Can New Orleans Defeat Space with Pace?

The Pelicans aren't going to shoot the lights out, but they might be the most high-motor team in the league.

Let's take a trip to the dawn of the 2018 playoffs. Back when the summertime NBA drought wasn't draining the souls of hoop heads, and when the third seed Portland Trail Blazers stood as heavy favorites to help the sixth seed New Orleans Pelicans pack for an early vacation.

The Pelicans had used a concoction of 3-point shooting and fast-paced rim-torpedoing to spur their regular season playoff push, even without Anthony Davis' partner in crime DeMarcus Cousins. They kept that regime going steadily into that playoff series against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and the Blazers - nailing 40 percent of their long-range attempts, playing at the third fastest pace for any playoff quarterfinalist.

The result was a four-game demolition job on the city of Portland.

Eventually, they fell in the second round to the pace-and-space lords we know as Golden State. Then, those same Warriors snatched Boogie Cousins out of the Pelicans' future plans. However, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps cooked up some summer treats of his own of his own, managing to wrangle former Los Angeles Lakers big man Julius Randle and bringing in Elfrid Payton to replace the outgoing Rajon Rondo.

After a breakout season in 2017-18, Randle garnered a 2-year, $18 million deal with a player option for the second year. Payton, who was a lottery pick back in 2014, agreed to a 1-year, $2.7 million contract, leaving Phoenix after his mid-season trade was a relatively poor fit for both sides. On the surface, these signings present solid low-risk, high-reward opportunities - which is correct - but they also offer up a chink in New Orleans' playoff-proven armor. Both Randle and Payton fail to provide the 3-point shooting aspect of the pace-and-space methodology.

After being selected 7th overall by the Lakers in the 2014 draft, the 6-foot-9 Randle used his fourth NBA campaign to vault himself into one of the most unique young prospects in the league, however, he has hit a poultry 37 total triples at 25.7 percent in that four-year span. Payton is more shot-happy (1.2 attempts per game) but has still only connected on 29.8 percent of his career 3-point tries. A steep fall from Cousins (34.9 percent over the past three seasons) and even Rajon Rondo (35.8 percent over the past three seasons) who Payton's game resembles in many other ways.

With two ineffective shooters occupying starting positions, the floor shrinks dramatically around megastar Anthony Davis, who ideally would have as much room as possible to incinerate defenders. Jrue Holiday was a borderline All-Star last season - on both ends - but even he hasn't hit over 36 percent of his long-range bombs since the 2014-15 season. That leaves E'Twaun Moore and Darius Miller as the only two players who have proven they can surpass that 40 percent benchmark that propelled New Orleans into the second round of the 2017 playoffs.

When the 2018-19 season rolls around, don't be surprised if the Pelicans fizzle from behind the arc, although their new signings don't just put a negative spin on head coach Alvin Gentry's gameplan, they add an exciting wrinkle, too.

When taking questions at the recent Las Vegas Summer League Gentry outlined how, despite his dearth of shooting, Julius Randle can immediately make a splash in The Big Easy.

"The pace is not going to be a problem ... Obviously Luke [Walton] is from the same school as I am from a pace standpoint, with the Golden State situation. We will give him an opportunity to play in the open court, and I think that was just the thing that was most attractive to him." he said.

Along with Payton, the former Laker will be joining Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis, who already form a fearsome duo in transition and in early shot clock pick-and-roll action. Davis, one of the few two-way monsters in the league, shot 65.9 percent (1.25 points per possession) on transition opportunities and 53.7 percent (1.11 PPP) as the pick-and-roll screener - well above league average on both accounts.

The tree trunks he calls his arms and the breathtaking athleticism he possesses make Davis the perfect pick-and-roll partner for Holiday, who finishes contorting and sliding to the rim with a sneaky-good floater game and an elite lob-throwing ability. After an injury-ridden start to his Pelicans career, the 28-year-old guard has grown into the perfect yin to Davis' yang.

A trade deadline move for former Chicago Bull Nikola Mirotic added the perfect injection of frontcourt shooting sans DeMarcus Cousins. According to Basketball-Reference, the Montenegro born forward averaged 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting a below-expected 33.5 percent from long-range in the regular season. Then the law of averages rolled around, and he exploded in the playoffs - putting up 15 points, 9.6 rebounds, nailing a blistering 43.1 percent of his 5.7 deep tries per game. The problem is he can't fill the void New Orleans have on the wing. According to Basketball-Reference, Mirotic played strictly power forward and center in his 30 games for the Pelicans.

Now Randle and Payton are sprinkled into the dish, and both of them can instantly add some torque to this high-powered offense. Out of the 13 players who have recorded over six assists per game and 8000 total minutes since 2014-15, only Chris Paul and new teammate Jrue Holiday have recorded fewer turnovers (726) than the 6-foot-4 Payton. Despite his shooting woes, the 24-year-old's eyes-up mentality will shine with the run-and-gun Pels. He also finishes at a respectable rate around the rim - 59.3 percent from 0-3 feet throughout his career - making him a viable partner for Anthony Davis in his favored pick-and-roll game.

"I think that's when he's best at: in an open-court offense where he can create. He's very good at getting the ball to the basket." Gentry said.

On the other hand, Randle won't bamboozle defenses with his transition dime-dropping, instead he damages the opposition in a fleet-footed, soft-finishing, wrecking ball manner. At 6-foot-9 and 250 lbs, the 24-year-old gallops the floor like a prize-winning stallion, going coast-to-coast at a rate few big men can rival. He finishes well too, hitting 62.7 percent of his transition baskets.

Like his new frontcourt running mate Anthony Davis, Randle's athleticism and big body are befitting of the quintessential pick-and-roll partner for Payton and Holiday. New Orleans' new core might not move the needle from beyond the arc, but their mismatched talents seem to align into a fast-paced running machine.

The idea of pushing the pace, getting easy buckets and finding your snipers from deep has swept the NBA seemingly overnight. New Orleans can't keep up with the 3-point-jacking Rockets and Warriors of the world, that's just a fact - they might just run them off their feet though.

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