January 18, 2018
What can new head coach Alvin Gentry do with Anthony Davis and some useful if ill-fitting pieces?

Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the New Orleans Pelicans.

1. Will Alvin Gentry “Warrior-fy” The Pelicans?

Anyone that watched the Pelicans last season understood a coaching change was needed. For all that the departed Monty Williams did to usher in a new era of New Orleans basketball, and in spite of a barrage of injuries last season that robbed their top six players (Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday) of a combined 107 games, his shortcomings were glaring. The team’s average age was 25.3, yet Williams didn’t take advantage of their youth and energy; New Orleans finished 27th in the NBA in pace with only 91.4 possessions per game.

Having a transcendent player like Davis, a big man who can dominate his man in transition, and then not using him in that capacity is like owning a Ferrari and using it solely to go to the grocery store. Davis scored just 10.6% of his points in transition last year, a number that seems criminal when you consider his speed and ability to finish at the rim. It would have made more sense for Williams to play a plodding style if the team was going to maximize each possession and focus a lot of their energy on the defensive end led by two dominant interior defenders in Davis and Asik. But that did not happen either. The Pelicans allowed 107.3 points per 100 possessions, good for only 22nd in the league. In fact the only team to play a slower pace and give up more points per possession was the New York Knicks. Not good company for any team, let alone one that ought be beginning its ascent to the top of the Western Conference.

Enter Alvin Gentry. It’s safe to say the Golden State Warriors’ top assistant and former head coach with the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, L.A. Clippers and Phoenix Suns, who served as the NBA Champions’ “offensive coordinator” this past season, will provide a much needed change of pace.

The Warriors were the fastest team in the league in ’14-15 averaging 98.3 possessions per game, and maximized the youth and athleticism in their rotation. The Warriors had one of the deepest rotations in the league and the league MVP, but the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in New Orleans. Offensively, Gentry will be able to deploy Davis with an assortment of pick-and-roll actions, like Williams did, but also use plays designed to spread the floor and take advantage of his athletic ability. Holiday is the type of player that is equally adept at poking and prodding the defense in the half court and getting out and running on the break. Evans gives the offense a secondary ball handler to attack with, and when Gordon and Anderson are healthy, they are two of the best shooters in the NBA. Getting the Pelicans to be more potent on the offensive end shouldn’t be hard for Gentry.

Pointing at Gentry’s previous failures as a head coach to question his hiring for the Pelicans is understood. He has been a head coach for 705 games, but has only two playoff appearances (and 21 total playoff games) to his credit. And at each stop, his teams have been able to put up points but haven’t been able to prevent them. However, each team he directed had flaws that the best coaching in the world could do nothing about. The ’98-99 Pistons led by Grant Hill, the defensively disenchanted Jerry Stackhouse and an aging Joe Dumars could put up points, but struggled on the glass and were completely devoid of rim protection with no regular averaging more than one block per game. Gentry’s Clippers teams from 2000-2003 had a prime Elton Brand and an emerging Lamar Odom, but also players like Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette and Darius Miles, who didn’t play defense and wanted the ball. When Gentry took over the Suns in 2008-2009, the offensive firepower and experience was evident. The defense was not. The ’09-10 Suns got within two wins of the NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers in six games, despite having the same problems limiting opponent’s points.

The Warriors showed this past season that playing a fast pace and playing great defense are not mutually exclusive, as they led the league in both pace and defensive efficiency (as well as offensive efficiency). If Asik is retained, then the Pelicans, who led the NBA in blocked shots last season, have already given Gentry the potential for more rim protection than all of his previous head coaching stops combined. But what the Warriors have that the Pelicans don’t currently have are a number of versatile players that function as plus-defenders; Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

Last season, the Pelicans thrived at running opponents off the three-point line and rotating out to shooters as they finished second in the league in three-point percentage allowed, but struggled in creating turnovers (finishing 30th in the NBA in this area). More amazingly, in spite of their penchant for blocking shots, they allowed the most shots at the rim in the league. It was their first season with Asik as the primary rim protector and his presence allowed them to be more conservative against opponent’s pick-and-rolls, but a lack of communication and weak defensive players like Anderson and Evans being exposed appear to have been the main problems.

To address this issue and harvest whatever defensive potential the current Pelicans have, Gentry plucked former Warriors assistant Darren Erman – credited with developing their aforementioned core on the defensive end – from Brad Stevens’s staff in Boston. Also a former assistant on Doc Rivers’s Celtics teams, where he was able to work closely with Tom Thibodeau, Erman will be tasked with creating a culture on defense that leads to continuity on that end to ensure the problems of the Pelicans’ past stay there.

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2. Does Anthony Davis Become The Best Player In The NBA Next Season?

In the course of one year, Anthony Davis went from a budding superstar making his first All-Star Game appearance hoping to soon make an All-NBA team, to a First-Team All-NBA player waiting to pick up the mantle of ‘best in the NBA’ when LeBron James decides to let it go. Sure, Stephen Curry was the league’s MVP and has a number of great years ahead of him, but if you asked anyone right now who amongst current NBA players they would want to build their team around, Anthony Davis would be the answer. Given his youth and unique set of skills, I don’t think the vote would be particularly close.

But what does this mean for the 2015-2016 season?

To examine the next step from Davis, I took a look at each player in NBA history that had a 20 point, 10 rebound, 2 block per game average in their third full season. It’s not a long list, but it is an impressive one. I then listed each player’s per game numbers for the following season to show the progress or regression. I also listed each player’s respective finish in MVP voting for the corresponding year.

Anthony Davis MVP

Other than Pervis Ellison, who won NBA Most Improved Player in his third season but lost most of his promising career to knee injuries, it is Hall of Fame company for Davis.

What is somewhat interesting is that none of those players made another significant statistical jump past the performance from their third year. McAdoo won the MVP with the Buffalo Braves in his third season so there really was nowhere for his output to go. O’Neal was injured for a large portion of his fourth season before departing for the Lakers during the following offseason. David Robinson dealt with a coaching change 20 games into his fourth season as new coach Jerry Tarkanian was given the quick hook, while Olajuwon and Duncan’s numbers remained relatively the same with Timmy getting a bump in MVP voting.

Looking at the raw numbers doesn’t tell the whole story with this group of players, of course, and ultimately will not tell the whole story with Davis. Aside from Ellison and McAdoo, who already reached MVP status, each one of these players went on to win the NBA MVP award, not because they substantially increased their statistical output but because they found ways to continuously hone their game and eventually lead their team to the top. By entering the conversation amongst the best players, opposing teams focus more attention on the player thus forcing a corresponding improvement in some peripheral area from him. With increased attention from the opposition, Davis will need to learn to counter what they throw at him, whether it’s double teams or helping more off other players, by leaning more on his teammates and improving his passing as well as continually refining his jump shot and developing his range out to the three-point line. If Davis is able to maintain his current game while finding new ways to improve, the chances are he will be in the conversation with O’Neal, Robinson, Olajuwon and Duncan as MVP figureheads of NBA champions.

What makes the development of Davis different is that none of the players listed above went into their fourth season getting a new coach that is better suited for their style of play. The addition of Gentry and the potential ways Davis could improve within his new coach’s up-tempo offense are endless because of the lack of diversification in Williams’s offense. Despite leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating, Davis was only 13th in usage percentage. That number should certainly jump as Gentry finds way to take advantage of Davis’s ability in the open court.

Williams was able to use Davis effectively in the half-court offense with the pick-and-roll; Davis led the league last season in both possessions used and points scored as the roll man, due in no small part to his improving jump shot range and how Williams incorporated it in the half-court offense. Imagine one day when he’s setting high screens, drifting to the three-point line and knocking those down. But according to NBA.com, Davis only had 8.2% of his possessions in transition despite scoring a terrific 1.56 points per possession. That will change. Also, expect the Pelicans offense to be less stagnant under Gentry, providing plenty of opportunities for Davis to display his underrated passing ability to find open teammates.

Davis is getting better, his growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and he is now [aired with a coach that seems ready and excited to use him to the best of his ability. As long as LeBron James is around and playing like he did in the NBA Finals, it will be tough for Davis to overtake the King. But for the next ten years, there isn’t a player that the Pelicans, or any other team in the NBA, would rather have. In Gentry’s offense, I envision Amare’ Stoudemire without the injuries or defensive indifference. The only question remaining, as Davis ponders a contract extension (five-years, $140 million via the “Rose Rule”), is whether or not he will become the best in a New Orleans uniform.

Five Questions: AtlantaBostonBrooklynChicagoClevelandDenverDetroitIndianaL.A. LakersMemphisMiamiMilwaukeeNew OrleansNew YorkOklahoma CityOrlandoPhiladelphiaPortlandSan AntonioToronto

3. Should Omer Asik Come Back To New Orleans?

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When the Pelicans acquired center Omer Asik from Houston in a draft day deal for a 2015 first-round pick to team with Anthony Davis in their frontcourt, they envisioned an interior defense rivaled by no other team in the league. As a key cog in the 2010-2012 Chicago Bulls “Bench Mob”, Asik developed a reputation as a defensive stalwart. In limited minutes behind Joakim Noah, Asik displayed footwork and defensive instincts that garnered him a three-year, $25 million contract from the Houston Rockets during the 2012 offseason.

During his first year in Houston, Asik played well as a starter, but faltered upon the arrival of Dwight Howard in 2013-2014 as the two were an unsuitable pairing, providing redundant skills to the Rockets lineup. His acquisition by New Orleans was supposed to provide Asik with a better situation and a better fit next to Davis, but his first year was met with mixed results. While he put up decent numbers during the regular season, scoring 7.3 points and grabbing 9.8 rebounds per game, he was a bit-part player in the Pelicans’ first round series against Golden State and their smaller lineup, which begs the question of whether or not Asik fits in a team that will most assuredly be playing an up-tempo style.

The league is gravitating toward smaller lineups, but I believe there is still a place for Asik, no matter how ugly his offense may be. Gentry is coming from a team that started Andrew Bogut at center, and while Asik is not at Bogut’s level when it comes to defense, they provide similar skills: the ability to body up larger post players, provide some semblance of rim protection and add a player to the lineup that doesn’t need the ball to be effective.

The most common starting lineup for the Pelicans last season – and probably this coming season given contract statuses – was Davis, Asik, Holiday, Gordon and Evans. Among those players, Davis and Asik are the only two that can be considered plus defensive players, with the remaining three all being offensively-inclined. According to , when that lineup was together last season (171 minutes), the Pelicans were +12.4 points per 100 possessions. Their most common lineup last season (346 minutes) was when Evans shifted to the point and Quincy Pondexter, a player less ball-dominant than Holiday, moved into the lineup. That group together was +6.0 per 100 possessions. Clearly, something was going right and Asik was involved.

More importantly, with Davis as the most important player, the Pelicans would be best served not trotting out lineups for most of the game with him defending the best opposing post player putting him in danger of foul trouble. As simplistic as it sounds, Asik has six fouls for a reason. He’s not going to be chasing guys outside the three-point line, but if he is able to provide some man-to-man defense in the trenches while allowing Davis to lurk on the weak side and conserve some energy for offense, the Pelicans will be in a good spot. New Orleans certainly doesn’t want to overpay for Asik, but given the unique skills he provides, setting aside the fact they gave up a first-round pick to get him, bringing Asik back and playing him 20-30 minutes per game depending on matchup would be in the Pelicans’ best interest.

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4. What’s Going To Happen With The Small Forward Position?

As we sit here today, the Pelicans have about $56 million tied up in six players – Davis, Holiday, Gordon, Pondexter, Evans and Anderson. All of these players, if retained and not dealt, will constitute a good portion of the rotation for next year, leaving only about $11 million in cap room to fill the other six roster spots.

Holiday, Gordon and Davis’s spots in the lineup are pretty well solidified. The Pelicans are in a weird spot with Evans – he played well in Holiday’s absence last year, but is not as good a fit running a team as Holiday. He would be best suited coming off the bench in a role “as needed”, but his $11 million per year salary makes it hard to justify that. The Pelicans began last season with Evans as the small forward and played well given the plus-minus numbers (see above section), but his defense will have to significantly improve.

Quincy Pondexter was a nice fit after coming over from Memphis averaging 9 points per game, shooting 43% from 3-point range, playing good defense and providing leadership and experience from playing with a successful team like the Grizzlies to a young team finding its way. Because Pondexter doesn’t need the ball to be effective, he would be the ideal alternative, but there may be other options, despite the team’s financial constraints.

There exists a scenario where the Pelicans re-sign their own free agents including Omer Asik, Norris Cole, Dante Cunningham and Alexis Ajinca, and are actually in a better situation, roster-wise and money-wise, than if they operated under the cap. This from Scott Kushner, writing for The Advocate:

Conversely, if the Pelicans wish to re-sign their own free agents, they can go over the salary cap to bring back most of them. Doing so would give them a couple other salary cap exceptions: the $5.5 million mid-level exception and the $2.1 million biannual exception — to use as well.

In this case, an ideal scenario for the Pelicans would be bringing back their free agents, going over the cap, using one of the exceptions to bring in a veteran like Green or Brewer, and rolling out a lineup next year of Holiday/Gordon/Green or Brewer/Davis/Asik with Evans, Pondexter, Anderson, Cole, Cunningham, Ajinca and most likely another big man off the bench. Of course, cap room can be cleared by trade as well, but most of the team’s current big money contracts (namely Evans and Gordon) are unappealing to other teams since, although they provide some value, their current worth is not what they’re getting paid. Although hiven the future ballooning salary-cap, never say never.

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The Pelicans can probably get by with their in-house options, and perhaps the best of those is Pondexter. Evans can attack the rim and serve as another ball-handler, but he’ll never shoot the ball from the outside or defend well. Given his performance down the stretch and in the postseason, Pondexter deserves a chance to become the next DeMarre Carroll – a role player inserted into a starting lineup to provide shooting and defense while not needing the ball.

5. With Financial Constraints And No Draft Pick, How Far Can The Pelicans Move Up In The Western Conference?

I’ve already touched on the two things holding the Pelicans back from getting better externally – financials and lack of a draft pick. There is however plenty of scope for internal development.

The new up-tempo style will certainly benefit many of their current players. Davis will do Davis things more often now, Holiday and Evans will shine more in the open court, Gordon and Anderson will knock down open shots if healthy, and Pondexter and Asik (if brought back) will infuse some defense into a lineup lacking a lot of it. The only one of their top seven over the age of 27 will be Asik (29) leaving plenty of room for internal development. The Pelicans, if playing in the Eastern Conference, would be looking at a potential top three seed, with only the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and potentially the Milwaukee Bucks giving them push back. In the Western Conference though, it’s a different story.

The Warriors aren’t going anywhere as long as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and that group are together. I don’t see the Clippers falling back if DeAndre Jordan is retained and Doc Rivers can light a fire under Lance Stephenson. Tim Duncan and his Spurs have been called “old” for the last five years and yet they won a title in that time span. Writing them off seems to be an unwise decision, especially given their favorable cap situation. Memphis will be right there again if Marc Gasol is back in “The Grindhouse”, which seems more likely than not, and the Rockets are poised to make more improvements after their run to the Western Conference Finals. That leaves the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers as the most likely teams the Pelicans will be able to hop.

LaMarcus Aldridge, despite being able to sign the biggest possible contract with Portland, doesn’t seem long for the Blazers. Nor might be Wesley Matthews, who is pursuing a large deal despite tearing his Achilles tendon near the end of last season. Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum are good players, but those would be tough losses to overcome. The Mavericks meanwhile are still operating as if Dirk Nowitzki is in his prime and have yet to develop any in-house talent, instead relying on the free agent market to fuel their improvements. They will have cap room to go spending with this offseason, but that doesn’t mean someone will take it or that they can fill all of their holes. Like the Blazers, the Mavericks will have multiple key players test free agency in Tyson Chandler and Monta Ellis, as he appears ready to opt out of his player option.

Behind the Pelicans, the Oklahoma City Thunder, even with the transition to new head coach Billy Donovan, will be in the playoffs next year if Kevin Durant is healthy. The Phoenix Suns have too many moving parts at this point to speculate whether they will go up or down, and although certain teams at the bottom of the West such as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz are probably not at the point yet where the playoffs have become a realistic possibility, they are also armed with a wealth of young talent, and both might be closer than most may think.

Given what we know now, it’s hard to see the Pelicans missing the playoffs completely. But it’s also hard to see them moving too far up in the West, purely on account of the strength of the West. There are still internal issues like mismatching roster pieces and a lack of perimeter defense that will need to be addressed. The Western Conference is going to continue to be a grind each night even with players moving teams this summer. Only a few teams in front of the Pelicans this past season seem primed for a regression – Portland, Dallas, maybe Memphis and San Antonio – with one super power ready to re-emerge in Oklahoma City. Getting to the fourth seed seems like the absolute peak for next season, with the seventh seed being the low water mark.

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Jeff Feyerer

Jeff is a former basketball coach, sports marketing professional and writer, currently working as school financial administrator in Chicago. In addition to work for BBALLBREAKDOWN, he writes for Nylon Calculus, plays with spreadsheets, tries to defend college basketball and looks forward to the Fred Hoiberg era. Follow his musings on Twitter at @jfey5.

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