New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry should consider taking a page out of the San Antonio Spurs’ book by keeping an All-Star guard in an off-the-bench role.
After Tuesday’s toppling of the Atlanta Hawks, the Pelicans are 3-0 since Jrue Holiday’s return to the lineup. They’ve beaten three teams that made the playoffs last year in Charlotte, Portland, and Atlanta, and they could soon be swooping into the Western Conference playoff picture. Holiday has looked comfortable coming off the bench, turning in averages of 19.3 points (on 52.2 percent shooting), 6.7 assists to 2.3 turnovers, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 26.7 minutes per game. It’s not new for him, either. Last year, Jrue managed 17.0 points, 6.4 assists to 2.5 turnovers, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 28.8 minutes during 42 nights off the bench. More on Holiday in a bit.
A couple months ago, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks made a compelling case that the Pelicans are somewhat of a mirror image of the previous Hawks team featuring Al Horford, and I’ll be referencing some of his thoughts throughout this piece. Atlanta added coach Mike Budenholzer from San Antonio’s coaching tree, and at their best they’ve been referred to as the Spurs-East. Atlanta’s squads have been highly competitive and fun to watch over the last several seasons, but the Spurs are still the blueprint when it comes to beautiful ball movement, player development, teamwork, and unearthing gems that most people never knew existed.
The truth is that any franchise would be lucky to taste the levels of success that Atlanta has recently enjoyed. LeBron James’ dominance in the East over the last half-decade is akin to Michael Jordan’s dominance in the 90s, and very good teams like the defensive-minded Indiana Pacers and hot potato Atlanta Hawks will unfortunately be overshadowed and forgotten by many.
The first reason that the Spurs comparison feels appropriate is the contrast between Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis. The two have almost nothing in common – a one-and-done versus a four-year college player – arguably the best basketball player of all time versus an oft-injured young superstar still growing into his body – a back-to-the-basket, fundamentals genius versus a face you up and eat you freak of nature. The only things they share in common are that they’re both massive human beings who have displayed incredible skills on a basketball court (and their last names begin with the letter D). Still, as Tjarks mentions, Davis is a superhuman version of Al Horford, i.e. a potential generational talent like Duncan who could play his entire career for one club.
Holiday is the crafty star player who has always been willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. He’s a big guard with guile galore, much like Manu Ginobili, whose willingness to come off the bench allowed the Spurs to maintain a high level of play for 48 minutes. Most coaches (besides Doc Rivers) who have the means are doing their best to stagger their lineups these days. I’m willing to go out on a ledge and say that I think the Pelicans are better off when at least one of Holiday or Davis is on the floor.
By now, you’re saying to yourself, “yeah, but the Spurs had Tony Parker.” Well, sometimes you need soft eyes (and leniency) when making comparisons. Parker, listed generously at 6-2, was drafted no. 28 overall in 2001 at the ripe age of 19 years old. By 20, he was bursting onto the scene as a star guard with lightning quickness, but he still nearly slipped to the second round.
After being waived by Portland in February of last season, Tim Frazier signed a 10-day contract with the Pelicans, who were granted a hardship exception. The 26-year-old Frazier, also generously listed at 6-1, was a D-League standout last season. While he is certainly a late bloomer compared to Parker, Frazier appears to have made a home for himself in New Orleans, and he is thriving as the starting point guard. On Tuesday night, he posted a career-high 21 points to go along with 14 assists during the Pelicans’ drubbing of the Hawks. Last Friday, his feistiness was on full display against former teammates Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Frazier and Holiday have played well together, too. The Pelicans might finally have the dynamic backcourt they thought they were putting together when they brought in Tyreke Evans years ago to join Holiday and Eric Gordon.
The rest of the roster is flush with useful rotation players as well. Terrence Jones is a smooth lefty big man that bears some resemblance to a homeless man’s David Robinson with a three-point shot. Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, and E’Twaun Moore are all cut from similar 3-and-D cloths as Bruce Bowen and Danny Green, but with better ball handling. Omer Asik can be Rasho Nesterovic. Buddy Hield isn’t getting many minutes, and it’s unclear where he fits in on this team yet. He might be better off spending some time in the D-League, where he can get more reps and try to improve his defense. It’s far too early for any of this, but I am admittedly already wondering whether the Pelicans made a huge mistake in passing on D.J. Valentine. He could have been the George Hill-type for New Orleans that can plug in seamlessly at multiple positions, but Hield could still turn out like Kyle Korver as Tjarks suggests. The question is whether a weaker defender like Korver is going to be as effective as before. If Korver were a defender on the same level as J.J. Redick, imagine how much more valuable he’d be to the Hawks? Korver is certainly getting older, but he has been a revolving door on defense. Hield could merely be Gary Neal.
Again, I am not saying that Davis, Holiday, and Frazier are on the same level as Duncan, Ginboli, and Parker, three surefire first ballot Hall of Famers who changed the sport for the better, nor am I claiming that the Pelicans are suddenly destined to become immediate contenders. But if you’re willing to peak beneath the surface, the Pelicans are exhibiting signs that they could be better than the sum of their parts, and they could have the makings of something special both this year and beyond. A modern work of art rarely resembles past pieces, but sometimes it’s still clear that the new portrait was inspired by the old one. Will Jrue Holiday remain in a sixth man role going forward, and can that help spur New Orleans to new heights? For the Pels, only time will tell.