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Breaking down New Orleans Pelicans’ sneakiest action: The early pick and slip

There’s some good things happening on the offensive side of the floor that deserve applause.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans are a good offensive team. A good offensive head coach is key to a successful NBA offense and Alvin Gentry fits the mold. He has some issues with rotations and role assignment, but from a pure Xs and Os standpoint, Gentry is great. The floor is well spaced and the ball moves frequently. New Orleans ranks second in the league in passes per game, fourth in potential assists per game and first in secondary assists per game.

While high pace isn’t directly correlated to high offensive rating, Alvin Gentry has found mechanisms to weaponize pace. His team plays at the fourth fastest pace in the NBA and that is a vital component of New Orleans’ top 10 offense this season. Gentry knows how valuable semi-transition is, drawing up plays to take advantage of mismatches and numbers advantages. A staple of the Gentry playbook, and one of my favorite plays any team runs, is the early offense double-guard ball screen.

Run once or twice a game, this play in its platonic form looks something like this. A guard (Jrue Holiday) pushes before the defense sets up and another guard (E’Twaun Moore) sets an inside ball screen. Moore slips the ball screen, rolling to the rim and finishing a lob from Holiday, bamboozling Portland’s defense:

In semi-transition, defenses are never prepared to defend such an unorthodox play; defenders are slow to react to slips and help isn’t ready to contest at the rim. Four of the players who run this action most often—Holiday, Moore, Frank Jackson and JJ Redick, average 1.9 points per possession on 10 possessions this season as a PNR roll man, per Synergy.

These numbers are quite flawed because Synergy’s “PNR roll man” numbers only register when the roller scores and I don’t have the time to go back and track every instance of this play. My point is less about the specific numbers and more to bolster the overarching point of the power of this action.

That slip is the most common result of this action, with the roller sneaking behind defenses for lobs or layups. Lonzo Ball thrives in this action, as this play optimizes his speed in transition and passing incandescence. In the third clip, the defense capitulates when Moore finds the middle and Holiday slides in behind Phoenix’s back line, finishing a picturesque give and go:

When JJ Redick assumes the role of the screener, the calculus changes. Instead of slipping to the hoop, Redick sneaks to the corner here, fooling Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who expects help to cover a simple roll to the rim:

Though nothing came of this play, I love this wrinkle on the early ball screen. Instead of slipping to the basket, Redick pops to the top of the key and Kenrich Williams comes to get a three. I’d love to see the Pelicans run this one more:

Involving a team’s two most dangerous offensive creators in action together is always a good idea (think Curry-Durant pick and roll). Naturally, Holiday and Brandon Ingram in actions together puts strain on opposing defenses. The Pelicans initiate with their trademark early pick and slip with Ingram as the ball-handler and Holiday as the roller. Kelly Oubre Jr. switches to take away the pass to the roll, leaving a weak defender in Devin Booker on Ingram. With a head of steam, Ingram steamrolls Booker on the way to a layup:

Every great NBA offense has plays stored deep in their back pockets, ready to unleash when they need points the most. For the Pelicans, their early pick and slip is one of those plays. The action is so rudimentary, yet there are so many combinations of handlers and rollers and potential wrinkles to this action. Look for it next time you watch the Pelicans take the court — there are some good things happening despite the team’s less than stellar W/L record.