There’s no doubt a 15-7 record would give Pelican fans exhilaration right now.
Such a marvelous standing would place their favorite team in a tie for first place in the Western Conference with the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, likely drown out any remaining Anthony Davis trade chatter, and validate the offseason moves made by Dell Demps. Unfortunately, New Orleans record is an even 12-12 amidst a dogfight in the West, and every national pundit seems to be packing AD’s bags for him.
There is a very interesting team boasting a 15-7 record though that many fans are enamored with and surprisingly shares parallels to the New Orleans Pelicans.
One quarter through the season, the Milwaukee Bucks are second in the East. They lead the league in Net Rating with a healthy +9.6 differential, +1.4 points more than the East-leading Toronto Raptors. Mike Budenholzer has galvanized their roster into a fierce and competitive contender. Giannis Antetokounmpo has become the leading MVP candidate league wide, displacing the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and our own Anthony Davis.
The reason to analyze the Bucks currently, beyond their status as a top team in the standings, is the comparisons to the Pelicans are myriad but the success this season is not. The personnel, style and talent levels between the Pelicans and Bucks are not dissimilar enough to warrant their difference in the NBA hierarchy.
The Unicorn Superstars
The most obvious and glaring similarity, aside from their position as a small market franchise, is featuring a “unicorn big man” that can do it all.
Comparing Giannis and Davis is a fascinating study. The two are so similar in build, traditional statistics and talent level, yet their play is very different stylistically. Per game, 36 minutes or 100 possessions, their stats are almost identical this season. Sitting in the neighborhood of 27 PTS, 13 REB and 5 AST is elite territory, but they aren’t doing the same things for their teams or being utilized in the same manner.
Giannis is feasting around the rim with nearly 13 attempts per game inside of eight feet at a 71.6% clip, while AD is getting 10.8 attempts at 62.0%. It’s indicative of the offensive focus the Bucks place on getting Giannis to the bucket. In fact, Davis has more two-point attempts per game (17) than Giannis (15.5), while shooting 51.5% from inside the arc. Some perspective, that is almost an astounding 14% less than Giannis’s current 65.1% from the same area.
The Greek Freak is creating more of his own offense as only 45.7% of these makes are coming off assists compared to Davis’s 66.5%. Allowing Giannis to attack, paired with his unique blend of guard skills, has translated to a dominant early season performance. Even his dunk rate has skyrocketed to 28.2% of his two-point FGAs with 99 for the season. For context, last year Giannis had 161 dunks for the entire season, putting him on pace to more than double that gaudy number. The Brow has less than half that figure with 48 on the season.
The two stars are taking nearly the exact same amount of three-point attempts per game, but Davis is dramatically better in this regard at 36.0% to Giannis’s total non-threat 11.5%. He’s become effective at catch and shoot 3’s hitting a 37.5% on the season, and should be encouraged to continue to fire more than the 2.1 attempts per game he does now.
Giannis is also creating more for his teammates, even with AD’s uptick in assists. Davis is assisting on 19.0% of the teams makes to Giannis’s 28.3%. Antetokounmpo has a higher usage rate and initiates the offense much more frequently, but therein lies part of the problem. Too often we are seeing the Pels run through their offense with little off ball action, or settling for the first glimmer of light they see. It would stand to reason that the Pelicans should perhaps work to either increase AD’s three-point Attempts, find better ways to get him the ball or allow him to initiate more offense.
The Supporting Cast
Milwaukee lacks a second star player next to Giannis. Despite his talent level, Khris Middleton does not qualify under the star banner similar to Jrue Holiday for the Pelicans. Each would be best suited as elite “Third Banana” players on a championship roster but due to circumstances are punching above their weight classes. Middleton provides more size and shooting, but Holiday provides better defense, playmaking and penetration.
The next grouping of the Pelicans core features G/F E’Twaun Moore and F/C’s Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle. Milwaukee uses G Eric Bledsoe, G/F Malcolm Brogdon and C Brook Lopez. That Bucks core 5 man lineup is third in the league for Net Rating (+6.2 with 229 minutes played), more importantly that number jumps to +12.1 when Ersan Ilyasova is subbed for Brogdon in a #doitBIG style lineup that’s seen 37 minutes together.
The Pelicans have only one current rotation that’s played over 100 minutes together. This lineup includes Wesley Johnson in lieu of Randle and boasts a paltry -3.7 Net Rating. Of the 35 qualifying lineups in the league it ranks 27th. Adjusting to 4-player lineups makes things a bit more clear for the Pelicans. Holiday, Moore, Davis & either Randle or Mirotic are a glowing +14.6 and +12.0 when they’re sharing the floor. This includes our favorite three big lineup (Holiday-Moore-Mirotic-Randle-Davis) which boasts a whopping +35.7 Net Rating in 26 minutes played, and the starting lineup from day one (Payton-Holiday-Moore-Mirotic-Davis) with an eye-popping +26.6 Net in 65 minutes.
Many will rightly point that these lineups need more time together, but injuries have partially ruined that plan. The hope is though Gentry continues to realize a need to play his best five together (the big lineup has appeared in only seven games together), especially while Payton remains on the shelf.
Pace & Space
Milwaukee is 5th in Pace, just behind the Pelicans who are third, with 104.04 possessions per game to the Pelicans 104.65. However, New Orleans is dramatically behind the Bucks in a chief category crucial to their success: three-point shooting.
Right now Milwaukee is firing up 40.5 3PA per game and connecting on 36.1% of them. New Orleans is at the bottom third of the league with just 28.6 3PA per game at 34.4%. The Pelicans don’t generate anywhere near the amount of points from deep as Milwaukee, which may inhibit the success of Holiday, Davis and Randle in the paint at times, but the Pelicans make up for it with an additional four trips per game to the free throw line. In fact, New Orleans is generating nearly six more free throw attempts a game than from last season.
So if the pace makes up for some of the space, where exactly is the discrepancy?
Milwaukee has locked up opposing offenses to the tune of 106.0 per 100 possessions, good for 6th in the league. New Orleans is coughing up 111.1, placing them 24th in the league.
This is actually astonishing considering Davis and Holiday both made the 2018 NBA All-Defensive First Team and the primary rotation doesn’t feature terrible defenders. But opponents have shot the 10th best eFG% (52.9%) and the fifth best three-point percentage (36.7%). New Orleans is giving up a lot of three-point looks (33.2 — 23rd) as well as points in the paint (51.3 PTS — 27th), and thanks to the turnovers, opponents are getting out in transition (15.0 PTS - 24th).
Is it principals? Scheme? Effort? I have looked at the defensive numbers until I’m blue in the face and can’t suss out where the gap is. Personally I think lineups and consistency have been the biggest culprit early on, with two brand new players (Johnson and Frazier) being integrated on the fly at the start of the season as three players previously counted on (Hill, Miller and Clark) have greatly floundered.
Health would be the first argument some would mention as a rebuttal to why the Pelicans haven’t had the same success as Milwaukee, and that’s fair to an extent. The Pelicans have had Davis miss four games with elbow and hip injuries while Mirotic has sat two due to a sprained right ankle. The glaring missing piece has been and will continue to be Elfrid Payton, who’s only truly played the opening four wins. The Bucks have undoubtedly benefited from their health in the early season and, to their credit, capitalized.
But removing Payton’s four games though, it makes the Pelicans performance much worse considering all previously mentioned similarities number wise. In the 20 games Payton didn’t fully participate the team is a dreadful 8-12 for a .400 win percentage. Consistently inconsistent best describes this bunch as they’ve beaten the Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, all the while losing to the Heat, Knicks and Wizards.
This exercise both made me more hopeful for the season, and more concerned for the present. Outside of the Miami Heat on December 16th, the Pelicans don’t play a team with a losing record until the Brooklyn Nets, on January 2nd. Essentially, they’re going to have to play every game like it’s the playoffs while working through lineup adjustments on the fly.
I do believe that the Pelicans current roster will be improved sooner rather than later regardless of Payton’s return date. It’s also evident that offensively the team has all the tools available to continue to dominate, but there is little hope a big defensive shift to the positive is on the horizon.
This team features a generational talent, a very good secondary option, and high level role players who excel at their jobs; they just need to find the right mix of that to better mimic their counterparts in the north who’re Euro-stepping over the league on a nightly basis.