That's Pretty Interesting: Even without Zion Williamson, the Pelicans' deep depth makes things difficult
Also: Can the Rockets be as fast as they want to be and fix their defense?
NEW YORK -- Everybody praised the New Orleans Pelicans in the summer. They wrung everything they could out of the desperate Los Angeles Lakers, got creative on draft night and added proven veterans in free agency. VP David Griffin meant business, telling Jake Fischer, then of Sports Illustrated, that if the playoffs are within reach at the trade deadline, they could be buyers.
"People are gonna be like, 'What the f--- are they doing?'" Griffin told Fischer. "We're trying to win basketball games!"
The Pelicans may be trying, but two weeks in they have only won a single basketball game. Their 135-125 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday was their sixth, and they have the second-worst defense in the league.
This does not, however, mean that everybody was wrong and New Orleans actually had a bad offseason. I urge you to consider that it might have been too good.
Taken individually, every single one of Griffin's transactions still looks sensible. But was it really necessary to make so many sensible moves?
"Look at E'Twaun Moore," Pelicans guard Josh Hart said. Moore is in his ninth season in the league, his fourth with the Pelicans. He averaged 27.6 minutes last season and 31.5 the season before. After playing 12 minutes in the season opener, he got five straight DNP-CDs. In Brooklyn he sat for the entire first half and then he appeared out of nowhere. New Orleans made a run with Moore on the court, so he wound up closing the game.
"He gave us great energy," Hart said. "He's just a true professional. That's how we gotta be. If it's not our night, we gotta realize it's not our night, we gotta cheer our teammates on. And when our name is called, we gotta take advantage of our opportunity."
Forward Nicolo Melli had played in New Orleans' first six games, but didn't get in against the Nets. Center Derrick Favors returned from a knee injury for an eight-minute stint in the first half, but that was it. I wondered if the veteran's knee might have been too sore to come back in, but he said that was not the case.
"They just didn't put me back in," Favors said.
Before the season started, before Zion Wlliamson's knee surgery, even before Zion wrecked everything in his sight in the preseason, the Pelicans could feel it. There are teams that have a couple of starting-caliber players coming off the bench, and there are teams that can go 10 or 11 deep when necessary, but New Orleans is different. There are logjams everywhere. Anyone could see that managing minutes would be tricky.
"We knew that coming in because we see in training camp, we see in the offseason just when we played pickup, how good everyone is," Hart said. Ever the optimist, Hart called the competitiveness in the scrimmages "encouraging," acknowledging that fighting for minutes is "always hard" but insisting that it is part of the job.
"I knew it was going to be a challenge for everybody," Favors said. "For the players, for the coaches, for everybody. 'Cause we have so many players, and, especially a young team, with high expectations."
Williamson has yet to make his debut, Favors has missed three games and Jrue Holiday has sat out twice, but that hasn't simplified the situation all that much. In an overtime loss in Toronto on opening night, 12 Pelicans logged at least 12 minutes, while the Raptors were at the other end of the spectrum, using only eight players. In four or New Orleans' six games since, coach Alvin Gentry has used an 11-man rotation.
Gentry does not plan on keeping this up forever. He's not sure, however, exactly when it will change, saying only that the staff is "closing in on that situation right now" and "you can't play eight perimeter guys." Depending on how loosely you define "perimeter guys," he played as many as nine at Barclays Center: Holiday, Hart, Moore, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Frank Jackson, JJ Redick, Kenrich Williams and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
"It's been tough just finding rotations because we've got so many guys and they're very similar and most of 'em have played well when they've had the opportunity to play," Gentry said.
According to Favors, the message from Gentry to the team has been the same from the start: The coaching staff is trying out different combinations, and players need to be supportive when they're on the bench. Hart said that, particularly on this team, if you aren't getting the minutes you expect, "it might not be your fault."
Griffin wants Gentry to coach fearlessly. Against Denver last week, that meant playing Redick only 17 minutes. In recent years, that kind of number have only appeared next to Redick's name in massive blowouts.
"It can be hard sometimes because you have guys that probably should play 30 [minutes] playing 20," Favors said.
Depth provides a cushion when injuries inevitably hit, and it allows for different looks and matchup-specific adjustments. There is value, however, in the clarity that comes with defining roles. Players tend to prefer consistency, and coaches can only devote so much energy to dealing with problems stemming from the scarcity of minutes and touches. Establishing a new identity is challenging enough without all this, and all the offseason additions -- i. e. most of the Pelicans roster -- are trying to get the lay of the land as they figure out where they fit in.
"It's obviously a challenge, especially during the first part of the year," Favors said. "It always takes like a month or two before you actually get comfortable and get used to the plays, get used to the terminology, get used to the teammates, the coaching staff, the system."
While New Orleans has exceeded expectations on offense without Williamson -- if there is still a Zion-size hole in the system, Ingram has at least papered over some of it -- I'm not sure its dreadful defense can be separated from its general unfamiliarity. That unfamiliarity surely can't be separated from its fluid rotation.
Hart said the Pelicans would "rather have a deep team than a team where we gotta play only six guys and we're sitting there, we're dead and we need subs and the subs aren't there," which seems like a helpful way to look at it if you're in the middle of it. New Orleans never had to choose between extremes, though. From a more detached standpoint, the Pelicans' depth is a weird, somewhat enviable problem, but a problem nonetheless.
Before the wildest game of the season, the Houston Rockets' 159-158 victory in Washington, coach Mike D'Antoni said that, if his team is going to contend for a title, everything has to start on the defensive end. A day later at practice, a reporter repeated this to him. D'Antoni laughed and interrupted: "How we doing?"
Good-humored as usual, D'Antoni said that the Rockets were "still not connected as a team," but vowed that they would improve. If he thought that this was dire, he hid it well.
Before Houston's 123-116 loss in Brooklyn, D'Antoni took questions for about 10 minutes. None of them were about defense. Since then, its inability to get stops has become a massive story. Guard Austin Rivers said that the Rockets "aren't playing any defense" and opponents are "getting whatever they want," and this was two days before they gave up 46 points in the first quarter in Miami, a game they would lose by 29 after trailing by as many as 41.
Houston's 107-100 win in Memphis on Monday was the first time this season that it held an opponent to fewer than 107 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. (For reference, the young Grizzlies have allowed 106.9 points per 100 possessions this season, which ranks 16th in the league.) Only the Pelicans and the Warriors have been worse defensively.
One theory: This is directly related to the Rockets' supercharged pace.
Part of the rationale for replacing Chris Paul with Russell Westbrook was that Houston would play faster and get more easy points in transition. Westbrook indeed has them zooming around: the Rockets have jumped from 27th in pace to second, and that doesn't even quite capture it. From The Ringer's Zach Kram:
"The Rockets lead the league in shortest possession time after a made basket, at 14.3 seconds on average; no other team in Inpredictable's database, which dates back to the 1996-97 season, has gone below 15 seconds in this stat."
Playing this way is demanding, especially for a relatively old team that went to Japan in the preseason. What if the Rockets simply don't have the energy to run like crazy and play championship-level -- or even, like, non-terrible -- defense? D'Antoni said in Brooklyn that they'll do better when they "get our legs," but I worry that, rather than getting up to speed, they might just be tiring themselves out. Even if they manage to get their act together, they will need to sustain it for the rest of the season and, potentially, a long playoff run. Not easy.
Westbrook's on/off numbers, by the way, are worse than Carmelo Anthony's were in his brief Rockets tenure. Hope that's a small-sample-size thing.
Good rim protection, Luke Kornet
I still think there's a good team in there somewhere if Chicago can stop with the meltdowns.
Good interruption, Josh Richardson
I love everything about this.
10 more stray thoughts: Was the subtext of the first part of this column that I just want to see Nickeil Alexander-Walker play more? Maybe! … Per-minute, Aron Baynes is fourth among centers in assists … I trolled Dwight Howard when he joined the Lakers, and I can't believe how dumb he is making me look … Lauri Markkanen's 35-point, 17-rebound season debut feels like a million years ago … Orlando shoots worse than any other team in the league at the rim and from 3-point range, per CTG … Joe Harris is going to get paid … Do people still think Malcolm Brogdon was overpaid? … I wonder how different last season would have been if the Celtics had this version of Gordon Hayward … Julius Randle has 32 assists and 29 turnovers and is 1-for-18 on 3s … Isaiah Thomas!
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