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Elfrid Payton deserves recognition for not only sitting at helm of NBA’s best offense centered around Anthony Davis but for blossoming into a solid basketball player

Who knows how different things might be if Elf hadn’t missed 31 games?!

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Elfrid Payton wasn’t supposed to be a significant difference maker this season for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Upon signing a one-year deal for an even $3 million last July, Payton was not penciled in to be the team’s starting point guard. Yet when Rajon Rondo flew the coop unexpectedly to Los Angeles a day later, head coach Alvin Gentry had no choice but to turn to a talented but oft-considered below average young player in the league.

After spending three and a half years in Orlando with the Magic and a quick 19-game pit stop with the Phoenix Suns, critics had passed judgement on the 24-year-old: he can’t shoot, is a woeful defender and shouldn’t be entrusted with floor general duties on a good team. Even we at The Bird Writes figured Dell Demps would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat once Rondo joining the Lakers became official, pondering names like Tyreke Evans, Jarrett Jack, Shabazz Napier and Seth Curry.

So, who could have foreseen that at near the midpoint of the 2018-19 season Pelicans fans would be desperate for Payton to return to action after missing 31 games to a sprained ankle and then a fractured finger — and all the long faces would be 110% right?!

Since Elfrid’s return, New Orleans has won four of five games, momentarily reversing a free fall all the way down to 14th in the standings. While a climb to the summit of the Western Conference still looks crazy hard, one feels infinitely better about the sudden improvement made in the Pelicans playoff odds, with the team nearing full health and Elfrid Payton firmly planted back in the driver’s seat.

As Jim’s tweet plainly states, the New Orleans Pelicans have a 9-2 record when Payton plays in a game. For those who hate math, they’re 11-20 when he’s been sidelined. Looking deeper though, the difference in the team’s offensive numbers is startling in games that feature Payton for a minimum of 20 minutes versus times he doesn’t.

Points FG% 3PT% Assists Turnovers Steals Fastbreak points Points in Paint
When Elfrid Payton sees 20+ minutes 127.1 52.4% 43.3% 28.0 13.3 8.9 19.2 62.4
In all other games 114.5 47.1% 34.1% 26.7 15.2 7.2 13.1 56.5

Small sample size arguments be damned. These Pelican averages over nine games obliterate the Bucks’ 117.5 points per game, the Warriors’ 48.4 FG% and the Spurs’ 40.5 3PT% — all league leaders in those respected categories on the season. New Orleans offensive rating through the first four games was tops in the league at 120.1; in the following 33 matchups, it dropped to eighth (110.9), but since Payton’s return, the Pelicans are back in the top spot at 126.7 over their last five games.

When Elfrid Payton plays, the Pelicans are noticeable a more formidable version of the one witnessed for much of the season after the first glorious ten days of the regular schedule. They functioned as a better oiled machine then and certainly now since Payton has returned to the lineup.

The reason for the improved performance is clear: Elfrid isn’t a shoe-in for the upcoming All-Star game, but rather New Orleans does not operate at near optimum levels unless all of the bolts and screws are in place. Obviously, some parts are more necessary than others — ahem, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, but a strong argument can and should be made for Elfrid as being the third most important member on the roster.

3-man lineups Minutes Team Record Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating AST/TOV Ratio REB% TS%
Payton-Holiday-Davis 193 9-1 125.9 100.2 +25.7 2.76 54.0% 62.7%
Lowry-Green-Leonard (TOR) 544 15-6 118.4 102.5 +15.9 2.07 50.0% 62.1%
Curry-Durant-Green (GSW) 525 19-6 116.0 100.9 +15.1 2.06 51.6% 62.9%
Westbrook-George-Adams (OKC) 895 18-13 110.9 102.3 +8.7 1.77 52.0% 55.6%
Murray-Millsap-Jokic (DEN) 624 23-9 108.7 101.1 +7.6 1.80 55.5% 55.7%
Antetokounmpo-Middleton-Lopez (MIL) 615 25-11 111.1 104.9 +6.2 1.86 51.8% 59.6%

That’s a lot of potent three-man lineups from the best performing teams in the league thus far, but look at how the combination of Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis have not only stacked up but just dominated across the board.

Sure, playing Cleveland twice and a reeling Memphis Grizzlies team help to inflate numbers a lot, but get this: In the trio’s lone loss together, which occurred right after the New Year in Brooklyn, Payton, Holiday and Davis combined for a +36.5 Net Rating in 26 minutes against the Nets. Had the rest of the team managed to play at a below average level everywhere on the floor — instead of basically being downright abysmal, the Pelicans would currently be on a five-game winning streak.

So why all this hoopla about a guy who is averaging a decent but visually unimpressive line of 11.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 5.5 assists?

In short, Payton allows the rest of his teammates to operate from much better suited roles, whether in terms of position, minutes or responsibilities, and he does a lot on the court that isn’t revealed in a lot of statistics.

For instance, Jrue Holiday is allowed to freely play off the ball and not be faced with the daunting task of being the team’s only legitimate playmaker. Julius Randle doesn’t have to take it upon himself to create offense for himself and others, hence clogging up the lane and risking an offensive foul every time the defense collapses because opponents had little fear of New Orleans perimeter shooting — especially when Nikola Mirotic and/or E’Twaun Moore were out of action. And Tim Frazier, a basketball player of regular human stature, isn’t forced to be something he’s not on a nightly basis — of which the same could be said about the times Darius Miller, Ian Clark, Solomon Hill and Wesley Johnson were plugged into a dynamic offensive structure that required a multiple set of skills to remain ultra fluid.

The best way to show Elfrid’s worth is through a series of video clips during a crucial stretch of a game. This past Monday, the Pelicans were trailing the Grizzlies 60-55 early in the third quarter and were unable to grab any real momentum in the contest until this following sequence. New Orleans proceeded to go on a 15-0 run and Payton’s fingerprints were evidenced throughout.

At the 9:10 mark, Payton picked off a Marc Gasol pass intended for Garrett Temple in the corner. Notice the great defensive positioning and Elfrid’s head on a swivel. (His defensive awareness was incredible throughout this Pelicans run as you’ll soon witness.) After the swipe, Payton makes a nice pass through traffic which led to a dunk in transition for Julius Randle.

The next time down the floor, Memphis was unable to get a clean look. Payton, the ever-willing help defender and rebounder, grabbed the miss and initiated the offense. The play looked to be a simple pick and roll, but Elfrid noticed all of the attention Davis was drawing here. Instead of driving into the bodies of traffic, he smartly circumvented the pile-up, and in doing-so, spotted Darius Miller wide-open in the far corner. Utilizing the dribble, Payton moved into better position to make a clean pass which ultimately led to three free throws upon Darius’ three-point attempt.

In the ensuing possession, Payton didn’t necessarily effect the outcome of the play, but watch this clip a few times and appreciate his level of defensive awareness to say that of Julius Randle, who was in precisely the same location but never seemed to react until the ball had been loose for nearly two seconds.

Payton quickly recognized Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday might need a little help in covering Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. off the ball on the strong side — look at how Elf was entirely focused on that part of the floor by literally facing it as opposed to Randle, who is stealing glances out of the corner of his eye. Had Conley’s pass connected with Gasol cleanly, Payton, who had been guarding an assignment furtherest from the action, was already in motion to get into position first and try and impede the gifted center.

We’ve often heard coaches remark about the importance of talking with teammates defensively. Pump up your volume and see if you can discern Elfrid directing both Randle and Miller to the right positions on the floor.

Payton took full advantage of an indifferent closeout by Conley, blowing by him and scoring over Gasol inside the paint. Tim Frazier can’t do this, and really outside of Holiday, is there any wing on the roster you trust to pull something like this off with any regularity?

Payton’s alertness on full display once again. Holiday entertained the idea of going for a possible steal, but in that moment of hesitation, Javon Carter wisely cut right to the front of the rim. Fortunately, Payton picked up on the action immediately, thwarted the easy deuce and thereby forced Memphis to continue looking for a way to score — which eventually resulted in a difficult shot after a scrum on the floor.

Elfrid Payton is a much better basketball player than so many credited him with being before the start of this season. Obviously, that perception has changed considerably after his eleven appearances so the question is: just how valuable is Elf before we get swept away by all of the sweet-tasting victories?

For the New Orleans Pelicans, at least, he means the world, and honestly, I have few reservations with those who say he’s the team’s third most valuable player. His strengths shore up so many of the team’s weaknesses. Offensively, he can push the pace on this roster like no one else, break down his man off the dribble and create for others at the drop of a hat (it’s so important that Jrue isn’t alone with this responsibility) and get to and finish inside the paint. It must also be mentioned that there’s confidence in that outside jumper of his — no awkwardness in his attempts as seen out of Rondo last season, and if an opponent gives him space, the Pelicans offense doesn’t seem to collapse.

Talking about the qualities he brings defensively, though, might be the more exciting part. Payton shows the ability to combine his quickness, awareness and leadership duties to be that missing link behind the team’s two All-NBA defenders. His size, strength and athleticism allow him to switch almost as seamlessly as Holiday, go and grab a rebound from amongst the trees, and above all else, give help, help, help. Even good defenses in the league suffer from plenty of momentary breakdowns, but it’s the ones which can react adequately and decisively to a new and sudden challenge that go on to emerge as the best stoppers.

The sample size is small and there’s little professional track record to speak of, but there’s something special brewing in the Pelicans starting point guard. Elfrid Payton just might wind up being as important as any single player in helping the team reach the 2019 postseason — while also perhaps keeping Anthony Davis in New Orleans at least a little bit longer.