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Pelicans should strongly consider rotation change ahead of matchup against Raptors

Continuing to start Devonte’ Graham alongside CJ McCollum feels too problematic

New Orleans Pelicans v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Raptors looming tonight, the Grizzlies tomorrow, and the Mavericks on Thursday, there’s a need for things to come together quickly for the Pelicans before the All-Star break.

New Orleans has lost two straight games since Josh Hart was traded to the Trail Blazers and CJ McCollum replaced the former fan favorite in the starting lineup. They trail Portland by half a game for the 10th slot in the West. Meanwhile, San Antonio and Sacramento are nipping right on their heels in the standings.

The play of the Pelicans was disjointed in recent losses to the Heat and Spurs, but one knew adjustments were forthcoming since the massive roster shakeup. Smoothing out some of the rough edges requires more time, but there is a thing or two that can be done to jump start the process.

Right off the bat, the coaching staff should quit trying to pound a square peg into a round hole — playing Devonte’ Graham and McCollum together in the starting lineup looks like a bad idea when the only plus defender on the court is Herb Jones.

Obviously, sample sizes are extremely small, but the Pelicans’ defense has been at its worst when McCollum has been partnered with Graham. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

A number of teams can’t get away with playing two undersized, below average defenders in the backcourt together. Portland’s front office tried to make it work for years. Surrounding Damian Lillard and McCollum with several defense-first forwards seemed like a good plan on paper, but the execution was difficult.

Two-way players don’t grow on trees. When Portland’s defense was making inroads, the offense showed holes. Remember New Orleans’ sweep in the 2017-18 playoffs? Forcing the ball out of Dame and CJ’s hands proved their downfall.

Since that period, the Trail Blazers have leaned harder into their offense, but it’s come at a great cost. They’re on pace to finish in the bottom 5 of the league defensively for a third consecutive season.

Another issue that’s plagued New Orleans, the three-point shooting continues to be a sore spot. With Graham struggling to knock down outside jumpers since the start of the new year, there’s very little reason to stick to the status quo.

It’s understandable for the coaching staff of wanting to avoid further disruptions to the team’s chemistry after Hart’s departure. Moving Graham into a reserve role could perhaps add friction. However, if the locker room is all about winning — and everything we’ve seen this year seems to indicate that players are willing to make all the necessary sacrifices, a potential transition doesn’t appear frightening.

With McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas as proven scorers, the decision to make a change should be even that much easier.

The Pelicans have the personnel to improve the defense in the starting lineup, and a positive byproduct could be the team’s offense takes a step forward. New Orleans recently fared well with Jaxson Hayes at the 4 when Ingram and Hart missed time. Alternatively, rolling with Tony Snell, Naji Marshall or Trey Murphy III could pay dividends, too.

Ultimately, one shouldn’t be concerned about McCollum fitting in. He understands the work that’s needed and he’s already taking steps to alleviate problems, including on how to make the offense flow better alongside Brandon Ingram.

“We’re going to sit down and talk, and then watch film,” McCollum said after Saturday’s 124-114 loss to the Spurs. “But I wanted to get a little body of work first to kind of see how the games go before we have those conversations.

“I got the drop box from Jon, our video coordinator, and I’ve just been watching ATO’s, offensive play calls, the flow of the game. Obviously, the games I played in, I didn’t have to watch. I’m going to watch my touches, watch my minutes, but also I got breakdowns of BI’s plays, I got breakdowns of big fellas’ plays, I got breakdowns of D. Graham’s plays. Understanding what they’ve been doing before I got here, how I can kind of fit in, and obviously add a different element while still be able to complement some of the stuff they’ve been doing, so I’m just trying to get better at that.”

The Pelicans will become more fluid as the new group spends more and more time together in practices and games; however, the rotation can and should probably be addressed now.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (22-34) vs Toronto Raptors (31-24)

When: February 14, 2022, 7:00 p.m.

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, NBA League Pass

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

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.