It's typically not possible to form any conclusions about an NBA team early in the year. The New Orleans Pelicans, however, are an exception. Because after just four games, it's obvious New Orleans is in for a roller coaster season.
The Pelicans sit at 2-2 following a 100-91 win over the Charlotte Hornets on November 4th, and they've already experienced some very high highs and some very low lows. Let's take a look at the squad's start to the season and break down the good, the bad and the ugly from its early slate of games.
Four games in, and it's already clear that if the Pelicans even sniff the playoffs, Davis is going to get a lot of MVP attention. He's going to be ridiculous this season.
Davis is averaging a tidy 24 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks per game. He's turning the ball over at a miniscule rate, stonewalling players at the rim and racking up tons of deflections and steals to boot.
The funny thing is, Davis hasn't added anything noticeable to his tool belt. It just seems like he's jumped a level in every way. His face-up game is a bit more nuanced, his defensive positioning is a little sharper, etc. It's simple small stuff, but it's made a world of difference.
The best indicator of Davis' impact this season? When he's on the court, the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions, an elite mark. When he sits, they're being outscored by 27.7 points per 100 possessions. So...yeah.
New Orleans has been destroying teams on the offensive glass.
As a group, the Pelicans are collecting about 31 percent of their misses, and it's done wonders for their offense. Despite some serious shooting woes (more on that later), New Orleans has managed to survive on the offensive end with second-chance points—it's averaging 18 per game, good for second in the league.
Davis has been especially dangerous in this regard. He has a knack for lurking around the basket and almost lulling his man to sleep before sliding into just the right spot for an easy layup or putback dunk.
Tyreke Evans' Offense
Evans has struggled shooting the ball to start the season, but overall, it's hard not to love what he's brought to the Pelicans. He's averaging 18 points and six assists per game and looks like the elite secondary ball-handler New Orleans needs.
Evans' time of possession is up significantly this season, and he's attacking the basket like no other player in the league. Over 60 percent of Evans' shots have come at the rim, and he's also averaging 12 drives per game. That ranks second in the NBA. The only other wing in the top 10 is LeBron James.
Evans hasn't done as much scoring as you'd hope on those drives, in part because he's shooting a fluky 40 percent at the basket. But he's generating a ton of assists when he gets into the paint, dumping the ball off to bigs for easy dunks or whipping it outside to shooters.
That passing has also been on display in the pick-and-roll. Defenders often lay off Evans when he comes off of screens, daring him to take a pull-up jumper. He's mostly resisted the urge to do that this season, opting instead for clean pocket passes or attempts to toss the ball over top of the defense.
It's early, and Evans definitely has to up his shooting. But he looks an awful lot like the player New Orleans was hoping for when it acquired him last year.
New Orleans has perhaps one legitimately good perimeter defender in Jrue Holiday, and it still boasts one of the best defenses in the league. That's tough to do, and it's a testament to the way that Davis and Omer Asik have locked down the paint.
The Pelicans have attacked the three-point line defensively this season, an aggressive strategy. It's worked wonders in limiting threes—opponents are attempting few shots from deep and connecting on just 28 percent of them—but it's allowed opposing ball-handlers to get to the rim unimpeded quite a bit.
New Orleans can afford that thanks to Asik and Davis. Opponents are shooting 59 percent at the rim against the Pelicans, a roughly league-average mark. That's impressive rim protection considering both how many shots the team allows at the basket and how leaky its perimeter defense is.
Ball-handlers want nothing to do with the long-armed, shot-blocking menace that is the Asik-Davis frontcourt, and a good chunk of the shots they take in the paint tend to look something like this:
Ideally, New Orleans' defense wouldn't give up quite so many looks at the rim, but it's hard to argue with the results it's generated so far.
For the Pelicans to even sniff the postseason, they'll need to be more than six or seven players deep. That hasn't been the case early on.
The one bright spot off the bench has been Austin Rivers. Rivers hasn't been fantastic, but he's been more than competent, flashing some improved playmaking and getting to the line at a terrific (though admittedly unsustainable) rate. Should Eric Gordon continue floundering, Rivers could end up pushing him out of the starting lineup.
Unfortunately, outside of Rivers and Ryan Anderson, New Orleans has gotten nothing from its bench. Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons and Luke Babbitt all entered the Pelicans' game against the Hornets with negative PERs, and Alexis Ajinca has been mostly invisible in his time on the floor.
The Pelicans have a talented core group of players, but that's not enough in the Western Conference. The bench needs to give them a lot more as the year goes on.
As was covered above, the Asik-Davis frontcourt pairing has been terrific defensively. It has some big kinks to work out on the offensive end though.
The Pelicans are scoring just 93.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis and Asik share the floor, a bottom-five rate. Despite its best efforts—including experimental lineups featuring Anderson at the 3—New Orleans just hasn't been able to generate any spacing with the two on the court together.
The Pelicans' poor three-point shooting is responsible for some of those issues, but just as problematic is the fact defenses don't respect either player outside of the paint. Davis' jumper is connecting more this season (small sample alert), but defenders are still more than happy to ignore him away from the basket.
The Asik-Davis lineups aren't going away any time soon, but it's going to take some tinkering to come up with sets that reduce the spacing issues they encounter. And even with that, they'll run into real trouble against the league's best defenses.
Shooting. In General.
The Pelicans are averaging an even 100 points per 100 possessions, 19th in the league. But considering the team's shooting numbers, it's hard to believe they're scoring at even that rate. It's that bad.
New Orleans has shot 41 percent from the floor, 26 percent from the three-point line and 69 percent on free throws. As a team, the Pelicans have an effective field-goal percentage of 44. They're missing from everywhere. They've shot just 24 percent on jumpers and, somehow, 33 percent on layups. Layups!
As hard as it has been to watch though, these numbers bode well for the Pelicans moving forward. No team can shoot like that over the course of a season, least of all one as talented as New Orleans.
Eventually, the team should regress to the mean, and when that happens the offense will really start ticking.
It doesn't get uglier than this.
Gordon is averaging six points per game on 30 percent true shooting. He's shooting nine percent from three and is turning it over on nearly 20 percent of the Pelicans' possessions. Now would be a good time to mention that he plays 33 minutes a game and is set to be paid around $30 million this season and next season.
Few players have been more damaging so far. Heading into the Charlotte game, Gordon had produced minus-.110 win shares per 48 minutes (the league average, it's worth noting, is .100). He's also racked up nearly as many combined fouls and turnovers (16) as total points (19).
And honestly, even those numbers don't get into how badly Gordon's play has hurt his teammates. His shooting is supposed to help space the floor for Davis, Evans and others, but thus far, just the opposite has happened. Opponents have been all too willing to abandon Gordon in favor of collapsing on ball-handlers, as Elfrid Payton does in the play below.
Gordon's bound to pick it up eventually. It's almost impossible for him not to improve on what he's doing. But if he doesn't get significantly better soon, there's no real reason for him to even be in the rotation.