If a New Orleans Pelicans game is headed for a close finish nowadays, you might as well avoid the heartache and just expect that disappointing loss before the final buzzer.
After beginning the 2018-19 season with a 4-0 record — which actually included a couple of clutch-time victories, the Pelicans have managed to win just one of nine contests since in which the score was five points or less inside the final five minutes of a game.
During this past week alone, New Orleans lost 129-126 to the Clippers on Monday after leading 119-115 with 4:39 remaining, and last night, they watched the Grizzlies claw back to a 107-103 win after the Pelicans were enjoying a 100-92 advantage with 5:18 left.
Over the span of a mere 35 clutch minutes (through the first twenty-seven games on the schedule), New Orleans has thrown away eight potential victories. That 27.3% winning percentage sits only ahead of the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers. And for a team that’s averaging the second highest amount of points per game in the league, a 32.8 field goal percentage (worst), a 19.2 three-point percentage (second worst) and a 67.7 free throw percentage (eighth worst) are some downright incomprehensible statistics.
This is a far cry from last season.
Through December 7th of the previous campaign, New Orleans had posted a 9-6 record in clutch games. They were not world beaters, but they were also not throwing away games so frequently. They were top five in rebounding, top ten in net rating and top ten in shooting. In comparison, this year’s group is bottom three in rebounding, bottom two in net rating, and have ranked as the worst shooting clutch team in the league.
Who is to blame for this?
Practically everyone, but our attention must first focus on the team’s two most highly regarded players: Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.
Holiday has attempted the most field goals (22) yet connected on just five of them. But before you overly blame him for a shooting line of 22.7 FG%, 14.3 3PT% and a 69.2 FT% realize he singlehandedly led the Pelicans to clutch wins over the Brooklyn Nets (seven points) and the New York Knicks (five points, three assists).
Anthony Davis, on the other hand, has not blatantly willed the Pelicans to such achievements during his 30 crunch time minutes, and his statistics are nearly as sour. Last season’s final three finisher in the MVP race has made six of 15 field goals (40%), one of six threes (16.7%) and three of seven (42.9%) from the free throw line.
For those of you unfamiliar with AD’s previous history, this data is incredibly shocking.
Davis has always been highly reliable in close contests throughout his career. In all but one season, he posted a 49% field goal percentage or higher. He’s only failed to eclipse an 80 FT% or higher just twice, with the worst performance including a 74.1 FT% during the 2016-17 season.
Beyond the team’s two stars, only Frank Jackson (50%) and Julius Randle (75%) have eclipsed a 40 FG% thus far this season, but the bigger thing to note is a lack of field goal attempts by the rest of the squad. Holiday and Davis have combined to shoot 37 of the team’s 58 field goal attempts, with E’Twaun Moore (6), Nikola Mirotic (5) and Julius Randle (4) falling next in line.
Last season through the same date of December 7th, Holiday and Davis had combined for 28 shot attempts, but that represented a much smaller percentage of the team’s total. DeMarcus Cousins was the high man with 20 shot attempts, and he was quite effective (50 FG%, 92.3 FT%). The team also got nice support from Moore (63.6 FG% on 11 attempts), Jameer Nelson (44.4 FG% on nine attempts) and Darius Miller (50 FG% on eight attempts). With the pressure spread around, Davis maintained a 60.0 FG%, but Jrue still struggled to the tune of a 23.1 FG%.
Although Cousins would be lost for the season not two months later, Holiday vastly improved with his late-game execution. In addition, he was quite effective during the playoffs. Davis didn’t perform as well, but he always remained on a more than passable level.
So, what has happened to one of the best players in the league, who typically has come through wonderfully under pressure, and what’s going on with the player who started terribly in his clutch minutes but improved immensely as the season wore on from a year ago?
Those are the two million dollar questions.
Thirty-five minutes is the tiniest of sample sizes, especially when we’re looking at so few number of shot attempts. Had Davis knocked down two more field goals in the clutch instead of missing, he would possess a field goal percentage north of 50%.
However, the more troubling theory to consider is, are the players dealing with confidence issues, and perhaps more importantly in trying to move forward, is the locker room missing that all important voice to shake free the doldrums?
Last season, Cousins was around the team for half the season, but Rajon Rondo was there the entire time. Throughout the year, Davis, Holiday and other members of the team consistently raved about Rondo’s leadership, preparation to detail and ability to focus on positives. Although he rarely carried the team with his scoring, Rondo was always observed to be in someone’s ear, directing traffic or setting that fiery tone.
Who is fulfilling that role this season?
It was presumed Davis and Holiday would be ready to grab the reins and lead the team after valuable lessons were learned. But that has not transpired thus far. Worse, things seem to be trending in the wrong direction. As mentioned, the Pelicans have lost eight of their past nine games that have entered clutch territory, and following Friday’s loss to the Grizzlies, Alvin Gentry was thoroughly displeased with the growing problem of lackluster results.
“We have to rescue ourselves,” said the head coach. “It’s on us, not on anybody else. And as I said before, I take responsibility for it. I’m the coach and I’ve got to get the guys to the point where we are executing and we are finishing games down the stretch.”
Despite this noble gesture — although this duty comes with the job, Gentry doesn’t deserve to shoulder all of the blame. The Pelicans combined to miss their final nine field goal attempts against the Grizzlies. The Pelicans missed three of their final six free throws. And none of this even factors earlier miscues, like finishing another game with too many turnovers (18) and a ridiculous amount of points off of them (26).
If you may recall, Dell Demps singled out the importance of winning close games from the previous season back on Media Day. Although two key guys who impacted winning were now gone in Cousins and Rondo, Demps believed, “But I think the guys we have this year will as well.”
So far, they most certainly haven’t.
Last season, the Pelicans posted a record of 30-20 in clutch games. This year, they’re on pace to finish with something very close to a 9-24 mark. The Washington Wizards, with a .467 clutch time winning percentage, were the only team to reach the 2018 playoffs with a record under .500.
New Orleans needs to get their act together in closing minutes.