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2019-20 Player Preview: Jrue Holiday is a real MVP candidate according to stats, beliefs and Steve Nash

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If Holiday grabs the bull by the horns, he’s going to wind up surprising a lot of folks.

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Lost amid the buzz of all the new additions to the New Orleans Pelicans, a top-5 two-way player in the league remains very much in the fold.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an unfortunate argument to be made that the circus of last season critically overshadowed the force he has become, but Jrue Holiday is one of the most valuable players in the NBA and he should finally be able to shed the underrated label among those who often fail to pay enough attention to New Orleans.

While guarding anything that moves on defense, no matter the challenge or position, Holiday’s offensive improvements the past few seasons are no joke. The last few in particular have seen the former All-Star increase his scoring output and tack on career highs in numerous shooting percentages. If his three-point shot ever mirrors the results from his earlier days, we could be looking at a widely praised top ten player and that’s where following Holiday becomes fun.

There’s another step available for the Pelicans’ current face of the franchise to take and it’s not just receiving another all-star bid or being considered a superstar — Holiday could soon be viewed as a legitimate MVP candidate. And the fact is, this isn’t some locally biased hot take. Pelicans President of Basketball Operations David Griffin has pushed for and openly talked about Holiday being mentioned in best player conversations over the summer with 100 percent confidence.

While it’s okay to focus on the fit of the newer additions with some of the remaining roster survivors, we must remember who’s going to carry the torch and hold everyone accountable on the floor when it’s showtime. No matter if Lonzo Ball shoots a career high percentage from three or Zion Willamson breaks multiple backboards, the wins and losses will ultimately rest on one person’s shoulders more than the rest.

The NBA is a star-driven league, and the player closest to that status has an additional number one on his jersey — and that’s no disrespect to Zion. Holiday just holds the most cards to the Pelicans season when we’re discussing whether or not they’re a playoff team. Many new ingredients will be placed within the deepest pot of gumbo the Pelicans have ever tried to cook; however, Jrue Holiday is the most important one of them all.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Looking Back

For those unaware of the company Holiday kept during the 2018-19 season, you may be surprised. According to Basketball Reference, there were only five players that finished with at least 20 points, seven assists, and over four and a half rebounds per game last season: Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, James Harden, and for the first time in his career, Jrue Holiday. In fact, over the past five seasons, no player outside of this aforementioned group has accomplished that feat!

For those counting, this put Holiday in a group among three regular season MVP’s and All-NBA team members — so there’s some evidence to Griffin’s madness. To top it off, Holiday isn’t treating this upcoming season any differently from his days playing with former teammate Anthony Davis; he’s all in and seems as excited as the city of New Orleans has ever seen him.

The Next Step

So let’s explore what else Holiday can exactly do to improve his resume. His defense is considered elite, his distribution as a combo guard is among the best, and he’s coming off consecutive career-best seasons in scoring.

Earlier I mentioned Holiday’s three-point shooting, and what improvements in that area could do for his overall game. As his overall field goal percentage and two-point efficiency have spiked up the past two seasons, it’s coincided with his three-point competence dipping to career lows. It’s really the damnedest thing. This wasn’t a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade situation where Holiday just stopped shooting them; rather, he’s spent the past two seasons shooting more deep bombs than ever but finished with paltry 33.7% and 32.5% percentages.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It feels almost like if one area was to flourish, another had to suffer. For his career Jrue is a 35 percent shooter from deep. Just hitting his career average could make an essential impact on Holiday’s stats and be the finishing touch on recognizing him as one of the NBA’s best players, not just “two-way.”

The reason designations are important is because you can’t be underrated and a serious MVP candidate at the same time. It takes a certain type of performance, energy and swagger. One of Jrue’s early criticisms in NOLA was the thought that he was too passive at times, only looking to assert himself when the roster demanded it. Then two seasons ago, we saw something special happen when surrounded by DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, and longtime running mate Anthony Davis.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

His aggression was no longer inconsistent. Whether it was his switch to shooting guard or just the way the alpha personalities infused inside the locker room, Jrue carried himself differently on the court as the 2017-18 regular season wrapped up and into the playoffs. In particular, many feel the first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers was a national coming out party of sorts.

Lightning Can Strike...Twice

At the age of 29, however, it’s fair to wonder if another step is in the cards or even possible. Most players reach elite status in their mid 20’s. However, there have been exceptions and one should immediately come to mind. Steve Nash. David Griffin, who spent 17 years with the Phoenix Suns was there for Nash’s surprising leap to MVP candidacy.

Nash wound up a two-time NBA MVP after a strong run with the Dallas Mavericks, winning his first Maurice Podoloff Trophy at the age of 30. Combined with the increased pace and his full skill set allowed to shine, Nash exploded in his second run with the Suns, crushing previous career highs in points, assists, rebounds, three point percentage, among a plethora of other statistical categories. Name the stat and his best was witnessed from the minute he stepped back in Phoenix.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Of course, everyone knows Nash didn’t do it alone. Playing alongside talented players, including the likes of Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal and a myriad of others, greatly assisted the floor general. But everything began with Steve Nash, who was able to get the best out of everyone no matter their age or role. That ability when merged with head coach Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less produced wonderfully entertaining and effective basketball. And oh yeah, current Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry spent time as an assistant coach in Phoenix before getting his crack at running that team in 2008.

So, let’s examine the similarities between Nash’s breakout and where Holiday currently ranks. For a great in-depth comparison, please refer to Mike’s published piece from earlier this month, but for my purposes, Bleacher Reports’s Joseph Zucker wrote a tidy little summary.

As outlandish as Griffin’s comments might seem, Holiday is a year younger (29) than Nash was when he moved to Phoenix. Maybe he too can have a similar renaissance as the Pelicans’ primary scorer and playmaker. Nash had a clear edge statistically, though. According to Basketball Reference, he averaged 22.6 points and 11.0 assists per 100 possessions through his age-29 season. He also shot 46.5 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from three-point range.

Holiday, by comparison, has averaged 23.8 points and 9.7 assists per 100 possessions to start his career. He’s also a 45.2 percent shooter and hitting 35.5 percent of his three-pointers. It also seems unlikely Holiday could be a drastically different player after 10 seasons in the league.

The production is not completely dissimilar, just as the ages, elevated basketball paces, coaches and executives are not between Nash and Holiday. We also must mention the addition of Aaron Nelson, who spent over 20 years a part of Phoenix’s celebrated medical staff and has now joined the Pelicans. Griffin may not be rebuilding the Phoenix Suns, but he’s for sure adding the pieces that led to successful cultures and high quality basketball runs — except this time hopefully it all ends in a championship.

As they did with Nash, all the hopes and dreams regarding the Pelicans start and end with Jrue Holiday. New Orleans will be an above average team if he simply replicates his past two seasons. Despite the loss of Anthony Davis, there’s enough talent around Holiday for him to take a back seat to someone else if he so elects. But to be a really good team that realizes playoff relevance and success, the Pelicans will need more from their star. The formula is there, as is the history and belief. Now it appears the player and the man stand on the doorstep of making it happen.

Odds are Jrue Holiday won’t bow down.