Grading the Pelicans at midseason

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NBA: Sacramento Kings at New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) and center DeMarcus Cousins (0) look on during a time out against Sacramento Kings during the first half at Smoothie King Center in December 2017 (Photo: Stephen Lew).

With the New Orleans Pelicans playing their best basketball of the season, now seems like the perfect time to hand out a few grades at the (slightly past) midway point of the most critical season in franchise history.

(All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and accurate as of 1/16/18)

Current rankings:

Offense: 111.2, 4th     Defense: 111.1, 29th

W-L   I Pct. I GB

23-20  .535   12.0

New Orleans is currently third in the Southwest Division, 7.5 games behind the Houston Rockets, and sixth in the Western Conference Standings, trailing fourth-place Minnesota by 4.5 games.

 

Team Leaders:

Pts:     Anthony Davis, 27.2   

Reb:    DeMarcus Cousins, 12.7*#    

Ast:     Rajon Rondo, 7.8

Stl:      DeMarcus Cousins, 1.6*                    

Blk:     Anthony Davis, 2.1     

Tov:    DeMarcus Cousins, 5.0*#

* average would tie or set career high            # average would set a Pelicans record

Frontcourt:

“Boogie and The Brow” collectively are the most talented frontcourt duo in the NBA. Anthony Davis is a generational talent, currently ranked in the top five in scoring average, blocked shots, and player efficiency. When he’s going, he is nearly unstoppable. Still just 24-years old, AD has averaged 27.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.1 blocks while shooting 56 percent from the floor and a career-high 34.7 percent on three-pointers. Though he’s missed six games, and parts of others, Davis in on pace for his second consecutive season with more than 70 games played. The only criticisms I’d make of Davis’ play so far have been an occasional tendency to defer to DeMarcus Cousins on offense and his role in the Pelicans’ generally awful defense. Fatigue may be partly responsible as Davis averages more than 36 minutes per game.

In his first full season in New Orleans, Cousins has endeared himself to the Pelicans fan base with his complete arsenal of moves and dynamic personality. He’s also proven to be one of the dominant forces in the NBA when completely focused. “Boogie” has been a roller coaster, averaging 25.4 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.6 blocks on the postitive side, but leading the league in turnovers and personal fouls. Cousins has also played indifferent defense on a much too regular basis and has been a disappointment on the offensive glass. If Cousins can reduce the mental mistakes and poor effort plays over the second half, the Pelicans can become downright scary. Health will be important to watch for Cousins as well as he’s topped 70 games played in a season only four times in eight previous campaigns. He’s also playing a career-high 36.1 minutes per game.

Grade: A- (Turnovers and defense keep the big men from a perfect score)

Backcourt

The Pelicans have employed a three-guard attack for much of the season since the return of Rajon Rondo from preseason injury. Rondo has been dazzling at times, such as the night when he set the franchise record for assists with 25. He’s also found himself on the bench at crucial points of games due to his liability as a defender. Rondo is currently posting the lowest defensive rating of his career (113.6), making it impossible to keep him on the floor even as he puts up offensive numbers comparable to his Boston Celtic prime. In an offense perfectly tailored to his skills, Rondo has to improve his defense or his playing time will remain inconsistent

Offensively, the New Orleans Pelicans are getting everything they want and then some from E’Twaun Moore. Moore is averaging 12.9 points per game, while shooting 44 percent from three-point range. He has six 20-points games this season, more than he’s had in his entire career. He’s one of four Pelicans (Davis, Cousins, and Jrue Holiday) averaging more than 30 minutes per night (32.5). Moore has had his problems defensively, often being asked to guard much bigger small forwards. The return of Solomon Hill could mean Moore moving back to the bench, but no matter what, he’s proven to be an important cog to the team’s offense.

You could make a case that Jrue Holiday is the Pelicans’ MVP at the halfway point. Yes, Davis and Cousins will be All-NBA performers and Holiday may not make the All-Star team. However, Holiday’s emergence as a dependable scorer and his consistently outstanding defense make him perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the roster. Holiday and Cousins are the only players to start every game for the Pelicans this season, and Jrue is playing a staggering 36.9 minutes per game. He edges out Anthony Davis for the team-high in offensive rating (109.8 to 109.4), and is second to AD on the defensive end. Holiday is averaging career highs in points (18.5), rebounds (4.4), and is shooting a career-high 49.5 percent. Holiday can still have issues with his late game decision-making and untimely turnovers, but overall he’s playing the best basketball of his career.

Grade: B- (All offense and no defense except for Holiday.)

Defense

The New Orleans Pelicans are not a bad defensive team; they are an awful one. The Pels are on pace to post the worst defensive rating in team history. They allow 111.1 points per game, good for next to last in the NBA and their defensive rating of 110.1 is 24th in the league. New Orleans has given up 100 points 36 times, 110 or more 24 times, 120 or more nine times, and 130 or more twice. The Pelicans have been outrebounded 16 times, which should never happen with Davis and Cousins, and they have struggled to keep teams off the offensive glass. Heading into Wednesday’s game against Atlanta, when they hold teams under 100 the Pelicans are 7-0, and are 16-20 when they don’t. Watching the Pelicans play defense at times, it appears that they are group of players who just met. Communication, effort, and awareness have all been an issue for New Orleans. Nothing will hold the Pelicans back more than their defensive play this season.

Grade: F

Bench

The Pelicans have one of the thinnest second units in the NBA. Solomon Hill, Tony Allen, Frank Jackson, and Alexis Ajinca have been out with injuries and Omer Asik gets roughly eight minutes a game because of Cousins’ foul trouble. Dante Cunningham has regressed on both sides of the ball from a season ago and hasn’t fit in either at small forward or as a “stretch-four.” Chieck Diallo remains an enigma, displaying great athleticism, but also poor defensive instincts and a penchant for really bad fouls.

Jameer Nelson got off to a good start in New Orleans, but has seen his playing time cut in favor of Ian Clark. Clark, spent much of the early season trying to find his way into the rotation, has become an emerging factor for the Pelicans. Clark has reached double figures in five of his last 20 games after doing so just twice in his first 17.

Darius Miller has been the Pelicans best and most consistent performer off the bench. Miller has cooled off recently, but is still shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also proven to be a capable passer and is an improving defender.

Hill is expected to return sooner rather than later and, if healthy, should provide a boost to the team’s defense. His offense was a questionmark last season, so not too much should be expected from him there. Jackson and Allen have no concrete timetable for their possible return, so unless the Pelicans are able to make a trade, the bench will remain as is for the forseeable future. If Hill moves into the starting lineup and Moore returns to the second unit, both the offense and the defense could improve.

Grade: D- (Miller has been good and Clark has shown flashes, but too often the Pelicans are at a disadvantage as soon as the reserves enter the game)

Coaching

No one in New Orleans has been more scrutinized than Alvin Gentry. In his third season, Gentry has the Pelicans on pace to make the playoffs for just the second time in the Anthony Davis era. But, it seems that this team should be better. The night to night effort falls on the players, but it’s fair to wonder if another coach could get more out of the Pelicans. Gentry could also be criticized for his failure to stop Cousins’ freelancing and to find a better defensive mix from the players he does have. While Gentry didn’t assemble this roster, this is the one he has, and by most accounts the team should be better. How much of that falls on Gentry is impossible to know, but if the Pelicans can become more consistent and play a competitive first round in the playoffs he’d have to given plenty of credit.

Grade: C-

Final Grade: C

Up until their current win streak, the Pelicans have been a .500 team. With the talent that they have, they should be better. There have been few big wins, but a number of infuriating losses where the team either played down to the level of its opponent or gave away games with mental mistakes, selfish play, and terrible defense. New Orleans has a strange mix with a number of players in the last season of their contracts and a number of core players who’ve played precious few meaningful games in the second half of the season. The Pelicans are the NBA’s version of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, sometimes in the same game. They can be amazing and amazingly frustrating.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Del Demps makes a trade before the Feb. 8 deadline. New Orleans needs help at backup point guard, on the wing and another big would be helpful. With Demps also in the final year of his contract, does ownership let his swing for the fences and use the team’s future first round draft picks to get some help.

The Pelicans have a legitimate shot at making a run to a good seeding in the playoffs, but they’ll have to correct the issues that have plagued them all season. Otherwise, the Pels will continue to be a good show but ultimately the ending will be a disappointment.

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David Grubb

David Grubb

Featured Columnist

David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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