When the smoke in the Smoothie King Center finally cleared on Wednesday night after a scorching-hot second half from the home team, the Pelicans had walked away with a dominant double-digit victory over the visiting Chicago Bulls. Brandon Ingram (29 points) and JJ Redick (24 points) carried most of the scoring load, and Jaxson Hayes chipped in 14 points of his own. The rookie center also tallied a career-high 12 rebounds to round out his second double-double and become the first player not named Derrick Favors to top the team in that category since December 17.
Despite his personal total dropping below double digits for the first time since that date against the Bulls, Favors has been dominant on the glass upon returning to the lineup. His individual contributions since returning to a regular role of more than 20 minutes per game (December 15 vs. Orlando) equal a team-leading 11.4 boards per game or 15.2 per 36 minutes. However you prefer to chalk up the totals, the production is impressive. The fact that number is nearly double the 6.3 boards from Ingram that slot into second may seem like cause for concern, but make no mistake: with a healthy Favors back in action, the Pelicans have become one of the best rebounding teams in basketball.
For the first two months of the season, the injury-riddled New Orleans squad was mired by inconsistency almost across the board, but one constant was their collective inability to do or prevent much damage on the glass. In both OREB% (26.5) and DREB% (72.6) they ranked 19th, and their combination for REB% (48.8) was 23rd. Since December 15, it’s been a different story entirely:
Pelicans Surge on Glass Since Favors’ Return to 20+ MPG
|Stat||Oct. 22 - Dec. 14||Dec. 15 - Jan. 8||Difference|
|Stat||Oct. 22 - Dec. 14||Dec. 15 - Jan. 8||Difference|
|OREB%||26.5 (Rank: 19th)||29.8 (Rank: 5th)||+3.3|
|DREB%||72.6 (Rank: 19th)||74.8 (Rank: 6th)||+2.2|
|REB%||48.8 (Rank: 23rd)||52 (Rank: 5th)||+3.2|
Swinging from the bottom ten to the top ten is almost always a positive, and the Pelicans have done just that with their rebounding on both ends. They out-rebounded the Bulls 50-39, marking the 10th time in their last 12 games that they’ve outpaced their opponent. Considering the solid health they’ve enjoyed over that stretch, it seems that this may be the rule of this roster rather than the exception.
Favors’ extended absence included the first 11 games of the losing streak that would reach 13, and it was during that stretch that the lack of frontcourt depth at Alvin Gentry’s disposal became apparent. With Hayes, Jahlil Okafor and Nicolo Melli absorbing most of the minutes as the primary “big,” the Pelicans snagged just 48.4% of their total rebound chances during this stretch, which would be the sixth-worst mark in the league today.
Hayes has brought some high-flying fun and some legitimate output earlier than expected, which has propelled him way past those other two in the healthy rotation, but his defensive rebounding has been a glaring weakness so far for the teenage center; of the 61 centers playing at least 15 minutes per contest, his 13.2 REB% ranks 59th. It’s no surprise, then, that the Pelicans struggled so mightily to keep teams away from the offensive glass when he was asked to anchor the defense of the starting five in Favors’ place.
Saying he’s better suited at this point in his career to serve in a supporting role is not a shot at Hayes. Rather, it is recognition of how he can further refine this particular aspect of his game while continuing to produce elsewhere. It is in large part thanks to the efforts of his backcourt teammates that the Pelicans can afford to let him do so. Josh Hart (5.7) and Lonzo Ball (5.1) grab at least five boards per game with Jrue Holiday (4.9) not far behind. Their respective ranks of 14th, 21st and 26th among guards don’t leap off the page, but the Spurs are the only other team with three players within that range. Technically, the Pelicans have four of the top 26 in this particular list, but we’re not going to acknowledge Kenrich Williams’ listing as a guard in this post. Nope, nope, nope!
Effort will always be an outsized part of the board-wrangling equation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Pelicans’ guards bring strong size to the table. Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker both stand at 6’6”, Hart at 6’5”, and Holiday, JJ Redick and E’Twaun Moore at 6’4”. Running out some combination of these players on the court at all times in the rotation’s current state won’t always yield an advantage on the glass against their individual matchups, especially given the unimpressive resume of that 6’4” trio in that department, but they will at the very least rarely be at a size disadvantage, which is a victory in and of itself.
With all of that said, the lineup that will boast the best rebounding numbers at season’s end likely hasn’t been trotted out yet. Zion Williamson will need time to translate some of his skills to an NBA court, but his size, athleticism and season’s worth of NCAA experience (8.9 boards per game) bring an expectation that he can be an instant difference maker on the glass. How the offensive spacing will shake out with Williamson in the mix is among the biggest questions that await the Pelicans. There are seemingly plenty of pluses to be had by eventually playing the first pick of the 2019 NBA Draft at center, but it is unlikely he will be asked to bear that burden without first getting his legs under him alongside Favors in the frontcourt. Even if the spacing in that scenario proves problematic (though I personally believe it may not be that bad), pairing those two with Ingram and a pair of the guards listed above in the starting lineup, particularly Lonzo Ball, could very well result in the best rebounding team in basketball.
After winning seven of their last 10 games, the Pelicans are well within striking distance of a spot in the postseason. Staying on the winning track will take a lot more than maintaining their dominance on the glass, but doing that will help their cause immensely. As long as Favors remains healthy and Zion-led reinforcements arrive, their ability to do so appears... inevitable.