generational talent as your fulcrum.
Those same traits which made the Spurs successful, and eventual champions, can be seen in another modern team whose roster exhibits many similarities to the Pelicans; the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 17-18 Sixers most ballyhooed lineup last season of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid is the skeleton key to unlocking the enormous potential within the 18-19 Pelicans. That lineup had an astounding +21.7 point differential on 1,256 possessions per CleaningTheGlass.com — that’s as elite as they come. Embiid & Simmons are clearly All-NBA level talents, but the other three are respectively very good role players. Looking at how the Pelicans roster fits currently, it’s not outlandish to see the similarities.
Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are unarguably the two best big men in the NBA and very likely the best since Duncan, Garnett and Nowitzki began to fade. These two, along with potentially Karl Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo (depending on your definition of bigs), are the current wave of giants who should control the NBA post LeBron and the Warriors. The difference being that Anthony Davis is a utility knife defensively, able to switch 1-5, who simultaneously will drop 30 points and grab 10 rebounds. He can mold his game to nearly any lineup and should thrive with Niko & Julius, just like Embiid has with Simmons and Saric. The one adjustment might be getting an uptick in Davis from the 3-point line in attempts and percentage, which would only make him and the team more lethal.
Nikola Mirotic and Dario Saric had very similar seasons last year, and I’d expect that to hold in 18-19. Both were better than 37% from three, averaged around 15 ppg and played 27-30 mpg. The variance between them coming from Saric’s slightly more perimeter oriented game. But the Pelicans need Mirotic to play a bit bigger than what Saric does as he covers for AD in spots with the biggest centers. Against a similar-size switching situation, it’s not too problematic to consider having Niko on the floor defensively among guards and wings as most of the time he’ll likely take the one big or non-shooter. Offensively, we’ve seen how effective his gunslinger three-pointers and spacing are with this roster, another year in and he should only flourish more.
The most important component among the bigs for this lineup will be Julius Randle’s ability to excel defensively similar to Ben Simmons. Simmons plays point forward and attempted just eight three-pointers last season, which is comparable to Julius Randle and his previously no jumper/bull-rush play style. Their frames and skill sets are similar; however, Simmons’ defensive counting stats and advanced metrics best Randle’s in every way.
It’s debatable for the reasoning in separation beyond innate skill as they have have similarly short wingspans, and stand around 6’9-6’10, but Simmons vision and awareness are clearly elite. However, it will be interesting to see this season if Randle’s defensive numbers float up closer to Simmons once he’s slotted next to Davis and Holiday, just like Simmons was next to Embiid and Covington last season. Hopefully energy, coaching and attention to detail will elevate Randle as he’s next to the First Team All-Defense duo.
Simmons difference on offense is clearly his preternatural passing and ball handling, but the Pelicans pace might allow Randle to approximate a portion of that within a lineup featuring Davis and Mirotic. Ben dominates the playmaking duties within his group whereas Randle would certainly share the load with New Orleans backcourt. Again, it’s not a 1-to-1 comparison of play style, but they’re similar enough for it to be something to keep our eyes on once Gentry pulls the three big trigger.
Looking at the other two players for the 76ers Death Lineup in comparison to the Pelicans, the one concern is clearly shooting. Redick is an all time great who launched 6.6 attempts per game last season and connected at a 42% clip, placing him in the top 20 of the league for makes, attempts and percentage. Robert Covington shot even more with 6.9 attempts on 37%. Just as important, they were able to shoot this way while still providing exemplary defense, particularly Covington who is at or near the top of every defensive category along with Simmons and Embiid.
E’Twaun Moore shot an excellent 42% from three last season, but he has always been somewhat hesitant and only got up 3.7 attempts per game, nearly half of Covington or Redick. Moore also had to guard and be guarded by small forwards for much of last season, giving up precious inches and lacking the required space to launch against more like sized defenders. Jrue Holiday also was underwhelming from three with 33.7% on 4.4 attempts per game. Effectively, Holiday and Moore combined would’ve finished second in the league in attempts at 657, not dramatically more than Covington’s own 550.
Given the play style of the modern NBA and the available roster, the Pelicans have to either get substantially more production from Holiday and Moore at the three-point line this season or upgrade Moore through significant internal improvement or trade to make New Orleans lineup truly potent.
What the Spurs did successfully in 97-98 shouldn’t be discounted for today’s game purely because all three bigs were legitimate centers. It was a much different game in every aspect and they maximized the talent they had at the time to compete in a brutal Western Conference that featured three 60-win teams and two 50-win teams making the playoffs. While not as direct a comparison to the 17-18 76ers due to the uniqueness of Ben Simmons, those Spurs and the 76ers utilized size and defense to lead the league in rebounding and defense and it made them both elite.
What the Pelicans will seek to do is thread the needle of playing big, fast, defending at an elite level and shooting at a respectable enough number to smother the competition. Should they get the improvements mentioned above from Randle, Holiday, Moore or another mystery player to flank the three bigs, I believe we will see the 2018-19 New Orleans Pelicans reach similar heights as their forerunners — or perhaps exceed them.