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New Orleans Pelicans roster beckons for a relentless, vocal and physical leader

Can Zion Williamson or another fill that role one day or does the front office need to make an addition?

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics earned plenty of additional attention Thursday night after screaming and banging was heard emanating from their locker room following a Game 2 collapse at the hands of the Miami Heat.

Gary Washburn, Shams Charania and Malika Andrew all reported the frustrations bubbling over which centered around the team’s arguable heart-and-soul in Marcus Smart.

Even head coach Brad Stevens showed visible frustration in a fourth quarter interview with Rachel Nichols. There’s only so much a coach can do in those instances. Only so much weight someone detached from the floor can carry.

Smart isn’t Boston’s best player, though he certainly could qualify as its most critical defender. However, there is no denying he is the spark plug, the relentless, vocal and physical leader.

So much is made of how a vocal and tireless player can inflict his team’s will on an opponent. It also takes a player like Smart to hold teammates accountable, giving a necessary push when a shift in momentum is desperately needed with a squad’s back against a wall.

Look, Smart may not have handled the situation after the Celtics’ latest loss perfectly. The same was often said of a Draymond Green overtime tirade towards Kevin Durant that led to his suspension nearly two years ago. But in general, teams require that type of veteran, vocal leadership on and off the floor.

For every Paul George who claims it isn’t ‘championship or bust,’ you need a Patrick Beverley who’s willing to say out loud that losing isn’t acceptable. That message isn’t always enough, but it’s important to have someone who’s not afraid to deliver it because teams should never be content with mediocrity.

For instance, take Rajon Rondo and his short stint with the Pelicans during the 2017-18 season. No one brought as much out of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in their Pelicans tenure than Rondo.

“I like to talk a little trash. It helps when you’ve got a player like that (AD) on your team,” Rondo once told Rachel Nichols.

Rondo was by no means an All-NBA caliber player while in New Orleans. Dejounte Murray abused him on March 15th, 2018, a game which the Pelicans desperately needed at the time. Rondo finished with a -23 plus/minus after scoring just six points on six shots in 23 minutes as Murray burst by him time and time again.

Despite his deficiencies at that stage of his career, the Pelicans won 20 of their last 25 regular season games in which Rondo took the court, swept the Portland Trail Blazers in round one and were a ‘questionable’ number of free throws away from giving the Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors a series. During this regular season stretch, Rondo sported the team’s third-best net rating (8.8) to just E’Twaun Moore (11.3) and Anthony Davis (9.7).

Rondo’s innate ability to read and dissect defenses was most welcome on that Pelicans squad. Very few possess his court awareness and faculties as a ball-mover. However, the Pelicans offense with Rondo wasn’t nearly as impressive as their defense. That’s due in fact to his ability to break down opposing offenses and communicate to his teammates. His high-level acumen was only part of the equation as getting Holiday and Davis to play at First-Team All-NBA Defense type levels was the other.

No matter what set Rondo ran or what opening he saw, none of it would have mattered if he didn’t force buy-in on a night-in-night-out basis from New Orleans two stars. Rondo held teammates accountable like no one else during Davis and Holiday’s tenure. When the three shared the court, they carried a 15.7 net-rating, over their last 24 games, ninth overall in the NBA. While the 112.4 offensive rating is good, the 98.4 defensive rating, is superb.

“I’ve got Rondo back as my point guard,” Davis said of Rondo in September of 2019.

Consider other players like Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram. They’re all quality players with one common trait: quietness.

You can see the effects of veteran leaders like Rondo and Smart all over the league from LeBron James in L.A., to Jimmy Butler in Miami and Draymond in Golden State. Having a vocal leader on the floor and in the locker room can be a big positive difference maker.

How Little Coaching Matters

There’s certainly an advantage to having a leader on the bench willing to experiment, force adjustments and react and instruct players in pivotal moments.

The Miami Heat’s willingness to shift defensive philosophies at a moment’s notice is a reflection of Erik Spoelstra’s acumen and ability to communicate in a manner his players can execute. But Spoelstra’s voice is at the mercy of the talents and leadership of his players.

Take Frank Vogel, a terrific coach who led David West, Paul George, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and the Indiana Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals.

In Orlando, his message got lost in just two seasons as players regular cited an inability to trust one another. His teams would win a combined 53 games in those two campaigns leading to his premature dismissal.

Now, glance back at him in Los Angeles. In just his first season and with little familiarity of his freshly assembled squad, the Lakers possess some of the best chemistry in the NBA, finishing third in regular season win percentage and third in defensive rating.

Was Vogel a different coach in Orlando than he was in Indiana and Los Angeles? Talent matters, but leadership on the floor is another critical component of team success.

So too, Doc Rivers is widely regarded as one of the best and most respected coaches in the league. The 21-year veteran head coach has registered 943 wins (11th all-time), 91 playoff wins (seventh all-time) and earned a title from his time in Boston.

However, Doc’s Clippers gave up a nearly irreversible 3-1 advantage against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. It’s his third such instance of his team giving up such a lead, the most in NBA history for one coach.

Is it Doc’s fault? Partially, perhaps. But very few would say a large part of the onus doesn’t fall onto the mental makeup of his veteran 2015 Clippers squad and 2020 one.

Can Zion provide that much-needed vocal leadership?

The Pelicans showed little to no fight during the seeding tournament, dropping six of the eight games despite holding the league’s easiest schedule.

David Aldridge reported Lonzo Ball had ‘checked out.’ Jrue Holiday lamented the team’s disappointing performance on his brother’s YouTube show, saying they ‘sucked.’

A lack of effort was a common theme in the bubble as it was through Gentry’s tenure with Jrue and AD as the team’s leaders. Strange, considering Jrue’s standing as one of the game’s best defenders and most active players.

David Griffin cited veteran leadership as critical to improving the Pelicans fortunes in the 2019 offseason and they seemingly made the right moves in adding JJ Redick and Derrick Favors. The Pelicans were on a 22-14 run — a trajectory to make the playoffs — prior to Covid-19 shutting down league play.

The Pelicans faced little to no adversity during that time frame. They were relatively healthy and had dropped just one game by more than 10 points (not including a 25-point defeat to the Celtics in which Holiday, Redick, Zion and Favors all sat).

When adversity strikes, who can be counted on to take up that Marcus Smart role on the Pelicans? Who will be that bully in the locker room that holds teammates accountable? Is that player even on the current roster?

The hope, of course, is that Zion Williamson will be one of the players to grab those reins.

“It was just one of those things where I kind of just said, ‘We’ve got to play with more energy. We’re much better than this. We’re not playing like ourselves.’”

The Pelicans trailed the 15-win Golden State Warriors by 10 points at halftime on February 23rd when Zion uttered those choice words to teammates.

They would outscore the Warriors 69-45 in the second half.

That type of energy was absent from the Pelicans in the bubble. Part of that may be attributed to Zion’s minute thresholds, but perhaps as he becomes a more permanent figure of the rotations down the road, that changes and Williamson fills that necessary role. If not, then someone else is going to have to fill it and it can’t just be Redick, who is in the latter stages of his career.

The Pelicans front office needs to make that important determination this summer. Can someone on the current roster seize the vocal leadership responsibilities or does another player need to be brought on board to fill that role. If New Orleans has any hopes of ascending as high as possible in the hierarchy of the Western Conference, they’ll need to develop a system of accountability within the locker room — with someone willing to give swift kicks in the ass when times call for it.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.