The 2014-15 season has been anything but easy in the Big Easy.
Playing in the Southwest Division of this year’s NBA requires battling a steady diet of terrifying opponents stacked with probable All-Stars on a regular basis. In the Southwest, you play defense because everyone plays defense, you average 100 points a game, because every team in the division does the same. If you want to be competitive, you have to play well on both ends of the floor, but for the Pelicans, their efforts to simply keep up have them falling just short of a playoff berth.
As a unit, the Pels don’t necessarily tear up the stat sheet but for two categories; blocked shots and turnovers. The first can be attributed to the presence of Anthony Davis, a player who is a clear All-Star and the most efficient shot blocker in the league. The latter is a staple of a Monty Williams team. The team was sixth best in the league in turnovers per game last season, the same ranking they have now.
Look around the Pelicans lineup and you see talent, but little depth. The optimal starting five of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Davis and Omer Asik has not been available to Williams for most of the season as Gordon has been out with his annual injury issues. The result has been a carousel of names inhabiting the small forward position such as Evans and Luke Babbitt in the two losses that preceded Friday’s win over Memphis in which Williams inserted Dante Cunningham, signed as a free agent on Dec. 2, into the lineup.
Williams told the press before the game that the change and experimentation has come simply because he is “trying to find a rhythm,” now that Gordon has returned. The front office has stepped in and made a change to the roster, possibly trying to address some of its issues with the back court and the quality in the team’s depth.
In the deal that saw the Grizzlies acquire Jeff Green as an upgrade to Tayshaun Prince, thus bolstering their own scoring options, the Pelicans shipped out Austin Rivers and his dreadful shooting along with a 2014 second round selection, point guard Russ Smith, while acquiring a former New Orleans player in Quincy Pondexter.
The 6-foot-6 guard/forward is more of a bench option than anything else and could see minutes at both shooting guard and small forward. He fits the New Orleans mold as a defender and can hopefully help improve the team’s three point shooting, currently 21st in the NBA at 34%, an area Rivers was of little help.
But the deal did nothing to address the issue that is haunting the Pelicans more than any other, the key issue in why they are just 18-18 and currently 3.5 games behind Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West. That is, of course, what to do when Davis has to sit down and have some rest. The Pelicans bench is toward the bottom of the NBA in nearly every statistical category, from rebounds to blocks, steals to points and even minutes played.
The physical drain on the team’s starters is bound to catch up with them eventually. Aside from Ryan Anderson, the remainder of the lineup is a rough group of NBA journeyman and unproven players like Alexis Ajinca and Jimmer Fredette. If the Pelicans are going to make a serious push in the daunting Southwest, they’ll need more production from their second unit.
Unless the team makes another trade, the only solution is obvious. Either Gordon or Evans has to move to the bench and if Friday was any indication of what to expect when the team takes the floor on Monday against Boston, it’s likely going to be Evans playing that sixth man role. Perhaps rightfully so.
Let’s not forget that in 50 games off the bench last season for New Orleans, Evans averaged a reasonably impressive 14.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.2 steals. He’s the type of player that can back up Holiday, Gordon or whoever starts at small forward. He makes the team’s bench far more dynamic and allows a bit more synergy in the starting five.
The fact is, both he and Gordon need the ball in their hands to create things, and if both are in the starting five, it takes opportunities away from Davis and the team’s best passer in Holiday (7.3 assists per game). Gordon is a player the team has invested heavily in and when healthy as he is presently, he is a remarkably productive player. Since his return, Gordon has averaged 11 points, 4.0 assists and 2.6 rebounds while the team figures out to play with him again.
If the Pelicans played in the Southeast Division, they’d be in the playoff picture easily, but the fact is they play in the polar opposite and subtle adjustments have to be made if they’re to get over the hump so to speak.
Much of their fortune depends on Gordon’s health which is a tenuous situation at best, but if he is able to stay on the court, either he or Evans has to take charge of the second unit and it should be Evans. If the Pelicans are going to compete in the Southwest and overtake Phoenix for the franchise’s first playoff berth since the departure of Chris Paul, Gordon and Evans can’t share too much of the court and they need a better offensive output throughout the game, particularly without Davis on the floor.