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Jrue Holiday doesn’t need to post MVP-like numbers in order to propel Pelicans into relevancy

David Griffin gave Holiday permission to dominate. But just how good does the star two-way player need to be in turning New Orleans into a contender?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans should not push Jrue Holiday for MVP.

Look, we understand the sentiment and it’s a noble one!

Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin had to place the team in Holiday’s hands. The Pelicans needed unification in the wake of Anthony Davis’ forced trade and no one on the squad could carry the veteran leadership and frankly the respect like Jrue Holiday.

JJ Redick was outspoken in his desire to come to New Orleans and team up with Holiday. 2018-19 teammates Julius Randle and Frank Jackson were open in their assessments of him playing harder than anyone they had ever seen before.

Embracing the role of leader has come with ease. Holiday’s offseason trainer and former Pelicans consultant Mike Guevara freely admitted Holiday’s desire to lead the team:

“In terms of his role in embracing of being the face of the franchise and those types of phrases, I think he embraces it,” said Guevara. “I think that he is very excited to be that guy. He’s a quiet leader. But he’s a leader nonetheless and guys respect him. When he does talk and speaks up, people listen.

Then, something changed. At summer league, the conversation evolved from ‘team leader’ to ‘MVP.’

“I think you’re the most underrated player in the league,” Griffin told Holiday. “And you can either stay that, or you can become that dude. I want you to want to be that dude.”

“Sometimes you need to be given permission to dominate people,” Griffin said. “This is on you now.”

An Offensive Notion

Winning the MVP is as much or more so about individual accomplishment as it is team. Yes, the winners usually consist of top-tier regular season teams and that would translate to a successful season for the Pelicans.

But team success isn’t enough. To win MVP, you’ve got to stack the stat sheet.

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018-19: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists
  • James Harden in 2017-18: 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds
  • Russell Westbrook in 2016-17: 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists
  • Jrue Holiday last season: 21.2 points, 7.7 assists, five rebounds

Now, Holiday did have his most successful season in 2018-19. He broke the mold of being an underrated player by posting career-high offensive numbers in every category in addition to a second consecutive finish to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team.

In fact, his 21.2 points, 7.7 assists and five rebounds trailed only LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. He led a group of unknowns to a 3-3 record over an impressive onslaught of opponents (HOU, OKC, CHI) following AD’s trade demand, earning valuable recognition around the league. Those three losses (DEN, SAS, IND) came by a combined 4.3 points per game.

However, it’s hard to look past Holiday’s numbers because they aren’t relatively close to his predecessors. In a league that values offensive production over defensive, he would have to significantly improve upon those stats to enter the conversation. Being a defensive menace hasn’t always benefitted those in the MVP race as we witnessed with Anthony Davis just two seasons ago in his loss to James Harden. Apart from Giannis in 2019, the last group of victors (Harden, Westbrook, Curry twice) do not have a top defensive team finish between them.

30 national television appearances could help. Watching Jrue dominate Kyrie Irving (+14.9 in 82 possessions), Donovan Mitchell (+16.7 in 78 possessions), CJ McCollum (+17 per 41 possessions) or Kawhi Leonard (+9 in 17 possessions) as he did in 2018-19 would certainly help in that regard.

For stat nerds, an uptick in his seventh placed finish among guards in real plus-minus (17th in NBA overall) can make another case for him. While his offensive real plus-minus was the highest of his career in 2018-19, his defensive real plus-minus dropped nearly a full point (2.1 - 1.3) from 2017-18 when he finished on the All-NBA First Defensive Team.

But ultimately, pushing Jrue Holiday toward an MVP campaign is the wrong decision. In fact, it could be a reckless one.

Don’t get me wrong, we definitely appreciate the sentiment. It’s about time our hometown hero got some recognition! But the Pelicans don’t need an MVP-type of season from Jrue. They don’t even need the same level of production as seen last season.

They do need Holiday to set the tone early and often on each end of the floor, and when the team needs a bucket (or needs to stop one), there’s no one else they should ask first than Holiday to make something happen.

Distributing the Wealth

The Pelicans have averaged 91.5 shots per game this preseason after taking 92.2 during last years regular campaign. Holiday took a career-high 17.3 of those per game. Now add in 12.5 for Zion Williamson, 15 for Brandon Ingram, 13.5 for JJ Redick (last season’s average), 8.5 for Lonzo Ball, five for Derrick Favors and you’ve got 54.5 additional shots being soaked up by the team’s top six players. That leaves roughly 20 shots for the remaining rotation players, whether they come from Jahlil Okafor, Nicolo Melli, Josh Hart or E’Twaun Moore — this, before even factoring in the youngest players.

Some players, like Ingram and Ball, are in position to take a leap in their fourth and third seasons. Ingram, specifically, needs every opportunity to become the elite isolation scorer the Pelicans might need should they make a postseason run.

Should the Pelicans fully unleash their true offensive potential, Ingram must become an unstoppable force on the offensive end. He has the length and wiggle to assume the mantle as one of the league’s very best isolation scorers, something that could prove invaluable come playoff time.

The Pelicans will be quick to tell you about their measured expectations for Zion. They’ve often referred to him as the ‘glue guy.’ But through four preseason games, Zion has shown so much more. He’s not only become one of the most efficient NBA-scorers in his short stint, he’s been a devastating one.

Add in the Pelicans’ three-point specialists in Redick, Melli, Hart and Moore and you see what can become an expansive and well-balanced attack. The Pelicans appear to have a perfect blend of shooters, penetrators and creators if they can just crack the rotational formula.

But in order to elevate the team, they must distribute the wealth.

A Thousand Miles So Lets Get the Kids Involved

Most importantly, there exists a dark truth: The Pelicans need to start thinking about preserving Jrue Holiday.

Holiday finished fifth in the NBA in minutes per game in 2018-19, after finishing fifth in the NBA in total minutes in 2017-18. He currently sits 40th among active players in minutes played (21,586) despite having just turned 29 on June 12th. He’s played more minutes than Goran Dragic (33), Blake Griffin (30), Kevin Love (31), George Hill (33), Jared Dudley (34), and trails JJ Redick (35) by just 50 minutes.

Yes, Holiday is sitting in his prime and looks to be in a perfect position to make that surge to All-Star candidacy should the Pelicans win enough to warrant it. He, of course, could still make a case for himself with a meager uptick in numbers (26-9-6?) if the Pelicans can win a ghastly 60 games or so by virtue of “best player on best team” argument. But the Pels actually sit in the perfect position to rest Holiday!

In addition to an expansive veteran backcourt in Ball, Redick, Hart and Moore, the Pelicans have two young studs in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Frank Jackson. Let’s look at some preseason numbers.

  • Nickeil Alexander-Walker: 29.3 points, 9.3 assists, 5.4 rebounds on 42.1% three-point shooting
  • Frank Jackson: 22.9 points, 2.9 assists, 2.9 rebounds on 53.3% three-point shooting

Taking a step back, we’re talking preseason but the potential is clearly there. Jackson is quickly proven himself to be a dynamic scorer, building on last year’s run in March. We’ve witnessed him be able to effectively shoot the three and attack off the dribble from the wing.

And what about Nickeil Alexander-Walker!?! What else is there left to say??? General manager Trajan Langdon may have unearthed not one but TWO Rookie of the Year candidates — NAW is too good to redshirt.

Reasonable Expecations

So, think about things this way: The Pelicans are too good and too deep to be asking Jrue Holiday to think about making an MVP push. But if they were to, it would probably be someone the Pelicans need to push to lead the league in scoring (Ingram, Zion).

Holiday needs to focus on:

  1. Elite defense
  2. Game management and team leadership on both ends
  3. Win the game in the clutch on both ends

If Holiday does these three things, he’ll get the notoriety he deserves by virtue of being the Pelicans best player on what would be considered an overachieving team.

He doesn’t need to put up the gaudy stats, he just needs to help stuff a bunch of victories in the win column.