If you've been following any media around the Pelicans, you would see that a majority of people seem to think the Pelicans are at best an 8 seed in this tough Western conference. Many people have been saying the Pelicans may struggle to reach .500, citing reasons such as injury concerns as well as 'the fact that two big men can't play with each other'. But these reasons are bologna. The Pelicans are setting up for one of the best years in franchise history, and many people will be surprised by that for quite a few reasons that they don't see right in front of their eyes.
Defense, Defense, Defense.
Defense wins championships. That was preached especially hard last season when people started voicing (correct) concerns about the Cavs lack of defense leading up to the Finals. So why has the great Pelicans defense been ignored?
The Pelicans last season finished 9th in defensive rating at 104.9. Top 10 is good, but that doesn't really describe their defense to the fullest. They were 8th in November with a half healthy team, but when Jrue Holiday came back on November 18 their defense jumped to 4th for the rest of the month with a defensive rating of 98.5. They fell to 15th (106.3) in December when Alvin Gentry changed up the gameplan to focus more on offense, causing the defense to suffer. In January the team started to develop inconsistencies, having the 2nd best defense (98.6) through the first half of the month, then sitting at 20th (109.1) for the second half. They struggled the rest of the way until the All-Star break at 14th (106.4), but then everything changed when they traded for Boogie.
They finally found the consistency they had lacked before, holding on to 4th place until the Pelicans fell out of the playoff race and started resting players. This great defense is because the Pels have so many great defensive pieces and one of the best young coaches in the NBA sitting on their sideline in Darren Erman.
For the past few years in the NBA, we've seen a rise in wing players who are bad offensively but outstanding defensively, and the Pelicans now have two of those guys.
The first of those two is OG bad offense-great defense guy, the Grindfather, Tony Allen. While past his prime he was still All-Defense Second Team last season for the short-handed Grizz - where he was forced to play nearly 30 minutes per game at 35 years old. It's funny that throughout last season Tony Allen was praised for still being a defensive stalwart, but now that he is with the Pelicans people have started to call him old, washed up, and no longer any good.
The other is Solomon Hill. People may not realize this, but Solomon Hill was absolutely amazing defensively last season. He was a true superstar stopper. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and even LeBron struggled at times against Solo, though he struggled to keep up with them for the entire game (but who can guard any of those guys for 48 minutes?).
Then you've got the recognized great defenders on this team in Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis. Obviously, AD is a top 5 defender in the NBA. His rim protection, help defense, post defense, and perimeter defense are all reminiscent of a young Kevin Garnett, while his offensive game has potentially already surpassed him.
Jrue Holiday is really another story though. People recognize that Jrue is an elite defender, but they don't realize just how elite. At 6'4 Jrue is able to disrupt players with his long arms, and his basketball IQ is off the charts. His dad strength is able to keep even 7'3 big men from backing him down in the post and he always guards the other team's best guard. Jrue is also not a point guard anymore. He cannot run an NBA offense. He doesn't understand how to control the pace or when to get it to his guys to get them in a rhythm. He is a shooting guard who will play off-ball. But that's why the Pelicans signed Rondo, and also why they hired Chris Finch. Which leads me to my next point.
When people talk about great passing bigs in the league, they seem to leave Boogie out of the conversation. They talk about Jokic the most since he had an incredible stretch last year where he averaged 5.9 assists per game (over the last 41 games). But guess what? Boogie also had amazing stretches like that! And now he has the guy who ran his offense through Jokic!
Overall on the season, Boogie averaged 4.6 assists per game. Early in the season he wasn't really passing. The offense wasn't running through him, so he was taking the opportunities to score rather than get teammates involved. But around Christmas they changed up the offense and Boogie started to thrive. For his last 27 games in a Kings uniform, Demarcus averaged 6.4 assists per game, with an assist% of 36.8%. The Kings had a great offense as Boogie progressed as a passer, and that was overlooked. But his overall numbers dipped again at the end of the season because the Pels were still trying to figure out how to properly use him alongside Anthony Davis.
So they went out this offseason and signed the guy who perfectly utilized Jokic in Denver. Chris Finch is one of the best offensive assistants in all of basketball, and he joins the Pelicans' outstanding coaching staff alongside the best defensive assistant in Darren Erman. And if there is one thing that can be said about basketball, it is that coaching systems are of more importance than the players in those systems. Obviously to be a great team you need to have great players, but a team can be mediocre with bad players, as long as they have an outstanding system to control those players on the court. That is what the Pelicans are trying to build on here. They are building the base that would sustain the team without their stars and then placing their stars in that system with the hope that they thrive.
Obviously, you can't just give Boogie the ball on every single possession at the top of the key and run set plays around him. You've got to keep your superstar happy - got to get them their touches. That's where the challenge comes in here.
You can run Point Boogie for most of the game. When Boogie is on the court and AD is off it becomes super simple. You can always run it when they are on the court together at the beginning and ends of games. But what does the offense look like when it's just AD? He isn't the passer Boogie is. And we can't just keep running Gentry's lame old system because it doesn't work. That's where Chris Finch really looks to improve this team. He has to figure out how to not have the offense fall apart with Boogie on the bench and Rondo hurt.
I'm knocking on wood while writing this, but the Pels are finally, after so many years, going to have a relatively healthy team. They're missing an important piece in Solomon Hill, and Rondo is going to miss the first month or so. But as we've already established, he isn't necessary for this team to succeed. Rondo is more a piece for when Boogie goes to the bench and the offense needs to run through someone else. Solomon Hill is a bigger loss, but even he has a replacement in Tony Allen.
People love to look at AD and say "Oh he's so injury prone," but they don't realize the circumstances surrounding him. He's been a really young, super-duper star playing for a mediocre team, so of course, the franchise would want to protect him. Only once has he had a serious injury that held him out for an extended period of time, and that was a broken hand early in his career. Every other injury was him being forced to sit out by the front office. He played 75 games last season, and now that they are actually playing for something expect him to extend that even further.
The other huge 'injury prone' guy that everyone always talks about is obviously Jrue. He's missed 38% of his games since signing with the Pelicans, with another 25-30% of those played on a minutes restriction. But his first 2 years were missed with the same leg injury that he sustained while playing in Philly. He missed a month in 15-16 after sustaining a fractured orbital bone from a wild Porzingis elbow (freak injury), and a month in 16-17 because his wife had a brain tumor and a baby. For the first time in his career with the Pelicans, he has participated in a training camp with the team. He is finally being moved to the shooting guard position, and he will finally be able to play off of TWO elite bigs instead of just one.
This season is really set up to be a special one for New Orleans, but all the pessimism from the media has really put a damper on that. This Pels team has everything in place to succeed: A great defense to carry them when their offense fails, great offensive players to carry them when the going gets tough, and the potential to upset some of the best teams in the NBA this postseason. Heres to a great Pels season.