Houston Rockets Guard Chris Paul must be feeling on top of the world right now after leading his side to deliver a big blow to Golden State Warriors title ambitions.
Thanks to a big Game 4 performance, Rockets are tied in the series with the NBA’s defending champions heading to Game 5 in Houston.
One of Paul’s former teams New Orleans Pelicans got knocked out in the playoffs by Warriors in the semifinals but look good to scale the hurdle very soon.
After completing a stellar season to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015, Pelicans outclassed favorites Portland Trailblazers in the first round. Blazers rolled into the postseason third in the regular season behind its immensely talented backcourt but got ousted in a four game sweep.
Key to that shock series win over Portland was Pelicans suffocating defense on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday restricted Lillard and McCollum’s range and the effect trickled down Terry Stotts roster.
Nikola Mirotic’s standout shooting performances counted a lot in the wins but his surprisingly well above average efforts on defense proved just as important. Pelicans were tipped to be a great offensive force when management let Monty Williams go for Alvin Gentry after the 2014-2015 season.
Gentry masterminded Golden State’s terrific offense as lead Assistant to Steve Kerr and his time with Phoenix Suns some years back.
Pelicans ranked 18th on offense and 27th on defense in his maiden season but the script flipped in his second season as New Orleans ranked 26th on offense but ninth on defense. The level of defense was quite maintained this past season as the team ranked 14th alongside a 10th ranked offense. The presence of DeMarcus Cousins on the roster was major reason for the uptick in offensive production with his All Star performance.
However, an Achilles injury ruined his season and has made him a big risk free agent given the short term and long term effects of a ruptured Achilles. What looked like a beautiful partnership set for great things in the future now looks all but dead given the team’s ability to make the playoffs without Cousins. Worse news for Cousins, Pelicans thrived in the postseason and has been rewarded with two inclusions in this season’s All NBA Defensive First Team.
Anthony Davis and Holiday made the team alongside Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo and Robert Covington. The results were mixed and inconclusive before but with the duo’s call up to the exclusive club, it is time for New Orleans to take up identity as a defensive team. Holiday played a role in New Orleans limiting opponents to score 9.1 fewer points per 100 possessions and Davis was ranked fifth in defending the rim while leading the league in blocks for the third time. Having an elite defense and steady production on offense should be good enough to get Pelicans at least in the Western Conference Finals without Cousins.
In free agency, Pelicans should devote what would have been a massive deal for Cousins to bring in a competent wing player on both ends of the court. Free agent Paul George is a viable option as the Oklahoma City Thunder player is one of an elite few in the league. As splendid as Cousins offensive numbers were-25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds- his porous defense meant New Orleans consistently bled points but even that mark was far from a standout statistic.
With Cousins and Davis on the court, Pelicans outscored opponents 4.5 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com which was just over what Utah Jazz’s limited offense produced. On the other hand, Mirotic and Davis combination post Cousins injury all the way to the playoffs produced 5.5 points per 100 possessions which ranked higher than Houston Rockets much praised offense. Heavy footed Cousins does his best work close to the rim like it was done back in the day but the modern NBA has Centers who do most damage at the three point arc and are mobile to stick with their man.
Anthony Davis is the prime example of a modern Center and alongside 6 foot 10 inch Forward Mirotic, potentially 6 foot 9 inch George, 6 foot 4 inch Holiday and 6 foot 1 Rajon Rondo, this starting unit offers Gentry the perfect mix of elite defense and scoring to make New Orleans a playoff contender for years. Its speed and length makes the team playable against any NBA side. Pelicans cant prioritize offense over defense going forward and that should influence management in free agency.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter