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Current starting lineup is dragging down Pelicans’ performance, but there’s hope

The CJ-Herb-BI-Trey-JV grouping must start executing better on both ends of the floor

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans will resume their march to the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors tonight, and if there’s one aspect that must improve quickly over the remaining 23 regular season games, the starting lineup needs to perform much, much stronger as a unit.

In the absence of Zion Williamson, the grouping of CJ McCollum, Herb Jones, Brandon Ingram, Trey Murphy and Jonas Valanciunas has really disappointed, even after the team righted itself following the 10-game losing streak. That wasn’t the case prior to Ingram missing two months with a toe injury or when going back to last season.

Games Played Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
2021-22 season 3 122.6 114.3 +8.2
Start of Current Season-1/24/2023 8 117.8 115.7 +2.1
1/25/2023-2/2/2023 4 91.2 136.3 -45.1
2/4/2023-All-Star break 4 110.9 130.1 -19.2

It’s somewhat understandable that this starting lineup didn’t fare well initially upon Ingram’s return. He lacked rhythm and the team had also been struggling mightily previously. A lot of player confidences were shaken. However, the circumstances changed after getting a few games under their belts together.

BI’s been brilliant individually since the Feb. 2 loss to the Mavericks, averaging 29.2 points on stellar shooting percentages. McCollum, Murphy and Valanciunas have been more than solid by the numbers. Even Jones has a 44.2 FG%.

Player Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers FG% 3PT% FT%
Brandon Ingram 29.2 4.7 4.8 3.8 54.0% 43.8% 86.5%
CJ McCollum 20.2 3.7 6.7 2.3 48.9% 37.1% 84.2%
Trey Murphy 15.3 3.6 1.0 1.0 48.6% 41.3% 85.7%
Jonas Valanciunas 13.8 11.2 2.2 1.0 61.4% 0% 86.7%
Herb Jones 7.9 3.9 2.4 1.6 44.2% 20.0% 60.0%

One would, thus, assume this 5-man group would be greatly responsible for the team’s really good 117.4 offensive rating over the last seven games. Nothing could be further from the truth. McCollum-Jones-Ingram-Murphy-Valanciunas have posted a lethargic 106.7 ORTG during this span. And more troubling, their defense (129.5 DRTG) has been downright putrid when compared to how the team has fared overall (115.1 DRTG).

Remove this group’s 58 minutes from the numbers and the Pelicans’ offensive rating sits at 119.9, with the defensive rating coming in at 112.5. That 7.4 net rating would be fourth best in the NBA since Feb. 2.

The current starting lineup has been a major anchor on team performance of late any way you slice it.

The Pelicans have a plus-minus total of +15 over their last seven games, where they’ve gone 4-3. The McCollum-Jones-Ingram-Murphy-Valanciunas lineup? A -30 plus-minus in 58 minutes. This means that across the remaining 278 minutes all other lineup combinations have produced a net positive of +45.

So, what’s the explanation, and more importantly, what’s the solution?

When scrolling through Willie Green’s most-used lineups over the past seven games, one thing stands out: 5-man groups with positive net ratings don’t include both CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas.

Examining the data from a broader perspective confirms that the McCollum and Valanciunas pairing has indeed been problematic throughout the season. 3-man units involving both players all carry negative net ratings outside of with Williamson, and in incredibly small sample sizes, with Josh Richardson, Kira Lewis Jr. and Garrett Temple.

When looking at 2-man groups involving either McCollum or Valanciunas, it becomes clear who seems to pose the bigger liability. On/off statistics further support this — Valanciunas has the worst net rating differential on the team at -9.1.

Did you notice how Valanciunas compares to the other centers on the team? Jaxson Hayes has easily been the season’s biggest disappointment yet he’s neck-and-neck with JV. Willy Hernangomez has been a slight net positive, and Larry Nance Jr. has been one of the team’s most important contributors.

Now after painting the largest possible bullseye on Valanciunas’ back and the trade deadline having passed, we need to take several steps back from the ledge. And then a couple more. One, the blame doesn’t squarely lie with JV, and two, there’s a solution that doesn’t involve making a change at the starting center spot.

Herb’s lack of floor-spacing ability has easily caught the most flack on social media, but McCollum and Ingram can be frustrating defensively. They have largely not performed at an above average level on that end of the floor for their entire careers. However, there’s a larger elephant in the room: Murphy and Valanciunas have not produced when side by side at the 4 and the 5.

Murphy and Valanciunas are simply not getting enough touches and shot attempts to justify their major defensive shortcomings as a duo.

With Herb often chasing the best player perimeter around, it’s on Valanciunas, Murphy and Ingram to provide the correct help and defend the lane. Neither facet was covered adequately in the Pelicans’ last game before the All-Star break against the Lakers.

On Los Angeles’ very first possession, LeBron James had his choice of throwing the ball to wide open teammates after Anthony Davis set a moving screen on Herb. Instead of hitting Jared Vanderbilt for the easiest of twos at the rim, James found D’Angelo Russell for the open 3.

Although it didn’t matter, Ingram should have started to recover to his assignment, Vanderbilt, once noticing Valanciunas was in front of LeBron. Meanwhile, Murphy was completely unaware of what was going on behind him. He should have unglued himself from Malik Beasley for a moment and not lost contact with Vanderbilt, who was rolling too freely to the rim.

After James nailed an open midrange shot off a New Orleans turnover, he and Davis executed a simple pick-and-roll against Valanciunas, Murphy and Ingram on L.A.’s third possession.

The window for a bounce pass to Davis was far too wide. Murphy has to do a better job of utilizing his length to get a hand in the area, much like Jones tries to do when guarding PnR’s. Then Ingram should have either tried to strip Davis of the ball prior to takeoff, taken a charge, or at the very least, gone up vertically to avoid the personal foul.

After running another successful PnR against the Pelicans’ defense, the Lakers once again found a large seam to exploit.

Russell skirted around Ingram far too easily after the LeBron screen, thereby collapsing the entire defense. Ingram not hustling back to cover Russell quickly drew Valanciunas too far from Davis, and with Murphy failing to offer any weak side help, the end result is an easy lob and dunk for the Lakers.

Ingram and Murphy are going to have to play better defensively by giving more effort and showing greater awareness because Valanciunas and McCollum have limitations. In reality, though, this current starting lineup’s defense will probably never be more than average; therefore, the offense must also shine when they’re all together.

Murphy (63.8 TS%) and Valanciunas (61.0 TS%) have two of the best true shooting percentages on the Pelicans. The team absolutely must take greater advantage of their proficiencies by finding each of them more shot attempts.

The need for Murphy to increase his shooting volume was highlighted in an article last month. For those who missed it, the Pelicans post their best winning percentage when Murphy attempts 13 or more field goals and eight or more 3-point attempts.

Did you know that the Pelicans have also run into a lot more wins than losses when Valanciunas receives a good amount of field goal attempts or free throw attempts?

Field goal attempts FG% Corresponding Pelicans record Free throw attempts FT% Corresponding Pelicans record
12 or more 52.9% 13-8 4 or more 80.9% 16-7
11 or less 56.0% 16-21 3 or less 87.5% 13-22

There’s no doubt that Ingram and McCollum need to establish their rhythm in every game. But it should be almost just as important to not shun Murphy and Valanciunas offensively when the starting lineup is out on the floor together. And above all else, the group’s defensive effort has to be miles better.

The CJ-Herb-BI-Trey-JV lineup hasn’t always floundered. The group worked well enough early in the season as well as during 2021-22. They have to find that magic again. Larry Nance Jr., Jose Alvarado, Josh Richardson, Naji Marshall and Dyson Daniels can’t be asked to come in and save the day each and every game. If that continues to be the case, Willie Green and the coaching staff have to strongly consider making a change to the starting lineup before Zion Williamson returns and lends his great hand.

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.