The Pelicans need to run more plays for Jrue Holiday

The Pelicans are struggling at the game of basketball. That’s a nice way to put it.

Adding DeMarcus Cousins at the trade deadline was supposed to help New Orleans on the offensive end. Surprisingly, they’ve been stout on defense since the trade (sixth in defensive rating) and inept on offense (dead last in offensive rating).

Following the trade, the team preached patience, as integrating a player of Cousins’ caliber is no small task. Well, credit to them for possessing the foresight to get out ahead of this one, because it has not been pretty.

Superstar team-ups, granted, usually take time, to start clicking. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade’s Heat Team started 9-8 before winning 12 straight (and 21 of 22). LeBron’s second go with Cleveland started 5-7, then found themselves 19-20 in January., before reeling off 12 straight wins (maybe the Pelicans should send Anthony Davis to talk to Bron about this whole “12 straight wins amidst adversity” thing, seems like a nice skill to have).

Through seven games with Boogie, the Pelicans are 1-6. How much of it is chemistry, and how much of it is personnel*?

*Regarding personnel, a friendly reminder that the Pelicans were NOT good prior to acquiring Boogie, and shipped off three rotation players to snag him.

Well, the painstakingly obvious observation from Boogies tenure with the Pels is the team’s perimeter shooting. Meaning, there has been none. Since the trade, New Orleans is shooting 30.2% from beyond the arc, which is the second-worst percentage in the league. More telling, are the percentages on shots that are uncontested. See below:

Open FGA Open FG% Wide Open FGA Wide Open FG% Open 3PA Open 3P% Wide Open 3PA Wide Open 3P%
24.0(15th ) 34.4%(last) 18.8 (9th) 34.3%(last) 11.6 (10th) 25.8% (last) 11.9(8th) 30.5%(28th)

 *An "open shot is defined as a shot taken without a defender within 4-6 feet of the shooter. A "wide open" shot is a shot taken without a defender within 6+ feet.

The new-look Pels are generating slightly more uncontested threes than before getting Cousins, and are hovering around tenth in the NBA in the "uncontested looks" generated per game categories. Yet, they're hitting those looks at a horrid (probably unsustainable) rate. Players such as Solomon Hill and Jrue Holiday have seen significant drop-offs in their three-point percentage since the trade. Additionally, it doesn’t help that the team traded two of its most consistent sharp-shooters in Buddy Hield and Langston Galloway to get Cousins.

Role players such as Hill, Dante Cunningham, and E’twaun Moore (who has actually been the lone Pelican on fire from long range since the trade, yet only attempting 2.6 threes a game) will hopefully regress to the mean. But let’s focus on Holiday for a second.

Holiday is likely the Pelicans’ best shooter, ball handler, and perimeter defender. Moreover, he’s the only guard who can both attack the basket and pose a threat from the perimeter. On top of all this, he is charged with initiating the team’s offense.

This isn’t a great recipe when your team can’t shoot. There just hasn’t been much spacing for Holiday, Boogie, and Davis to operate since the trade. Watch here:

See how quickly the defense converges on that drive? Just an absolute swarm to the ball-handler and basket. That's what happens when your team isn't hitting open threes.

Often, Boogie camps out around the three-point line, providing spacing, although it’s unclear if this is a directive provided by the coaching staff or something that Boogie just wants to do. And to be fair, he is one of the teams’ best three-point shooters.

New Orleans’ offense continues to go through prolonged dry spells. Yeah, not hitting open shots doesn't help, but I think this is also due to the team's predictability. This team really does two things: 1) run pick and rolls (PnR), and 2) throw it to Davis or Cousins in the post (or just wherever they are on the court, and then they shoot it). Teams don’t respect anyone except Davis and Cousins, so they get doubled pretty instantly. As for Holiday, he lacks the explosiveness to create on his own—he needs a pick to help shed his defender. But opposing teams are willing to leave shooters open, and thus can focus on Holiday running the PnR with Davis or Cousins.

This has placed a lot of pressure on Jrue, and has contributed to his struggles. If you look at his game logs, you see a player who is unsure of his role. One night adopts the role of a gunner, one night he defers to his two all-star bigs and only takes nine shots. He’s just not comfortable, and that combined with opponents’ complete lack of respect for anyone outside of the “Big 3” have made it tough for him.

Opponent FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% REB AST STL BLK TO Plus/Minus
HOU 3 12 25% 0 6 0% 0 0   4 4 2 2 7 -31
DAL 5 17 29.40% 2 6 33.30% 6 6 100% 7 6 0 0 4 -4
OKC 3 9 33.30% 0 2 0.00% 0 0   3 8 1 1 5 -6
DET 10 18 55.60% 2 5 40.00% 0 0   4 5 1 0 5 25
SAS 12 27 44.40% 2 6 33.30% 0 0   7 5 1 0 4 -6
LAL 7 12 58.30% 1 3 33.30% 5 6 83.30% 5 12 3 0 3 23
UTA 1 9 11.10% 1 2 50.00% 1 2 50.00% 5 3 1 3 4 13
TOR 3 9 33.30% 1 4 24.00% 0 0   0 6 3 0 3 -12

Jrue’s unease has manifested in turnovers, much to Coach Alvin Gentry’s chagrin. Gentry benched Jrue for the end of the Jazz game on March 6th, apparently because the second unit was playing well. I don’t buy it. Jrue had some ugly turnovers, and I’d be willing to bet Gentry wanted to make a statement out of frustration. Given the Pels severe lack of depth, this is a decision that I can’t understand—but let’s refrain from getting too deep there.

The thing I don’t understand: if Holiday is struggling handling the ball and initiating the offense (you still need his scoring and playmaking because he is easily the team’s best perimeter scorer and one of their best shooters), then why are there never any plays run for him? Specifically, off-ball plays, with motion and teammates setting screens to get Jrue loose for an open shot. Most of his buckets come from the PnR or from him pulling up from deep. The PnR is obviously a great tool, especially with two dominant weapons like Davis and Cousins, but there is no diversity to the way the Pelicans utilize Jrue. This is perplexing, especially when the coaching staff appears to be frustrated with his ballhandling/playmaking yet still want him to score.

Out of Jrue's shots, only 8.2% are "catch and shoots"—or shots without a dribble. Of his threes, 72.1% come off the dribble. Part of this is probably because Holiday is just more comfortable off the dribble, as these frequencies are consistent with the rest of his career. But these percentages are lower than ultra-ball-dominant point guards such as Chris Paul and John Wall, and just barely higher than Russell Westbrook! This indicates that Jrue is having to create for himself far too often, and there is no reason Gentry can't institute sets to get his best perimeter scorer in some better positions.

And hey, the Pelicans may not have another playmaking wing, but they have two transcendent big men! One of which is an excellent passer.

Take the Grizzlies and Mike Conley for example. Conley shoots without a dribble 20% of the time, and on 40% of his threes. This is a great comparison, because Conley shoulders both heavy playmaking and scoring burdens, and plays with a great passing big man in Marc Gasol. Look at these actions Memphis has run for Conley, with Gasol possessing the ball:

 

 

These are looks drawn up to get Conley free. Even if he doesn't simply catch and shoot, he has the freedom to react to the defense, possibly driving and putting the opposing team in scramble mode.

Jrue has been struggling, that's clear. But it’s up to the coaches to make life easier on their players. If Jrue is having trouble getting to his spot, draw something up to get him to his spot. Having two big men who can consistently draw double teams and facilitate open threes is certainly a boon, but it isn't the only way to generate open looks. Mix it up a bit, and help out your third wheel.

*Stats accurate as of March 9, 2017 and provided by NBA.com


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