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As Jrue Holiday went, so too did New Orleans Pelicans fortunes

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Individual struggles on offense typically led to poor results for the team during the 2019-20 season

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Soon after being handed the keys to the front office, David Griffin anointed Jrue Holiday as the leader on the court for the Pelicans.

The six-year New Orleans veteran was tagged the face of the franchise despite the additions of Zion Williamson through the draft and Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball from the Anthony Davis trade.

Holiday, for his part, was grateful for the strong vote of confidence in his abilities.

“It means a lot. I do know it’s a business, but I trust Griff and I trust his word. To have those words said about (me) feels awesome and it makes you feel appreciated.”

While Jrue went on to put together a really fine season (19.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists, stellar defense), he didn’t come close to living up to the loftiest of expectations.

A real opportunity had existed to move into the higher echelon on the league’s hiearchy of players, possibly cementing star status for Holiday.

Williamson tore the meniscus in his right knee just days before the start of the 2019-20 campaign. And with 16 of the first 20 matchups on the schedule against opponents who had made the previous postseason, the Pelicans were going to be without one of their most important cogs during the hardest portion of the schedule.

New Orleans needed to be clicking on all cylinders coming out of training camp, and specifically, required bountiful and timely production out of their best player. The enormous responsibility piled onto Holiday’s shoulders proved too great of a load though.

Jrue began the 2019-20 season in an awful slump, struggling with his shot and failing to reach the 20-point plateau until the eleventh game on the docket. Not surprisingly, the Pelicans suffered a disastrous 1-7 start out of the gates and that soon morphed into a cellar-sniffing 6-22 record.

The season didn’t go on to be a complete loss, of course, but it did raise an important question: With Ingram and Zion earning franchise cornerstone labels, where does Holiday fit into the equation going forward?

Before you formulate an answer, look deeper at some basic individual statistics because an eye-opening theme emerged on the season — one that seemed to carry serious implications. Simply put, when Jrue Holiday played well offensively, the Pelicans found the victory column; when he failed to do so, they lost.

In Wins In Losses
Points Per 36 minutes FG% 3PT% FT% Points Per 36 minutes FG% 3PT% FT%
Jrue Holiday 24.2 50.1% 42.1% 78.7% 16.8 41.9% 29.1% 62.5%
Brandon Ingram 25.3 47.3% 43.9% 84.6% 25.3 45.7% 36.0% 85.4%
Lonzo Ball 12.1 39.0% 35.6% 60.0% 14.1 41.3% 38.8% 55.4%
Zion Williamson 28.2 60.6% 40.0% 58.1% 29.9 56.3% 44.4% 68.3%
Josh Hart 13.2 45.8% 40.2% 68.9% 13.6 40.4% 30.8% 77.1%
JJ Redick 21.8 45.9% 44.1% 92.6% 20.2 44.9% 46.3% 86.5%
Derrick Favors 13.6 64.2% 33.3% 58.1% 13.0 59.3% 0.0% 53.6%

The inconsistency displayed by Holiday is astounding. No one else with a big role in the regular rotation experienced such a variance in individual numbers. On a broader scale, Jrue’s irregularities also stood out alongside his peers.

43 NBA players averaged more points per game than Jrue Holiday’s 19.1 PPG mark on the season. However, only 25 players averaged more points per game when exclusively factoring wins, but 63 players topped him in PPG on the losses only leaderboard.

This, in my opinion, is troubling news for a player who comprised nearly 25% of this past season’s salary cap. Obviously, Holiday’s defense remains as valuable as ever, but according to these stats, the Pelicans are going to need more stability from him or be forced to find a more reliable option.

For those who believe Holiday’s role can be reduced and he can seamlessly slide into being the team’s third scorer, things may not be that simple. The disparity in Holiday’s offensive production between wins and losses was even worse after Zion made his debut against the San Antonio Spurs.

In Wins Following Zion's Debut In Losses Following Zion's Debut
Points Per 36 minutes FG% 3PT% FT% Points Per 36 minutes FG% 3PT% FT%
Jrue Holiday 24.8 55.0% 44.0% 75.0% 13.8 38.9% 23.1% 58.6%
Brandon Ingram 22.1 43.3% 42.6% 82.1% 23.5 43.5% 34.5% 84.6%
Lonzo Ball 10.5 41.7% 35.6% 50.0% 13.9 42.9% 44.0% 68.2%
Zion Williamson 28.2 60.6% 40.0% 58.1% 29.9 56.3% 44.4% 68.3%
Josh Hart 14.0 44.9% 37.5% 75.0% 12.8 43.0% 28.6% 72.4%
JJ Redick 23.3 43.8% 40.0% 91.4% 23.1 49.5% 48.4% 86.2%
Derrick Favors 12.4 64.9% 0.0% 54.5% 11.9 57.6% 0.0% 56.3%

Granted this encompasses a smallish sample size of 26 games (13 wins vs 13 losses), yet the data is downright too remarkable to be ignored. What’s really amazing about all of this is that Holiday hasn’t shown wide discrepancies in his scoring and efficiency the previous two seasons — but there was a blip during the 2016-17 campaign.

During that rocky season, the Pelicans added DeMarcus Cousins literally minutes after the end of the 2017 All-Star game. It would later become common knowledge that Holiday struggled the most with the significant change to the roster and the numbers bore that out.

The most interesting aspect of those struggles back then today, though, were his stats in losses following the Boogie trade. A 13.7 PPG average in 14 defeats, including a 39.6 FG% and 29.2 3PT%, compare eerily similar to his numbers in losses this season after Zion came off the shelf.

Following a full offseason to mentally prepare and make adjustments, Holiday’s numbers in 2017-18 showed no glitches in wins versus losses, especially before Cousins ruptured his Achilles. Thus, there’s a strong argument available that Holiday’s current consistency issues should normalize next season, but there remain several things that trouble me.

In watching his career unfold in New Orleans, it’s apparent a level of comfort is more necessary for Holiday than most other key players across the league.

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

We witnessed Jrue at his best when he was behind Anthony Davis in the pecking order and had the luxury of getting himself going when Rajon Rondo was at the helm of the offense. On the other hand, when Holiday’s been asked to consistently lead or make major adjustments, notably problematic issues have arisen.

Divvying responsibilities but receiving regular touches appear to be the golden ticket for Holiday, yet there’s more uneasiness to feel about his game. As Holiday has grown older, statistical declines or bouts with greater paralyzing slumps have become more commonplace.

During the 2018-19 season, he only connected on 32.5% of his long distance makes. That was a career-worst mark. Holiday was a much more dependable three-point shooter in his first six seasons in the league, but that efficiency has eroded since. This season’s 35.3 3PT% represents his best rate in three years, yet that ranks a lowly 61st among guards who are key rotation players with a three-point shot in their bag.

Then there’s the charity stripe woes. In two of the last four seasons, Holiday has failed to eclipse 71% from the free throw line. This, after putting up three straight seasons of an 81 FT% mark or higher. Holiday was just generally considered a much better free throw shooter earlier in his career.

Perfect scenarios and environments are illusory. Injuries are a way of life. Roster continuity is fast becoming a rarer and rarer commodity. There will undoubtedly be more challenges ahead for the Pelicans. How will Holiday fare through whatever comes next while certain areas of his game are trending negatively?

Jrue Holiday remains one of the finest two-way players in the league. He has been for three years running, averaging over 19 points a season and normally locking down an opponent’s best offensive perimeter weapon. It was understandable to think Holiday could take the next step once freed completely from Davis’ shadow, but that didn’t happen. Now reality dictates that it might be time for the Pelicans to consider preparing for a world where Holiday is given less responsibility, or if the trade winds blow right, none altogether.

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 @OlehKosel.