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.