Basic individual statistics never appropriate actual on-court value. To a certain degree, all players are more or less than box scores or per game averages seemingly suggest. But the real worth of a select type of player transcends that surface-level analysis even farther than most others.
Tyson Chandler might be basketball’s foremost example. An All-Star and 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, his influence on the Knicks extends far beyond league-leading field goal percentages or hordes of double-doubles. It’s Chandler’s work on defense as pick-and-roll destroyer and back-line intimidator that garners postseason hardware and universal acclaim, but his impact on the other end is nearly as instrumental to New York’s success. There’s no broadly accepted individual statistic to measure the effects of Chandler’s bone-crushing picks and space-making rolls to the rim, but a simple eye-test and team-wide scoring numbers paint an accurate portrayal of just how important he is to the Knicks offensively. An even better barometer of his two-way consequence? Wins and losses.
At 6-15 and recent victim of a 41-point home loss to Jordan Crawford and the Boston Celtics, New York’s recently gone from major disappointment to outright laughingstock. But if there’s a tiny glimmer of hope for the Knicks, it’s that this potentially franchise-altering start to the season has come with Chandler sidelined. New York’s center has missed the last 16 games after suffering a non-displaced fracture of his right fibula in the first quarter against Charlotte on November 5th; recent reports suggest Chandler will return to action by the end of December.
And if those reports indeed prove the case, the Knicks have reason for small doses of hope; Chandler’s influence is that sweeping and the state of the Eastern Conference is that bleak. A similar scale of optimism exists across the river in Brooklyn. The Nets are awful, but improving health and fortuitous ancillary circumstance has Brooklyn in a far better position than its level of play deserves.
Other teams aren’t so lucky. The Western Conference is a murderer’s row of championship contenders and sub-contenders, coupled with a middle class that’s far better and bigger than its counterpart to the east. If the season ended today, there would be five Western Conference teams left out of postseason play that have a better record than the East’s fourth-seeded Celtics.
Last of those five unfortunate organizations? The New Orleans Pelicans.
New Orleans is 10-10 after an overtime win over the Pistons on Wednesday night, two games out from the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. That the Pelicans have reached even this level of respectability is a testament to their almost blindingly bright future. New Orleans finds itself right in the thick of contention – exactly where many predicted after a busy summer – as 2014 approaches despite a rash of injuries to its top two players.
You know about Anthony Davis – the Pelicans’ super sophomore has already missed four games and will be sidelined several more weeks due to a minor fracture in his left hand. Far less publicized but perhaps as pertinent, though, was the early-season absence of Ryan Anderson.
New Orleans played its first nine games of the season without the 25 year-old sharpshooter, but the narrative barely noticed. After the Pellies opened 3-6 this year, stories centered on Davis’s development during a disappointing start and big picture organizational questions that clouded the future. Was Jrue Holiday really worth two first-round picks? Would three-guard lineups – featuring Holiday, Eric Gordon, and much-maligned free agent acquisition Tyreke Evans – ever figure it out? How safe was Monty Williams?
Valid or otherwise, those concerns ignored the crucial context of Anderson’s injury. Expecting the young and revamped Pelicans to take off running this season was irrational; assuming they’d do so without the full extent of their core available was downright irresponsible.
Considering the circumstances, that New Orleans is .500 in mid-December is cause for minor celebration. Playing just one extended stretch without Anderson or Davis should be a losing proposition, but two in as many months? It wouldn’t shock if the Pelicans were dead in the water by now. That’s an understanding lost on most, though, indicative of the NBA world’s error in assessing Anderson’s worth.
He’s hardly Davis as talent or commodity – not close, actually. But just like Chandler, Anderson is the rare player whose mere on-court presence flies in the face of time-honored analysis. And if this season’s early trends prove sustainable, his reputation will finally align with his impact.
Despite Davis’s pre-injury dominance, he still has major room to grow offensively. He’s more garbage man and one-dribble finisher than low-post scorer or elbow fulcrum at this point in his career, and that’s fine for now – Davis is just 20 years-old and still growing into his body. But recognizing that immaturity is key to examining the limitations New Orleans faced on offense to start the season with Anderson on the bench. Davis doesn’t consistently draw double-teams or defensive shades the way his numbers suggest, Jason Smith’s shooting range extends to just 20-feet, and the Pellies stable of talented smalls is still getting comfortable playing with one another.
New Orleans needs all the space it can get on offense, basically, and Anderson is the only linchpin that creates it. No wonder the Pelicans couldn’t score to open the season! A fixture of their overall strategy and overarching identity was on the bench in street clothes!
The wholesale of advanced statistics above puts Anderson’s value in proper perspective. And remember, a portion of those impressive post-return numbers have been compiled with Davis out of the lineup.
The overall metrics are impressive, but only speak so much to the long-term viability of this unique roster. Evans’s four-year, $44 million deal in free agency was one of summer’s most divisive, and his poor early play affirmed the skepticism gleaned from that contract. It wasn’t just his individual struggles that spelled trouble, though; the performance of lineups featuring Evans, Holiday, and Gordon were cause for more concern.
Those three-guard units have been absolutely gangbusters since Anderson’s season debut on November 16th, marked by a +35.9(!) point improvement in net rating per 100 possessions. The defensive statistics are obviously encouraging, but are more a product of increased comfort and regression to the mean than Anderson’s influence. Indeed, it’s the awesome offensive strides that matter most here.
The preseason consternation met with Evans’s acquisition had as much to do with roster fit and stylistic redundancy as any financial parameters. After all, Gordon and Holiday each came to New Orleans as the centerpiece of franchise-altering trades. Were the Pelicans mortgaging the development of their two backcourt fixtures by throwing Evans into the mix? The thought was an easy one – all three players have career usage rates well into the 20s, and Evans’s worth as anything other than primary ballhandler remains a question mark.
It’s those overlapping skill-sets that make Anderson so critical to the success of Holiday-Gordon-Evans lineups. If space is at a premium for New Orleans as a whole without Anderson, it’s basically nonexistent with three ball-dominant, streak-shooting smalls on the floor. A bigger problem? It’s never more important, either.
Those assertions were fleshed out early this season. Three-guard units barely managed average offense through the Pellies’s first nine games, owed mostly – and predictably – to a consistent inability to produce efficient shot attempts. Pre-Anderson marks of points via mid-range and the paint point to that deficiency; the former would rank New Orleans among the league’s five most reliant teams season-wide, and the latter number the league’s five least reliant. Reminder: two-point jumpers bad, shots from the paint good.
But Anderson’s presence has produced a complete offensive sea-change for Holiday-Gordon-Evans lineups, and in turn allowed Williams to play said units featuring his three most talented and expensive perimeter players more minutes. That additional floor-time is crucial given the organization’s commitment to this core; there’s more than blind optimism to believe these guys can coexist now, too.
It goes without saying, but Anderson’s value to New Orleans is much more than quantitative. His mere threat as marksman coaxes defenses into layered concessions that directly spark those drastic improvements from the Pelicans offense.
That impact might be most obvious in basic high ball-screen situations. In the first clip of the video above, Smith sets a pick for Holiday with Davis waiting in the weak-side corner. New Orleans gets a clean look and Smith is a very capable mid-range shooter, but Holiday’s hand is basically forced; Tim Duncan knows Smith isn’t a threat rolling to the rim, and Tiago Splitter pays no attention to Davis. That defense from San Antonio’s big men seems inconsequential, but Duncan’s hedge and Splitter’s help are aggressive enough to dissuade Holiday from attacking any farther than the elbow extended, a major win for the Spurs.
In the ensuing clip, Anderson takes Smith’s place in the Pelicans frontcourt and stations himself in the corner as Davis sets the screen for Holiday. Davis rolls hard to the rim as Holiday goes around his pick, drawing the attention of a hedging Duncan and helping Boris Diaw. Davis’s roll as opposed to Smith’s pop is critical here; Duncan’s hedge is measured this time, and Diaw – checking Anderson, in for Splitter – is tasked with helping hard enough to contest a potential Davis shot after a pocket-pass. This is sound and well-executed defense by the Spurs, but it doesn’t matter. Holiday skips a pass to the corner as Diaw’s foot hits the restricted area, and Anderson – shooting 8-15 from the corners this season – gets a wide-open look.
The same basic pick-and-roll tenants apply here, but Anderson isn’t the beneficial shooter. In the first clip, Holiday is met forcefully by a Miles Plumlee hedge after a Smith/Davis double-screen, and nearly turns the ball over as both Pelicans big men resort meaningless pops. Phoenix doesn’t fear a long two-point jumper from Smith or Davis, and makes Holiday its primary focus as a result.
But everything changes in the following example against the Spurs, as Anderson again takes Smith’s place in the sequence. It’s another double-screen in semi-transition for a New Orleans ballhandler – this time Evans. It’s Diaw’s job to hedge a la Plumlee and cut off penetration, but he’s worried about Anderson popping back to the three-point line, too. That ancillary concern leaves him anxious, falling for Evans’s hesitation dribble and scurrying back to Anderson too early. Davis haphazardly rolls this time, and Evans’s head of steam coupled with Duncan’s obligation to prevent a dish to the roller results in an easy layup.
Williams has taken some flak on the Twittersphere recently for his team’s confounding lack of basic pick-and-roll actions like those above. With Davis and Anderson in the fold, that criticism holds weight; no team in the league boasts a better roll-pop combination. Make no mistake, though: the Pelicans still run a lot of ball-screen action, just in less simplistic forms.
The play above is a favorite of Williams and rightfully so. New Orleans starts off in the familiar HORNS formation: bigs at each elbow, wings in both corners, and a ballhandler at the top of the key. In the first sequence, Smith pops out to set a pick for Holiday before rolling down the lane. Davis fills that vacated space, ‘replacing’ Smith in the process. Holiday turns the corner and fires a pass back to Davis, who’s come open at the semicircle in part because Smith’s roll acts as an off-ball screen of his man. Again, Davis is a fine shooter for a big man, but Philly can live with this outcome.
Anderson comes in for Smith in the second clip and Gordon replaces Holiday as playmaker. The play begins the same way as the previous one, with the near big man setting a screen for the ballhandler. But Anderson and Davis – playing to their individual strengths – switch up the developing action, with the former popping and latter rolling. It’s most irrelevant here, though, as the Sixers immediately switch on the ball-screen to thwart a quick-hitting Anderson jumper. End result notwithstanding, this is a boon for the Pelicans; Gordon just needs to be more decisive when he sees the mismatch.
The third time’s the charm for this roll-replace action. Anderson and Smith are the Pellies bigs now, defended by Daniel Orton and Lavoy Allen. Smith sets the same pick for Holiday going left, then meanders down the lane as Holiday continues applying pressure. Philly prefers to switch this set when Anderson’s involved, we know, but that’s extra difficult with this personnel; Orton nor Allen boast Young’s foot-speed. So Orton opts for a soft, soft hedge instead, cutting off Holiday as Tony Wroten recovers. The Sixers think they have this defended, but New Orleans has already won. Anderson ‘replaces’ beyond the arc as Smith’s roll morphs into a down-screen on Allen, and Holiday finds Anderson for an easy look. Buckets.
The irony is that popular narrative is bound to swing Anderson’s way soon enough. His raw stats since returning from injury befit a household name: 21.7 PPG, 47.7% 3PT FGs, and 97.3% FTs. Should Anderson maintain this blistering shooting pace, he’ll even garner faint All-Star consideration come February. The more likely scenario, though, eventually calls for natural regression and typical devaluation of his overall stock.
But even as Anderson’s numbers come back to earth, his impact on the Pelicans will remain otherworldly. The all-encompassing effects of high-volume, high-accuracy shooters align perfectly with those of their pick-and-roll busting, rim-protecting defensive counterparts, but the basketball public has been slow to accept that reality. When that necessary shift comes, Anderson will be the momentum behind it.
Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.