New Orleans Pelicans: Quirky Underdog or Misfit Contender?

— October 17th 2017

The NBA’s weirdest squad will have to work to find its niche.


By Nico Baguio


Basketball,​ ​unlike​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​sports,​ ​is​ ​fluid​ ​and​ ​dynamic.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​neither​ ​individualistic,​ ​like​ ​baseball​ ​or golf,​ ​nor​ ​too​ ​collectivistic,​ ​like​ ​American​ ​football​ ​or​ ​soccer.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​the​ ​perfect​ ​combination​ ​of individual​ ​talent​ ​and​ ​collective​ ​chemistry.​ ​While​ ​it​ ​is​ ​important,​ ​maybe​ ​even​ ​necessary,​ ​for​ ​a team​ ​to​ ​have​ ​superstars​ ​to​ ​have​ ​a​ ​chance​ ​at​ ​a​ ​championship,​ ​the​ ​importance​ ​of​ ​the​ ​group​—from​ ​supporting​ ​stars​ ​to​ ​bench​—​cannot​ ​be​ ​understated.


The​ ​New​ ​Orleans​ ​Pelicans, ​are​ ​one​ ​of​ ​probably​ ​4​ ​teams​ ​(along​ ​with​ ​GS,​ ​OKC,​ ​HOU),​ ​to​ ​have multiple​ ​(arguably)​ Top​ ​20​ ​players​ ​in​ ​Anthony​ ​Davis​ ​(consensus​ ​Top​ ​8,​ ​at​ ​least)​ ​and​ ​DeMarcus Cousins​ ​(arguably​ ​Top​ ​20,​ ​Top​ ​10​ ​if,​ ​​as​ ​Zach​ ​Lowe​ ​put​ ​it​,​ ​he​ ​ever​ ​has​ ​head​ ​screwed​ ​on straight).


But,​ ​while​ ​the​ ​other​ ​3​ ​teams​—all​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West,​ ​mind​ ​you​—​are​ ​universally​ ​accepted​ ​to​ ​finish somewhere​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Top​ ​4​ ​of​ ​the​ ​conference,​ ​thereby​ ​earning​ ​a​ ​homecourt​ ​advantage​ ​for​ ​the​ ​big dance​ ​in​ ​April,​ ​the​ ​Pelicans​ ​aren’t.​ ​In​ ​fact,​ ​the​ ​Pelicans​ ​are​ ​projected​ ​to​ ​be​ ​somewhere​ ​between “Warriors​ ​practice​ ​in​ ​April”​ ​or​ ​out​ ​of​ ​the​ ​playoffs​ ​entirely.​ ​This​ ​is​ ​largely​ ​because​ ​they​ ​have​ ​the quirkiest​ ​supporting​ ​cast​ ​around​ ​2​ ​superstars,​ ​themselves​ ​unconventional​ ​fits,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​small-ball era.



To​ ​complete​ ​the​ ​trifecta of their top players,​ ​they​ ​have​ ​Jrue​ ​Holiday:​ ​a​ ​player​ ​whose​ ​best​ ​offensive​ ​role​ ​throughout his career has been as ​a​ ​secondary,​ ​off-ball​ ​scorer.​ ​But​ ​he’s​ ​not​ ​fantastic​ ​at​ catch-and-shoot, key next to AD and Boogie, ​and​ ​he​ ​doesn’t​ ​have​ ​the​ ​aggressive, “Mamba”​ ​mentality​ ​required​ ​to​ ​be​ ​depended​ ​on​ from night to night ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​scorer.​ ​The​ ​best thing​ ​about​ ​him​ ​is​ ​his​ ​defensive​ ​mentality​ ​and​ ​size,​ ​at​ ​a​ ​position​ ​where​ ​​lockdown ​defenders​ ​are usually​ ​a​ ​misnomer​ ​and​ defensive impact tends to be ​minimal.

Their​ ​primary​ ​playmaker​ ​is​ ​the​ ​enigmatic​ ​and​ ​mercurial​ ​Rajon​ ​Rondo:​ ​a​ ​player​ ​whose​ ​role​ ​will be​ ​one​ ​of​ ​a​ ​primary​ ​facilitator:​ ​he’ll​ ​direct​ ​the​ offensive​ ​traffic,​ ​hit​ ​his teammates​ ​at​ ​the​ ​right​ ​spot,​ ​and​ ​create​ ​plays​ ​and​ ​generate​ ​avenues​ ​for​ ​scoring​ ​opportunities. That’s​ ​all​ ​well​ ​and​ ​good,​ ​until​ ​you​ ​consider​ ​the​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​Rondo​ ​isn’t​ ​a​ ​feared​ ​shooter​ ​(limiting driving​ ​lanes,​ ​especially​ ​with​ ​players​ ​who​ ​need​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​the​ ​paint​ ​to​ ​be​ ​most​ ​effective),​ ​tends​ ​to lose​ ​focus​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​year,​ ​and​ left his ​defensive​ ​peak​ way ​behind​.​ ​That’s​ ​on​ ​top​ ​of the​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​he’s​ ​probably​ ​too​ ​smart​ ​for​ ​his​ ​own​ ​good,​ ​sometimes​ ​turning​ ​off​ ​coaches​ ​and teammates​ ​alike.

On​ ​the​ ​bench,​ ​they​ ​have​ ​Tony​ ​Allen​ ​and​ ​Jordan​ ​Crawford:​ ​two​ ​confident,​ ​proud,​ ​competitive​ ​but ultimately​ ​flawed​ ​and​ ​one-sided​ ​players.​ ​Allen​ ​spent​ ​years​ ​as​ ​the​ ​starting​ ​wing​ ​on​ ​the​ ​owners​ ​of the​ ​former​ ​quirkiest​ ​team​ ​in​ ​the​ ​NBA,​ ​grinding​ ​on​ ​defense​ ​and​ ​earning​ ​the​ ​right​ ​to​ ​shout “FIRST​ ​TEAM​ ​ALL​ ​DEFENSE”.

​But​ ​he’s​ ​35,​ ​he​ ​can’t​ ​shoot​ ​from​ ​anywhere​ ​outside​ ​of​ ​15​ ​feet, and​ coach Alvin ​Gentry has ​declared​ ​he​ ​won’t​ ​see​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​minutes​ ​unless​ ​needed​ ​out​ ​of​ ​necessity​ ​or​ ​to​ ​stop or cool​ ​down​ ​a​ ​guy​ ​in​ ​a​ ​scoring​ ​rhythm.​ ​Crawford,​ ​on​ ​the​ ​other​ ​hand,​ ​is​ ​a​ ​score-first,​ ​score​-​second,​ ​score​-​third​ ​guard​ ​who​ ​can​ ​make​ ​plays​ ​in​ ​a​ ​pinch,​ ​but​ is ​on​ ​a​ ​1-year contract. He also recently​ ​came​ ​back​ ​from​ a foray to China,​ ​and​ he’s ​a​ ​cocky-​to​-​a​-​fault​ ​player​ ​who​ ​may​ ​rub​ ​others ​the​ ​wrong​ ​way.



On​ ​top​ ​of​ ​all​ ​that, the​ ​biggest​ ​challenge:​ ​in​ ​a​ ​league​ ​that’s​ ​veering​ ​towards​ ​long,​ ​versatile wings,​ ​the​ ​Pelicans​ ​have​ ​stockpiled​ ​mostly​ ​small​ ​guards. Not​ ​counting​ ​the​ four​ ​guards​ ​already​ ​mentioned,​ ​they​ ​also​ ​have​ ​E’Twaun​ ​Moore,​ ​Ian​ ​Clark​ ​and​ ​the injured​ ​rookie​ ​Frank​ ​Jackson.​ ​That’s​ ​seven—​SEVEN​​—guards​ ​who​ are under 220 pounds.​ ​They​ ​only​ ​have​ ​three ​wings, and two​ ​are​ ​really​ ​more​ ​suited​ to ​playing​ ​the​ ​now-traditional​ ​stretch four​ ​position​. Some will even argue that Solomon Hill, the Pelicans’ only legitimate wing, is best suited to play the four​. Regardless, ​all​ ​are​ ​weak​ ​rebounders.



And​ ​lastly,​ ​despite​ ​the​ ​overwhelming​ ​abundance​ ​at​ ​this​ ​position,​ ​with​ ​5​ ​legitimate​ ​centers​ ​on​ ​the roster ​(including​ ​AD),​ the Pelicans ​lack​ ​any​ ​big​ ​man​ ​depth​ ​behind​ ​their​ ​2​ ​giant​ ​superstars.​ ​Ajinca​ ​is​ ​a dinosaur​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​fit​ ​in​ ​a​ ​new​ ​world,​ ​Asik​ ​is​ ​still​ ​battling​ ​a​ ​disease​,​ ​and​ ​Diallo’s still​ ​wearing​ ​the​ ​training​ ​wheels.

That’s not even mentioning ​the​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​Boogie,​ ​Rondo,​ ​Allen,​ ​Crawford, and​ ​Cunningham​ ​are​ ​all expiring​ ​contracts.​ ​While​ ​most​ ​players​ ​will​ ​tell​ ​you​ ​they​ ​won’t​ ​let​ ​it​ ​affect​ ​team​ ​chemistry,​ ​often it’s​ ​a​ ​dark​ ​cloud​ ​in​ ​the​ ​sky​ ​that​ ​everyone​ ​just​ ​refuses​ ​to​ ​admit​ ​makes​ ​everyone’s​ ​day​ ​just​ ​a​ ​bit grimmer.

That’s​ ​why​ ​you​ ​can​ ​see​ ​where​ ​the​ ​chemistry​ ​concerns​ ​are​ ​coming​ ​from:​ ​there’s​ ​no hand-in-glove​ ​fit,​ ​and​ ​what​‘s​ ​usually​ ​described​ ​as​ ​a​ ​“square​ ​peg​ ​in​ ​a​ ​round​ ​hole”,​ ​may​ ​more aptly​ ​be​ ​described​ ​as​ ​“fitting​ ​a​ ​triangle​ ​peg​ ​through​ ​the​ ​eye​ ​hole​ ​of​ ​a​ ​microscopic​ ​needle​ ​in​ ​a haystack”.​ ​The​ ​Pelicans​ ​are​ ​a​ ​team​ ​of​ ​volatile​ ​personalities​ ​and​ ​mismatched​ ​parts,​ ​not​ ​a​ ​recipe for​ ​chemistry.


A Future In Question:

In​ ​a​ ​league​ ​that’s​ ​mostly​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​zag​ ​with shooters​ ​galore,​ ​the​ ​Pelicans​ ​are​ ​zigging​ ​hard,​ ​maybe even​ ​punting​ ​3-point​ ​shooting​ ​all​ ​together.​ ​Instead,​ ​they’ll​ ​be​ ​relying​ ​heavily​ ​on​ ​their​ ​much improved​ ​good-but-not-great​ ​defense,​ ​an​ ​offense​ ​predicated​ ​on​ ​ball​ ​and​ ​player​ ​movement without​ ​the​ ​requisite​ ​spacing​ ​to​ ​make​ ​it​ ​truly​ ​work,​ ​and​ ​hopefully​ ​a​ ​relentless​ ​effort​ ​to​ ​attack the​ ​glass.

Will​ ​it​ ​work?​ ​Who​ ​knows.​ ​The​ ​Grit-and-Grind​ ​Grizzlies​ ​made​ ​7​ ​straight​ ​playoff​ ​appearances,​ ​but never​ ​truly​ ​became​ ​a​ ​legitimate​ ​title​ ​contender,​ ​instead​ ​remaining​ ​throughout​ their ​lifetime​ ​a pseudo​-​contender​ ​that​ ​relied​ ​on​ ​lucky​ ​breaks​ ​to​ ​get​ ​deeper​ ​into​ ​the​ ​playoffs​ ​(as​ ​they​ ​did​ ​in 2012-13,​ ​when​ ​they​ ​reached​ ​the​ ​Western​ ​Conference​ ​Finals).

The​ ​Pelicans,​ ​who​ ​have​ ​a​ ​better​ big ​3​ ​than​ ​the​ ​Grit-and-Grind Grizz, ​could​ ​be the​ ​spiritual​ ​successor​ ​of​ ​that​ ​blue​-​collar​ ​approach.​ ​Whether​ ​they​ ​can​ ​achieve​ ​true​ ​contender status​ ​is​ ​anyone’s​ ​guess.


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