Saturday, January 2, 2016

Mavs vs. Pelicans

The Pelicans won the game against a Mavs team that was sleep-walking while playing the 2nd night of a back-to-back after being blown out by the Heat on New Year's Day in Miami. It wasn't all that interesting a game so what stood out to me was some of the rotations and coaching decisions that Alvin Gentry was making. New Orleans almost let Dallas win a game they had no business winning because they were leaving a lot of points on the board on Saturday.

The first issue was the starting line-up, which featured the comedy stylings of Norris Cole, Omer Asik and Alonzo Gee. Tyreke Evans was out and they wanted to keep Jrue Holiday in his customary role off the bench so starting Cole made sense but pairing Asik and Gee together is fairly mind-boggling.
  • Those might be the two worst offensive starters in the NBA. Asik has zero range, stone hands and no touch around the basket and he's not even a threat unless he's wide open in front of the rim. Gee is a perimeter player who doesn't like to shoot and he isn't all that good at dribbling or making plays on the move. You might get away with playing one defensive specialist in the modern NBA but you can't get away with playing two. The Pels are playing 3-on-5 whenever those two are on the floor and Cole is shooting 37% from the field and 22% from 3 on the season so really they were playing 2.5-on-5.
  • The numbers back it up. The Pels have a net rating of -14.3 in the 243 minutes that Asik and Gee have played together this season. Asik is a net negative with just about every player he plays with (which we will get back too later) but he's really bad with Gee.
  • It doesn't matter how many guys you add into the mix. 
    • Three-man units:
      • Asik, Gee and Evans (-7.8)
      • Asik, Gee and Gordon (-14.2)
      • Asik, Gee and Davis (-17.5)
      • Asik, Gee and Holiday (-29.5)
    • Of the 6 worst 4-man line-ups that Asik is in, five of them have Gee.
    • Of the 5 worst 5-man line-ups that Asik is in, four of them have Gee.
    • **All this line-up data was prior to the Mavs game.
  • I know the Pelicans haven't had a full roster all season and they have been forced into some unwieldy combinations of players but at some point a coaching staff has to acknowledge that something isn't working and try something different.
The next bizarre decision was bringing in Kendrick Perkins for Asik. My man Perk is many things but NBA rotation player is no longer one of them. He has only played 79 minutes this season and he somehow has a net rating of -29.9 - that takes real doing. He played 4 minutes against the Mavs in the 1Q and they were -4 in that span.

They had one sequence early in the 2Q where they had Asik, Gee and Toney Douglas in the game at the same time. It was only one minute and they were +2 in that span but it's the principle of the matter. The main thing that an NBA coach is responsible for is the distribution of minutes and the combinations of players that he puts on the floor and you cannot in good conscience play three minus offensive players at the same time.
  • To give you an idea of how bad Toney Douglas is, the Mavs were hiding Dirk on him on D.
The underlying problem for me is the decision to stick with Asik. He's starting and averaging 15 minutes a game and I'm not sure he should be playing at all. He played 20 minutes on Saturday and it did not seem like he made much (if any) of a positive impact on the game. He had 1 point (on 0 FGA's), 3 rebounds and 1 assist on 4 turnovers. In other words, he never touched the ball and in the rare times that he did bad things happened for the Pelicans. There was one sequence on the pick-and-roll when the guard found Asik rolling to the rim for the dunk and JJ Barea came over and stripped the ball out of his hands. You are going to need your big man to be a little stronger with the basketball than that.
  • I know the Pelicans gave him a $60 million contract in the off-season but there's no time for them to play politics right now. They are 10 games under .500 and they are in a fight for their lives. If they want to make the playoffs, they can't afford to not play their best line-ups, regardless of how it looks.
  • The numbers don't bare it out since Asik (-2.0) and Ajinca (-1.9) have identical net ratings but I'd still play Ajinca more. He can step out and hit a mid-range jumper and he can catch and finish around the rim, which are two things that Asik cannot do, and it's not like Asik is giving you that much more on the defensive end of the floor.
  • If you look at his per-36 minute numbers, Asik is posting career low numbers in every category - points (6.3), rebounds (10.2), assists (0.7), blocks (0.8) and FG% (51.2). 
    • There were a couple times where Zaza pushed him out of the way and grabbed a rebound on Saturday. There's just not much Asik is doing right at the moment.
I would start Davis and Anderson together and sprinkle in Ajinca and Dante Cunningham to provide a little defense and rebounding over the course of the game. I'd have Davis and Ajinca at the 5 and Anderson and Cunningham at the 4 and I'd want to always have either Davis or Anderson in the game. Maximize the PT of your best players and run pick-and-roll constantly with one of your two star big men. 

The shame of it all is this combination of players should be a pretty good team if healthy:

PG - Holiday, Cole
SG - Gordon
SF - Evans, Pondexter
PF - Anderson, Cunningham
C - Davis, Ajinca

They aren't beating any of the Top 3 teams out West but I'm not confident the Clippers or the Mavs are going to beat that 9-man unit if they are playing spread pick-and-roll constantly without any minus offensive players out there.

A few other observations from this one:
  • When Dirk has to go up against a front-line that can space the floor and have offense run through either the 4 or the 5 positions, the Mavs are in trouble. That's what happened with Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside in Miami and that's what happened with Davis and Anderson. 
  • The JJ Barea as a starter experiment has probably come to an end as his shooting has gone back to Earth and opposing teams are really starting to exploit him on D. The play of the game came when the Pels were up 2 with about 20 seconds left and Holiday was able to iso against Barea at the top of the key. You can probably guess what happened from there - a wide-open lay-up.
  • Parsons is in a mini-slump since coming into the starting line-up and I'm convinced that part of the problem is how much time he's spending with Barea. Barea might as well have magnets on his hands when it comes to the ball because he's going to end up dominating it no matter who he's playing with or what sets the team is running. 
    • The other half of it is that he needs to be playing with a C who can roll to the rim and be a threat in the two-man game and that isn't Zaza. It's hard to run pick-and-rolls with Zaza because he can't jump.
  • It has gotten to the point that whenever Charlie Villanueva is in the game the other team might want to think about abandoning their game-plan to just relentlessly attack him on defense, no matter who he is guarding or where he is on the floor. I made a comment in the press box that it would be a tough game for Charlie V tonight because he had to guard either Davis or Anderson and one of the geniuses I was sitting with made a crack that pretty much every night is a tough game for Charlie V when he has to guard NBA players.
  • I know the Pelicans are trying to push the pace but sometimes it seemed like they were taking bad shots early in the shot clock just to take them. I don't really need Norris Cole or Toney Douglas throwing up nonsense when I have Anthony Davis on my team. I'm all for getting easy baskets in transition but if you are winding up with a contested long 2 from a bad shooter maybe you are better off involving AD in something and getting a shot off that.
  • The amazing thing about the 31-point, 14-rebound night from AD was how effortless it looked. He's truly an exceptional player to watch - you just don't see that combination of length, athleticism and feel very often, if ever. What I'm waiting for now is his passing. There's no reason he shouldn't have the ball in his hands just about every time down the floor and there's no reason he shouldn't be racking up 3-4 assists a game considering how much defensive attention he draws. He's one of the best players in the NBA and he's barely scratched the surface of his game. 

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