When DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles injury in late January, many believed that was the end of the New Orleans Pelicans season. Without him, the team essentially regressed to sporting the roster that they had before they acquired Cousins: a Jrue Holiday-Anthony Davis pick and roll duo surrounded by streaky shooters and veterans looking for a final chance in the league. On the podcast, I even suggested myself that it may be the end of basketball in New Orleans, as dwindling attendances combined with a patchy on-court product could see them as a prime franchise for relocation to St. Louis or Vancouver.
Since Cousins’s injury however, the Pelicans haven’t been a bad team, and have gone 14-9 thanks to some historically amazing play from Anthony Davis. However, the contribution of Jrue Holiday has largely gone unnoticed, and he has been a major part of their revival. This shouldn’t be much of a hot take, as any big man will need good guard play to put up historic numbers. But Jrue Holiday has allowed Alvin Gentry to fall back on what he knows and what he has done throughout his career, and that is implement a pace-offence.
Before diving into Jrue Holiday’s game and Alvin Gentry’s scheme, it must be noted that the Pelicans were still playing at a high pace even when DeMarcus Cousins was healthy, as they ranked 6th in pace with a rating of 101.48 in the 48 games they played before he went down injured. Many were surprised that a team with two ultra-talented seven footers capable of destroying anyone in the post or from the elbow were playing uptempo, but Alvin Gentry explained his reasoning in the preseason. He suggested that letting a small ball team set when you have a more old fashioned big man pairing was counterproductive, and that his team needed to push the pace in order to create quick mismatches. And, when you have two big men as talented as Cousins and Davis, mismatches grow on trees.
Since Cousins’s injury, the Pelicans haven’t even attempted to hide what they are trying to do, and they have ranked first in the league with a pace of 104.41. Not only is this comfortably the fastest pace in the NBA this year, but it is the fastest pace since ESPN started charting offensive pace in 2002. Plus, it is difficult to imagine any team in the 80s and 90s playing this quickly.
Now it must be said that pace isn’t everything, and the Pelicans have only ranked in 19th in offensive efficiency since the departure of DeMarcus Cousins, but this is something to be celebrated, not overlooked. Losing a top-20 player and a big man as skilled as Cousins really should force your offence to bottom out, but Alvin Gentry has accepted that his team has lost a lot of skill, and has therefore just tried to get it as many possessions as is humanly possible.
The major reason for this has been the improvement of Jrue Holiday, as his play has allowed Gentry to return to what he knows best. Holiday has averaged 20 points and seven assists per game on a 48/34/78 split. This doesn’t seem amazing on the surface, but when you consider the load on his shoulders, this is an incredibly impressive stat line. Holiday has led the team in plus minus since Cousins got injured, and while Davis is getting the plaudits, none of this would be possible without the point guard’s play.
It must be noted that Holiday is in no way a max contract level player. He is limited in many ways and the lack of an outside shot makes him an imperfect fit if the Pelicans keep Cousins and Davis long-term. But, a small market team like New Orleans simply does not have the luxury of choice, and the new NBA cap rules made his return inevitable.
Perhaps my favorite Jrue Holiday game in this run was the win over the Miami Heat on 24 February, as Holiday tore up a very difficult defence and hit the game winner over Josh Richardson, who is a dark horse Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Holiday played that game with real poise, and in an end-of-game situation, where players often resort to frantic basketball, he set up Anthony Davis for two easy buckets off a hand-off, and then a pick and roll situation, before elegantly scoring a floater to win the game. Holiday’s efficiency has meant that the Pelicans pace offence has not resulted in chaotic, anarchic offence. The structure is still there and Holiday is the major reason for it.
This raises a question about Alvin Gentry, and whether this is the brand of basketball that he wanted to play all along in New Orleans. It is no secret that the New Orleans Pelicans lack players who can win one-on-one, so playing at pace and forcing defences to collapse quickly, and hitting shooters in the corner, makes a great deal of sense at this point.
Alvin Gentry had to change his plan when the team miraculously acquired DeMarcus Cousins at the last trade deadline. And, essentially, his pace-and-space offence became a Plan B. Luckily for the New Orleans Pelicans, that Plan B is essentially the plan that Gentry spent years perfecting, and that is why the Pelicans have not skipped a beat without Cousins.
Credit also needs to go to General Manager Dell Demps, who has received a lot of criticism in recent years. He essentially had no choice when he maxed Jrue Holiday this summer, but he has looked to nearly every possible avenue to provide effective depth. Darius Miller came from the unheralded Euro League team Brose Bamberg, and he is 17th in the NBA in three-point percentage. Former draft disappointment Emeka Okafor has provided rim protection and simple offense, and he was taken from the D-League. In addition to these smart pickups, Demps has also opted to draft the likes of Cheick Diallo and Frank Jackson, who are poised to play roles down the stretch for the Pelicans.
Basketball in Louisiana has been on life support for some time now, but Dell Demps and Alvin Gentry keep on surprising people, and when you have a player as dominant as Anthony Davis, anything is possible.
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP