What Is Wrong With the New Orleans Pelicans?
Excitement abounded with New Orleans entering the year.
They were coming off a surprise playoff appearance in 2014-15. They added a new uptempo coach from the NBA Champion Warriors staff in Alvin Gentry. Most importantly, the Pelicans had perhaps the league's best big man and MVP-candidate Anthony Davis ready to dominate in his fourth season.
New Orleans was feeling good about a playoff return this season, and so were we. But after a 0-4, start they are reeling. Opponents have outscored them by nearly 15 points per game, and they possess one of the worst defenses in the league regarding points allowed (115.0 points per game, 29th) and efficiency (112.2, 28th). With the change of offensive pace, the defense was expected to take a step back. The offense, on the other hand, was supposed to thrive.
However, New Orleans finds themselves in the bottom third of the NBA in Offensive Efficiency,
What is to blame for their failures? Let's break it down.
Late in training camp, the Pelicans got word that Tyreke Evans was going to miss six-to-eight weeks after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Replacing the team's second-leading scorer and distributor and his 16.6 points and 6.6 assists per game would not be easy.
It was not just his surface stats that would be hard to replace, it would be his unique style of play. Evans was second in the league with an average of 11.8 drives to the basket per game. He produced an average of 12.8 points for the Pelicans, either by scoring or assist, on those drives, ranking him in the top 10 of the NBA.
Due to their slow pace last season, 27th in the league, the Pelicans were a middle-of-the-road offensive team, points-wise. They scored 99.4 points per game, ranking 16th but were one of the best regarding efficiency. Their 108.2 Offensive Rating was 2.6 points better than league average. Despite his own 103 Offensive Rating, Evans played a bigger factor for the entire team.
With Evans on the court, the Pelicans carried a 110.5 Offensive Rating and had an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 50.5 percent. With Evans on the bench, they slumped a bit as they had a 103.7 Offensive Rating and 49.0 percent Effective Field Goal Percentage. Evans also held a plus/minus of 2.9 last season, leaving the Pelicans in a hole to start this season.
Without Evans, the Pelicans would need to rely more on Jrue Holiday. The problem is that Holiday had injury problems of his own
Coming off a second straight season with a lower leg injury, Holiday has been on an a minutes restriction early on. Playing only three of the Pelicans games so far, Holiday has averaged under 24 minutes per game. Even when on the court, Holiday has struggled, hitting only 37 percent of his field goal attempts, leaving him with a -10.3 nERD rating, suggesting he'd make a league-average team 10 games worse than .500 over a full season.
The Pelicans' injuries do not stop with Holiday and Evans either. Evans' logical replacement at small forward would have been Quincy Pondexter, but the 27-year-old has been out since late-October with a knee injury of his own. The same goes with Holiday's backup in Norris Cole, his issue being an ankle, but just like Pondexter, he has no timetable to return.
The frontcourt has not been immune either. Omer Asik and Kendrick Perkins have both missed time, putting more pressure on Alexis Ajinca, Ryan Anderson, and Dante Cunningham. With no consistent playmaker or a solid frontcourt partner, Davis has had to carry an extra load. How he has played under these conditions, have not been equal to the MVP caliber hype around the Brow this season.
Through four games this season, Davis is our 161st ranked player with a -9.0 nERD rating, a far cry from preseason MVP predictions.
The 22-year-old has maintained his peripheral numbers, but the added offensive pressure is clearly hurting his game. Expectations were that coach Gentry's up-tempo system would be a welcome change for Davis as his offensive game matured, but so far this season, Davis' focus on stretching the floor has been unsuccessful.
While he is making three-pointers at an above average rate, 36.4 percent, his increased frequency in shots away from the basket has knocked his True Shooting Percentage down to below 50 percent for the first time in his career.
Last season, Davis averaged 4.6 touches per game while on the post, within 12 feet of the basket. He converted those touches into 5.4 points per game while shooting 74 percent. This season, Davis is still receiving touches down low, 4.0 per game, but he is scoring only 3.3 points as his shooting has plummeted to 54.5 percent.
The Pelicans' rash of injuries has provided less-than-stellar secondary scoring options, leading to less space for Davis to work on the floor even with his attempts to stretch the floor.
Over half of his shot attempts have come with tight coverage, a defender less than four feet away. During last season, Davis made over 55 percent of those tightly defended shots; this year he has managed to drop only 36 percent of them.
Whatever the reason -- the increased tempo, the high expectations placed on him, or the lack of a consistent secondary scoring option -- Davis has clearly been off rhythm this year.
In hindsight, we should have expected growing pains with the Pelicans this year because of the dramatic shift in offensive philosophy. The loss of Evans and restrictions on Holliday have apparently forced a still only 22-year-old Davis to press.
While he had a solid complementary scorer who could also facilitate the offense throughout his career, this year has been different. It also did not help playing the white-hot Warriors twice in their four games.
With Holiday increasing his court time and Evans expected back in December, there is still time for the Pelicans to get comfortable in Gentry's system and threaten for the 8 seed out West again.
According to our algorithms, the Pelicans are the 26th-best team in the NBA so far but still own a 44.3 percent chance to reach the playoffs, the 19th-best odds in the NBA and the 8th-best odds in the Western Conference.