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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Injuries a big setback for Pelicans


By on 7/10/2014 10:30:00 AM

The New Orleans Pelicans had an underwhelming year this past season, finishing with a record of 34-48. The narrative for the season was that it was one plagued by injury. Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson sat out almost all of 2014 because of their injuries. Eric Gordon played just 68 games, his best total in a while. Anthony Davis was also semi-downtrodden by injuries.

Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Even though their key players were rarely all healthy at the same time, there were bright spots from last season. The young all-star big man Anthony Davis, obviously, point guard Jrue Holiday when he was healthy, ditto for forward Ryan Anderson. They also enjoyed a ridiculous stretch by shooting guard Tyreke Evans during March and April. When more and more of his teammates suffered injuries, Evans was given more and more minutes, and in turn, more shots. Increased responsibility turned out to be a revelation for Evans. During March, he averaged around 36 minutes and 15 shot attempts per game. As a result, he averaged over 20 points on over 50% shooting.

Despite his performance at the end of last season, the general public is split on Evans. He brings some very rare qualities to the table, but also takes a good amount off of it. He is one of the best at getting to the rim, is a freight train in transition, and is a decent passer, but he has no semblance of a consistent jump shot, makes questionable decisions sometimes, and needs the ball to be effective.

Good or bad, they owe him around $11 million every year for the next three years, and he was crucial to whatever success they had last season. When they won he averaged 5.5 free throw attempts per game, and when they lost he only averaged 3.4. In other words, they need him attacking the basket. The Pelicans really don’t have much of a choice but to build around Evans by bolstering his strengths and compensating for his weaknesses. They have been able to do this by surrounding him players who can get out in transition with him – Davis was able to put back most of his errant layups during fast breaks – and players who can shoot threes.

Anderson’s shooting ability was immensely valuable for the team last season. Having a power forward who can shoot the ball gave Evans much more space to try and get to the rim. Unfortunately, Anderson missed 60 games last season, and so Tyreke did not have the luxury of playing alongside a three point shooting big man for most of the time. We did not get to see Anderson alongside the Tyreke Evans that thrived offensively later in the season. Excluding March and April, Evans shot 44.5% from the field with Anderson healthy, and 35.4% while Anderson was injured. Evans just isn’t as good when there are two New Orleans bigs parked near the hoop. Anderson and Evans led all two man units on the Pelicans in point differential with a convincing +5.9 per basketball-reference.com. It’s exciting to think what they could do alongside each other now that Tyreke has found his stride in New Orleans.

During Tyreke’s amazing late-season stretch, sharpshooter Luke Babbit sometimes played power forward. This really helped Tyreke since it gave him more space to penetrate, but Babbit struggled in trying to guard opposing power forwards. While Anderson is an upgrade over Babbit, he is no stud on defense either. Playing him at power forward is an inherent defensive liability. They will be able to mitigate his defensive issues by playing him anywhere between 20 and 30 minutes, and by giving him several looks while he’s on the court. They have filled a void at center with Omer Asik this offseason, and will not need Anderson to play more than 30 minutes a game.

It will also be interesting to see if Jrue Holiday and Tyreke will play well alongside each other. By the time that Tyreke starting playing well, Holiday was out after a season ending leg surgery. He is questionable to return at the start of next season. Holiday and Evans were the second best two man lineup by a landslide in terms of point differential with an astounding +5.8, close to the total amassed by Anderson and Evans. It remains to be seen if Tyreke can be as dominant with Holiday also assuming some ballhandling duties. But if he can, they would be one of the most potent backcourts in the league, not to mention the fact that Gordon is also on the team.

That last part is not necessarily as good as it sounds. Gordon makes around 15 million for the next two seasons, and his PER was under 15 last season, not a good sign. Based on last season, Evans is a better option at shooting guard, and playing Evans at the small forward is a defensive liability, meaning that there really isn’t much room for Gordon in the starting lineup.

Al-Farouq Aminu was their starting small forward for the majority of the season. Aminu is a very good defender, good athlete, and an underrated passer, but he can’t really shoot. Playing alongside Aminu was generally a bad thing for Tyreke, as defenders had the luxury of sagging off Aminu, who has never shot above 30% from behind the arc for a full season. It definitely complicates things for Tyreke when long armed defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Nic Batum can sag off of Aminu to pester him. As a result, New Orleans could use an upgrade at small forward.

Not many enticing and affordable options are out there at the small forward position for the Pelicans. The hottest small forward names this free agency outside of Melo and LeBron are Luol Deng and Gordon Hayward. Both are out of New Orleans’ price range. Trevor Ariza would also be a good fit, but the Pelicans will not be able to match whatever Washington throws at him. After that, New Orleans is choosing between the likes of Caron Butler and Cartier Martin. It is possible that they might try to flip Gordon for a decent small forward, but it is debatable whether they’ll find someone who wants to take on Gordon’s salary. Trust me, I’ve spent many hours on the ESPN Trade Machine trying to figure out something reasonable. I can’t find a good trade unless I include Anderson, something the Pelicans do not want to do.

If the Pelicans can find an answer at small forward, and Tyreke can continue his dominance when Anderson and Holiday recover from injury, things are looking up for them next year. This team plays a brutal schedule. It is in the same division as the Texas teams and the Grizzlies. However, New Orleans has a very young core, and the best player under 23 in Davis. If this team can just stay healthy, they could be more dangerous than most people realize.

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