The New Orleans Pelicans had their NBA Bar Mitzvah this week. For those unfamiliar with this practice, the Bar Mitzvah (Hebrew for "son of the law") is the ceremony that traditionally marks the passage from boyhood to manhood in Judaism. As this ceremony takes place at 13, the new "man" is not really a man, but the ceremony celebrates the beginning of this process, both in terms of understanding of the Torah and as a member of the community.
NBA boyhood is the rebuilding process. Such teams do not have much to celebrate on the court, particularly as the calendar turns to April. Instead, fans celebrate the strides made by young players, obsessively scout collegians in the months leading to the draft, and dream about free agent scenarios two and three years down the road. Like actual childhood, this time is crucial to the building of good habits (areté), or organizational culture and processes. There is also a distinct lack of responsibility during this time that evaporates once the young players begin to mature and the team begins to make "win now" moves at the expense of future potential.
That first "win now" move is the beginning of the process by which a team loses its status as also-ran, and begins the long, arduous process of building a team that can last until June, long after all the children have gone to bed and the play reaches almost unbelievable heights of intensity and skill. (It is in this context that the otherwise annoying "Spurs Dad" meme makes some sense.) As most of you have undoubtedly surmised by now, the Pelicans celebrated their Bar Mitzvah this week, acquiring Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson for Nerlens Noel and a top five protected 2014 first rounder.
Despite his highlights, I'm not sure this was the right move, as I'll demonstrate using the chart below:
Player A is Jrue Holiday (in 2013), who the Pelicans recently acquired. But who is Player B, who took almost as many shots at the same efficiency, but was a better rebounder, passer, and ballhawk? That would be the Wolves' own Ricky Rubio, from February 2nd through the end of the season. Holiday has the potential to improve. He was in an awful situation last year, is young and athletic, and the stats don't catch his value as a defender. If he translated a few of his mid range shots into threes, he would look a bit better here. Even so, I think I'd rather have Rubio, who is younger, and has better excuses for his less than stellar efficiencies. In order to get a player who grades, statistically, as slightly above average entering his fifth season, the Pelicans traded two (likely) lottery picks, including the consensus number one prospect in this year's draft. It's a bold move, but I don't think it will be a good one, despite Holiday's All-Star status.
With Holiday in the fold, and no impact youngsters on the way for a few seasons, it appears the Pelicans have a core to build around. The biggest piece of uncertainty around the team is now the status of Eric Gordon. Gordon has three years and 45 million left on his deal, and spent much of last year sitting out with undocumented injuries, and passive aggressively feuding with head coach Monty Williams through the media. Like Holiday, Gordon is perceived as extremely talented, but has not been that productive, with the exception of a couple months in 2011. In theory, Holiday and Gordon should compliment each other well, as prototypical point and shooting guards that can both hit threes. We'll see how it works in practice. There have been rumors that Gordon could be on the way to Phoenix once the one year "offer sheet trade" moratorium expires. If that happens, then New Orleans will have some interesting decisions to make with the resulting cap space or assets received from the Suns.
Inexcusably, I have gone over seven hundred words without mentioning Pelicans fans' biggest reason for optimism, Anthony Davis. The first overall pick in last year's draft was as good as could be expected from a skinny 19 year old still growing into his body, posting 17 points, 10 rebounds, and over 2 blocks per 36 minutes, while shooting almost 52% from the field and 75% from the line. His defense improved as the year went along, as was evidenced by his on/off numbers, which were putrid during the first few months,* to nearly even at the end of the year. Davis has shown incredible improvement each of the past three years, and if he continues to hone his skills at this rate, he will be a MVP candidate within four or five years, which can cover for a lot of front office mistakes.
*I can't document this, so you'll have to trust me.
The Pelicans actually have an interesting collection of bigs. Robin Lopez has sneakily improved to the point where he is now a league average center, Jason Smith is an ideal reserve 4/5 hybrid, and a better scorer than you think, and Ryan Anderson had another good, if less efficient, season after stealing Rashard Lewis' ability, Space Jam style. Anderson's season is a useful case in point for the limitations of advanced stats, as his WS/48 dropped from .219 to.125 despite being the same player. He didn't have a bad season. He was merely a little less efficient in a few areas on a poorly constructed team. I do feel it is worth mentioning that Lou Amundson somehow played in 18 games for this team. You may now snicker in disgust and shared pain.
If there was ever an argument to be made for the deceptiveness of counting statistics, it would surely include the following tidbit. Greivis Vasquez led the NBA in total assists last year. Now, kudos to Vasquez for turning himself into a serviceable NBA player. He is nowhere near the best passer in the league, merely one of the only players who could create shots in a point guard friendly offense. He remains an inefficient shooter, and more problematically, a horrible defender. You could do much worse for a 20 minute a game backup/spot starter, but if he's one of the focal points of your offense, it's not good. His backup was Brian Roberts, on a very team friendly contract next year, exhibit #859 that European basketball remains a good source of cheap, NBA caliber players, many of whom have NCAA experience.
The Pelicans had a coterie (flock?) of young players, ranging from passable (Lance Thomas) to less so (Darius Miller, Xavier Henry) to historically incompetent (Austin Rivers). The most interesting of the group is Al-Farouq Aminu, an unrestricted free agent this summer, who shot 64% at the rim and averaged over 10 rebounds per 36 minutes. He doesn't do much else on offense, but athletic 22 year old defensive minded wings don't grow on trees, so expect a savvy franchise to add him to their bench next month.
The Pelicans will have higher expectations going into 2014. They may not be expected to make the playoffs, but anything less than a noticeable improvement from last year will put pressure on the front office for the first time since Chris Paul forced his way out of town. Rightly or wrongly, the core of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Eric Gordon is envied by many around the league. Despite my pessimism, many analysts cited the Holiday trade as a win, and the team's next priority will be to find a small forward to replace Aminu in the chase for #8. They chose to forsake the boyhood dreams of glory represented by the Davis-Noel tandem, in favor of the problems of more mature NBA teams, such as how to find a quality wing for the MLE, and whether or not to cut bait on an All-Star talent with injury problems. I hope the extra wins this year are worth it, because those other possibilities often come only once in a lifetime.