When the New Orleans Pelicans host the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center, the matchup could provide some early answers to one of the Pelicans’ key questions.
Other than at small forward, it remains to be seen whether the play of the team’s reserves will be adequate. With sixth man Ryan Anderson missing more than half of last season injured, the bench was not as strong as coach Monty Williams would have liked.
Anderson had a big game in the Pelicans’ season-opening 101-84 victory Tuesday against the Orlando Magic, posting 22 points and nine rebounds, including seven offensive. But the rest of the reserves scored 11 points, with Austin Rivers getting seven of those.
Unlike the Magic, the Mavericks have a formidable lineup, and Williams said their bench is a part of that, mentioning long, quick power forward Brandan Wright and speedy point guard Devin Harris.
“They have a number of guys who can change the game,” Williams said. “They can go small; they can go big. So they probably have the deepest team in the league.”
The Mavericks use Dirk Nowitzki, one of the NBA’s all-time great power forwards, for five or six minutes in the first quarter as a starter, then take him out. Nowitzki re-enters the game with the second unit early in the second quarter, when he may be matched against another team’s reserve or force opponents to put a front-line player back in.
Against Orlando, the stats of two Pelicans reserves stood out. Neither guard Jimmer Fredette nor forward John Salmons scored. Fredette, who is being counted on to provide strong outside shooting and who played well in the preseason, was 0-of-6, including 0-of-3 on 3-pointers. He played 17 minutes, 48 seconds. Salmons played just 9:32 but didn’t take a shot.
“The good think about it is that I got good shots,” Fredette said. “I didn’t force any bad shots. Some of them just weren’t falling, but I tried to impact the game in other ways, and it was all about getting the win and moving on to the next game and making the next shot.”
Williams, realizing it sounded like a cliché, said in watching Salmons on film, he makes a lot of plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Salmons, who is in his 13th year in the league, has at times almost appeared listless during training camp and in the preseason. But he said it’s important for the Pelicans to get things right early and to establish what they’re trying to do as opposed to worrying about specifics concerning their roles.
It’s early, so it’s more about the process of getting better.
“My role is to help the team win,” he said. “When I was getting a lot of touches, when I was a rookie to now, it’s to help the team on the court. Whatever that is, that’s what it’s going to be. If I get an open look, I’m going to shoot. If I don’t get one, then I’m not. I’ll play defense, try to be in the right position, try to make the right pass, try to make my shots when I get my opportunities.”
Although the team has played just one game, Salmons said he likes the bench and its potential. Like the first unit, when it gets stops, it can be lethal in the open court.
“I think this bench is ready to make an impact,” he said. “If the starters don’t have energy in the first quarter, the bench is ready to try to spark the team. That’s what you need the bench for, especially when you’re playing back-to-back games.”
Too much is made of a bench’s scoring, he said.
“We have a lot of starters on this team who can score,” Salmons said. “Ryan Anderson is our guy coming off the bench. Everybody else is working a role and trying to get on the floor. (The bench’s) focus is playing sound basketball, playing with a lot of defensive intensity and moving the ball, making the opposing team work on defense, trying to get guys open looks.”
The game against Orlando was the first in which the rotation had any semblance of being set, with only Anderson, Fredette and Austin Rivers getting substantial playing time. The preseason afforded Williams an opportunity to experiment.
“We definitely have to get used to the guys we’re playing with out there,” Fredette said. “But I feel like we did really well in the first game. We gave some energy, Ryan shot the ball really well in that third quarter and the starters came in and finished it.
“Dallas has a lot of guys who can really play and who have been in the league. They know what their role is, and they know that system. Coach said we need to embrace competing, and we go hard against the first unit in practice. So we have to come in prepared, and we have to fight and play as hard as we can, and I think we’ll be good.”