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New Orleans Pelicans were awful in clutch minutes throughout 2019-20 season, but plenty of hope sits on the horizon

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Lonzo, Ingram and Zion’s time is coming!

Miami Heat v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Clutch time minutes have often been a source of constant heartache for New Orleans Pelicans fans, but the level of dismay witnessed during the 2019-20 season hit a new low.

With 5:04 remaining in regulation of a December 20th contest, the Pelicans led the Warriors by a score of 92-86. Although New Orleans entered the night struggling immensely with a record of 7-22 to date, Golden State was the worst team in the league, sporting only five wins through their first 27 games. The Pelicans proceeded to get outscored 20-10 by a Warriors squad without Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson as D’Angelo Russell poured in 10 points and three other Warriors combined to nail all 10 of their free throw attempts.

Having just wrapped up a 13-game losing streak, that ugly defeat put Alvin Gentry’s future square in the cross-hairs, and one of our own writers, Chris Conner, opined it was time for the team to go in a new direction under the tutelage of a different coach. Scott Kushner posted a similar column on The Advocate a day later. Gentry had always had his fair share of detractors since the moment he was hired in New Orleans, but even his supporters found it difficult to argue for keeping the status quo at that time.

Although the Pelicans did turn their fortunes around and sat within striking distance of the playoffs before COVID-19 halted the 2019-20 season, New Orleans is poised to finish with a 12-24 record in games that entered clutch time — games that were separated by five points or less inside the last five minutes of regulation. Despite a tidy 22-14 record overall since December 18th, the Pelicans never got over the hump of winning close games.

Time Period Record Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Oct 22 - Dec 12 4-11 (29th) 82.0 (30th) 111.8 (22nd) -29.8 (30th)
Dec 13 - Jan 21 5-5 (15th) 109.9 (12th) 118.3 (25th) -8.4 (19th)
Jan 22 - present 3-8 (28th) 100.0 (23rd) 126.3 (27th) -26.3 (26th)
**League ranking in parentheses

To explain the delineation in the table above, Derrick Favors returned to action on December 13th (after the passing of his mother) and Zion Williamson made his season debut on January 22nd. While the returns of both these players gave the team undisputed boosts, it did seemingly little to change Pelican fortunes in cliffhanger outcomes.

Regardless of who’s been available for New Orleans, the defense has remained a sore spot in crunch time throughout the completed portion of the NBA schedule. And this is made even more interesting when considering the fact that the Pelicans preferred starting lineup was one of the most dominant 5-man groups in the league — one that normally stifles opponents nearly as much as the Bucks fearsome five of Bledsoe-Middleton-Matthews-Antetokounmpo-Lopez.

Just think back to that woeful loss to the Warriors for another moment. D’Angelo Russell singlehandedly picked apart the Pelicans because they failed to stay in front of him adequately, guarding without a greater sense of urgency.

Similar late defensive breakdowns were witnessed more recently when the Pelicans dropped an overtime contest to the Mavericks on March 4th. Dallas and Luka Doncic, who both have performed poorly in the clutch this season, dismantled New Orleans by scoring 25 points over the final 10 minutes.

The Pelicans have been outscored by 91 points in 134 clutch time minutes on the season. That’s the stuff which is normally seen out of some really bad cellar dwellers in years past. But now, finally, for a hint of good news: I’m here to tell you that these results are not indicative of what’s in all likelihood to come down the road.

  1. The Pelicans were a ridiculously inexperienced team, even when gauged by today’s standards of high player mobility. They had three starters aged 22 or younger and saw nine new faces added to their 15-man roster last summer. When also factoring in the lack of continuity cultivated during the regular season due to injury and personal issues suffered — remember, practice time during this day and age is really sparse, the Pelicans were stuck in a vicious cycle. New Orleans simply didn’t know how to play to their greatest strengths or oftentimes even together, failing to execute on both ends of the floor, and therefore, they were unable to handle key moments against much more seasoned individuals and teams.
  2. This lack of experience argument seems to be supported by historical data, which points out that New Orleans endured quite the anomalous season when compared to prior campaigns. As Seth Partnow wrote last August, “teams that were good at winning non-clutch games were generally better at winning these very close ‘clutch’ games than were worse teams, but late/close situations evened the odds considerably.” The odds didn’t get evened, they got decapitated nearly in half — the Pelicans dramatically underperformed in close contests when comparing a ghastly .333 clutch winning percentage to their 16-12 non-clutch record.
  3. Digging deeper into theory, studies suggest there is no correlation regarding clutch performance for an NBA team from one campaign to the next. So, on top of the inexperience factor, randomness must be accounted for.

While it might be tempting to build a narrative about the character of certain teams based on clutch performance, history suggests this would likely be getting fooled by randomness. Over the same 23-year sample, there is virtually no correlation between teams’ level of overperformance or underperformance in clutch games from one year to the next:

Honestly, one doesn’t have to look very far to find evidence of the unpredictable nature of clutch time minutes. Take Jrue Holiday’s performances from year to year while he’s been in New Orleans, for example.

Season Minutes Points per 36 Rebounds per 36 Assists per 36 Turnovers per 36 FG% 3PT% FT%
2013-14 83 15.1 3.0 6.5 2.2 43.3% 60.0% 75.0%
2014-15 56 11.7 5.2 6.5 3.2 29.4% 60.0% 100%
2015-16 146 24.5 3.7 6.9 5.7 45.6% 33.3% 90.9%
2016-17 125 19.2 4.3 7.5 4.3 35.5% 18.2% 70.4%
2017-18 223 21.4 5.0 5.6 2.3 50.5% 40.0% 55.9%
2018-19 99 17.4 4.4 6.5 2.9 25.5% 17.6% 76.0%
2019-20 104 16.6 3.1 4.8 2.1 32.6% 26.7% 56.0%

Outside of Frank Jackson’s incredibly small sample size, New Orleans entire cast of guards/wings struggled with offensive efficiency down the stretch of close games this season: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, JJ Redick and E’Twaun Moore all failed to eclipse a 40 field goal percentage. Only Zo managed to barely top a 35 three-point percentage (35.7 3PT%).

If you may recall, problems with timely execution emerged right from the start as the Pelicans dropped their season-opener against the Toronto Raptors in overtime. Soon afterwards, David Griffin discussed the topic after the Pelicans had recorded but a lone victory in their first seven games.

“Yeah, I mean obviously the record isn’t what we wanted,” Griffin said to Todd Graffagnini on an episode of The Pelicans Podcast in early November. “I think with nominal improvement here and there in closing out games we’re probably 4-3 pretty easily.”

New Orleans failed to ever find their footing, but the Pelicans EVP of basketball operations noted the reasoning, which remains applicable in large part today.

“I think you’ve seen us not close out games, which is something that young teams do, and certainly several teams in the league are dealing with those struggles,” Griffin continued to Graffagnini. “I think in terms of the fact that we’ve had so many of our starters miss time — and it’s been a different 60% of our starting lineup multiple times — it’s made it challenging on the coaches to find a rotation and get comfortable with it.”

Holiday was handed the reins once Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers, but he began this season in a terrible offensive funk. Ingram, who leads the Pelicans in clutch time shot attempts, quickly assumed a lot of responsibility, but at 22 years of age, he wasn’t ready for the role of star closer as he was still very much in player development mode. Don’t even look at Williamson, who has only 19 regular-season games under his belt, or Ball, who only recently meshed together a newfound confidence level with good physical health.

While the original starting lineup has enjoyed immense success together on the floor (as have nearly all of the most utilized fourth-quarter lineups Gentry compiled), the core wasn’t ready for the big stage of important final minutes — New Orleans has won only three of 11 clutch games since Zion’s debut. In hindsight, that should have elicited little surprise. If you don’t have LeBron James, Chris Paul or a handful of other guys who have proven ability to carry the load, that responsibility falls on finishing lineups, or if you prefer, the entire team. The Pelicans are a wonderful cast of assembled, explosive talent, but they haven’t learned how to navigate the most difficult of situations yet.

Right before the season was suspended, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle answered a question on late-game failures as you would probably expect.

“When you struggle during a stretch at the end of the game, you can come up with a lot of reasons and a lot of excuses and stuff,” Carlisle said after a loss to the Pacers. “I just don’t think we can do that. I think we all have to own it. We have to look at it objectively, see what we can do better and then simply do better.”

Sage advice, in my opinion. This current cast of Pelicans just needs to keep pushing because in time I’m willing to bet that their talent level eventually starts shining through in the close battles. And when that time comes, expect to see a lot more highlights like this: