Injuries can completely derail an NBA team’s season. They can remove star players or key reserves from lineups for long stretches, causing a significant decline in level of play from a given team. Perhaps more importantly, however, they can ruin a team’s rotation consistency. With established players unavailable for play, coaches must scramble to fit players into new roles and figure out new five-man lineups that will be effective. This can take a period of several games to iron out, and when multiple injuries hit multiple key players in a short period of time.
That’s what happened to the New Orleans Pelicans this season. According to Prosportstransactions.com, Pelicans players missed 178 games due to injury in 2013-14. This included a mix of stars and key role players.
Jrue Holiday missed the final 35 games due to a lower leg stress fracture, while key role player Jason Smith played just 31 games due to recurring knee injuries. Darius Miller missed the Pelicans’ first 18 games with a stress fracture in his foot, and as soon as he returned to the lineup, Anthony Davis fractured his hand and missed seven games.
Two weeks later, Ryan Anderson was done for the year after herniating two discs in his neck in a scary fall against Boston. The result of this injury spree: The seven Pelicans who averaged at least 25 minutes per game this season played in just 370 of 574 possible games.
Naturally, this wreaked havoc with the Pelicans’ rotation. The Pelicans’ most commonly used lineup played just 200 minutes together in 16 games. By comparison, the Pacers, one of the league’s healthiest teams this year, saw their top lineup play 1,468 minutes in 73 games. Injuries matched with early elimination from the playoffs resulted in 21 different players suiting up for the Pelicans, which created a lot of rotation turnover. This can be deadly for a season, as players don’t really get comfortable playing with one another, and lineup uncertainly is usually tied with uncertainly regarding minutes for each player, which can further damage team chemistry.
However, moving forward, it can’t be said that the team doesn’t data on plenty of combinations for their returning players. Even though the team struggled to field consistent five-man units last season, the multitude of combinations the team cycled through allow Monty Williams and the front office to determine what combinations worked and which didn’t, even in small sample sizes. And with most of the core of the team returning for next season, this is going to be important in determining which of last year’s many small-sample size lineups might become next year’s consistently effective units. Here are the most, and least, effective lineups the Pelicans used in 2013-14.*
*A lot of these lineups are at an extremely small sample-size. Usually the more minutes played together, the more concrete conclusions we can draw about their effectiveness. These lineups will be limited to a minimum of 50 minutes played, in order to eliminate some of the white noise of truly tiny sample sizes. All data from NBA.com/stats.
110.9 ORtg, 94.8 DRtg, +16.1 Net Rtg in 53 minutes (11 games)
This was the best Pelicans lineup purely because this group played it very safe. This lineup posted an outstanding turnover rate of just 7.3 percent, and posted a solid offensive efficiency despite shooting poorly (47.7 eFG%). Taking very good care of the ball was something this team did very well last year, and this unit was one of the best in the league at it. Defensively, this small-ball unit performed well against primarily bench-heavy lineups, but this group’s offensive abilities were probably the more sustainable aspect of their game. This entire group could be back next year, and the group without Aminu put up an ORtg of 108.6 in 286 minutes together, making this an enticing unit to go to in second quarters next season.
Best Offensive Lineup-Jrue Holiday/Evans/Gordon/Ryan Anderson/Davis
123.5 ORtg, 119.8 DRtg, +3.7 Net Rtg in 91 minutes (12 games)
What a surprise: If you put the Pelicans’ five best offensive players on the floor at the same time, they scored a lot! This group is one of the more unfortunate units for the Pelicans, in that they only got 12 games together due to injuries to Holiday, Anderson, and Gordon. However, this group was awesome on offense when they did play. Anderson and Gordon spaced the floor to open up lanes for Holiday and Evans to drive, and the multitude of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop options offered by this group made them insanely productive on that end. Defensively, the group was a sieve, but with Davis’s potential as a defensive rock down low, last year’s 91 minutes of awesome give hope that the Pelicans’ big name, and big money, unit is one that will work.
Best Defensive Lineup-Roberts/Evans/Gordon/Aminu/Davis
The Pelicans were not a good defensive team last year, in part due to Jason Smith’s injuries limiting his availability and effectiveness. As the only truly solid defensive post on the team, the Pelicans struggled mightily to stop teams from lighting them up. This lineup was one of only three to allow less than 100 points/100 possessions, and all three paired Davis and Aminu together. That pairing, along with the Pelicans’ ability to prevent turnovers with this lineup, allowed it to be the best defensive unit the Pelicans employed basically by default.
Best Rebounding Lineup-Holiday/Gordon/Aminu/Anderson/Davis
109.4 ORtg, 106.9 DRtg, +2.5 Net Rtg in 61 minutes (8 games)
This group had a rebounding percentage of 55.1 percent, mostly by dominating the defensive glass. This is where Davis and Aminu were at their best, and the group was passable defensively given its offensive capabilities. Even though the Pelicans were a mediocre rebounding team last year, the Aminu/Anderson/Davis frontcourt did pretty well in this regard.
Best Four-Man Combination (Min. 100 minutes)-Holiday/Evans/Anderson/Davis
123.6 ORtg, 107.9 DRtg, +15.7 Net Rtg in 145 minutes (15 games)
Once again, the teams’ star power played well together. This grouping succeeds because it’s a dynamite pick-and-roll unit, and the Pelicans run a ton of pick-and-roll action. The common theme of injuries being the worst presents itself again here, as this grouping only played in 15 games together. Next season, however, they show the promise of being a good offensive foursome again, and if they improve defensively, this grouping could be one of the better four-man combinations in the NBA.
Overall, it appears that the Pelicans have the makings of a good offensive team-if their top players stay healthy. Injuries to Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson hurt the offense significantly, and kept the best offensive units the Pelicans could employ off the floor. Defensively, there really isn’t much to draw off of from the best lineups, because even the better lineups the Pelicans put out there were mediocre at best. However, if the Pelicans can get an upgrade over Al-Farouq Aminu at small forward and get Holiday and Anderson back fully healthy, they have the makings of being a very efficient team on the offensive end if they roll with lineups similar to these. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the lineups from this season that should be avoided.
Worst Overall Lineup by Net Rating/Worst Offensive Lineup-Roberts/Gordon/Aminu/Davis/Alexis Ajinca
93.0 ORtg, 107.1 DRtg, -14.1 Net Rtg in 182 minutes (22 games)
This group started 14 games together, and the Pelicans went .500 in games where this was the starting group. However, that had little to do with this lineup itself. With Aminu and Ajinca sharing the floor with another post player in Davis, this unit severely lacked spacing, and that killed their offensive ability. The unit played at a similar defensive level to the team’s average; however, they just couldn’t score and turned the ball over frequently. A PNR-heavy system like the Pelicans run is dependent on shooters to free the lane up for penetrating guards and rolling big men. However, with Ajinca and Aminu on the floor together, there was just no spacing for Roberts to attack or for Davis to operate as a successful roll man. However, without Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday while this unit started games, there wasn’t much of an alternative for this team.
Worst Defensive Lineup-Holiday/Evans/Gordon/Anderson/Davis
The Pelicans’ best offensive unit was also their worst defensive unit, but the shortcomings here are obvious and, perhaps more importantly, forgivable. This unit executed offensively extremely well, and offers the perfect combination of shooting and slashing that makes the Pelicans’ offensive system successful. Defensively, they were hindered by the fact that they had no answer for a big small forward like a Rudy Gay or LeBron James, and that’s forgivable for stretches, especially when Aminu can be subbed in for defensive purposes without completely killing the offense. Also, it should be noted again that moving forward, Davis is going to be a lot better defensively than he is now as a 20-year-old. He’s already flashing the potential to be a destructive force at the rim and against the PNR, and as his offensive game continues to develop, it appears that this unit will get better on both ends. He’s the anchor for this group, and in his second year with no true small forward and a sieve at power forward, I can excuse a 119 defensive rating, because it’s almost guaranteed to improve in ’14-15.
Worst Rebounding Lineup-Roberts/Evans/Gordon/Davis/Greg Stiemsma
102.8 ORtg, 106.5 DRtg, -3.7 Net Rtg in 83 minutes (18 games)
A rebounding percentage of 45.1 percent is horrible, and it’s mostly related to the attempt to play Stiemsma with a three-guard lineup. Stiemsma is a very poor rebounder for a 7-footer, and he doesn’t really have any other skills besides post defense that help him counteract that. When you put a poor rebounding big with three guards, then, a large majority of the rebounding burden falls to Davis, and like his defense, his rebounding skills aren’t fully developed yet. A lineup like this is just asking to get outrebounded by a large margin, and when your offense isn’t fluid enough to really compensate, as was the case with this unit, it can make a lineup unusable.
Worst Four-Man Combination-Evans/Gordon/Davis/Ajinca
101.8 ORtg, 120.1 DRtg, -18.1 Net Rtg in 110 minutes (17 games)
This was the result of a combination of factors. First, lineups where Tyreke Evans played the point were included, which usually didn’t go well. Second, the Aminu/Ajinca spacing black hole we discussed earlier. And third, Ajinca was involved in the four worst four-man units the Pelicans used this season. Alexis Ajinca may not be great at basketball.
Moving forward, there are several takeaways from the multitude of lineups used by the Pelicans in 2013-14. For one, the small-ball lineups with Evans, Holiday, and Gordon worked pretty well offensively, even if they resulted in a mixed bag defensively. With Evans and Holiday primarily attacking off the dribble and Gordon and Holiday shooting well from outside, the Pelicans could stretch the floor open up space that wasn’t there when they brought in Brian Roberts or moved to lineups with two bigs and Aminu. Second, the Pelicans noticeably missed Holiday and Anderson in the second half of the season.
Without those two, Ajinca, Roberts, and Austin Rivers played way more than they probably should have, and that killed the team’s offense. Defense was a problem the entire year, but that can be overcome with solid execution offensively, as we saw with the Holiday/Evans/Gordon/Anderson/Davis lineup. Without the ability to score consistently, that went away quickly.
And finally, it is fairly apparent that Stiemsma, Ajinca, and Aminu need to be replaced with better role players. The offense died when any of these three players played in combination, and Stiemsma and Ajinca in particular weren’t good enough defensively to compensate. Ajinca will probably be back next year, although hopefully in a greatly reduced role.
Stiemsma and Aminu, on the other hand, will be unrestricted free agents, and it would be a smart idea for the Pelicans to look elsewhere for players to replace them, either from internally with guys like Jeff Withey or Darius Miller, or in free agency. However, the bottom line is this: health would eliminate a lot of the problems New Orleans had this year, and create more consistency in the Pelicans’ rotation. That’s ultimately the Pelicans’ best chance for success in 2014-15.