Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson long have been able to get the Pelicans’ offense in gear.
These days, they’re being steered by a valuable third wheel.
New Orleans (3-11) is coming off its first back-to-back wins of the season after a 1-11 start and getting better. But offensively, it’s been at its best this season when Davis and Anderson share the floor with backup point guard Ish Smith.
“I’m just doing the easy part,” Smith said of his role as setup man.
Lately it’s been a big part.
Though injuries have limited the Pelicans’ lineup options, they’ve been dynamic offensively when Davis, Anderson and Smith share the court, outscoring opponents by an average of 17.7 points per 100 possessions in their 123 minutes together, according to basketball-reference.com.
In the past two games, wins against San Antonio and Phoenix, that number has ballooned to 26.8 points per 100 possessions.
Over the past three games — one a loss at Oklahoma City in which Davis didn’t play — Anderson has scored 89 points. In the past two, he and Davis have combined for 111.
“With Ryan scoring the ball the way he’s scoring, it’s leaving me open for looks down on the block by myself,” Davis said. “We’re just trying to play off each other and make sure that we’re playing with each other and making the right plays.”
Davis and Anderson are “a 1-2 punch that’s kind of a perfect-match combination,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. Anderson can space the floor with his shooting, Davis can post up or roll to the basket for easy baskets inside.
“We know how to play off each other really well,” Anderson said. “I think we rely on each other a lot. Obviously he’s the guy we go to when we need a huge bucket, and he’s our go-to guy, but I just want to be as aggressive as possible when I get in the game and take my opportunities.”
The Pelicans have made an effort, Gentry said, to get Davis and Anderson on the same side of the floor. That creates a challenge for a defense: leave one-on-one coverage against Davis or help off Anderson, who’s shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range this season and 50 percent over the past three games.
“I try to dive as hard as I can to the basket hoping that (Anderson’s defender) helps,” Davis said. “If not, then that’s a lob for me or a layup for the guard (with the ball). If he does help, that’s an easy shot for Ryan.”
That formula is tried and true for Davis and Anderson.
Last season, the Pelicans outscored opponents by an average of 6.8 points per 100 possessions with Davis and Anderson on the court together. This season, that number is less than one point per 100 possessions.
But the number soars with Smith on the court. In the Pelicans’ past two games, he has 22 points and 21 assists, and he has four double-digit assist games this season, including 13 in Friday’s win against the Spurs.
Among five-man lineup combinations averaging at least 10 minutes per 100 possessions for the Pelicans, the top four in scoring margin all feature Davis, Anderson and Smith.
It helps that Smith, who didn’t sign with New Orleans until the eve of the regular season, understands how to involve both players. Smith has delivered more assists than any other Pelican to both Davis (29) and Anderson (25).
And it doesn’t hurt that Smith, one of the league’s fastest players baseline-to-baseline, is committed to getting the Pelicans into early offense that creates transition opportunities.
“He pushes the ball for us, but he pushes it consistently when he’s in there,” Gentry said. “If he’s in there for 30 minutes or 35 minutes or 20 minutes, he’s always pushing the basketball.”
In Davis and Anderson, both 6-foot-10, Smith has found targets to push it toward.
“Phoenix tried to go small and get some size on them — some girth on them, not as far as height — and tried to kind of be physical with (Davis and Anderson),” Smith said. “But you can’t do that, because they’re big, long and strong. And then if you try to put bigs on them, they’re gonna take you out (away from the basket). So they’re a mismatch problem all across the board. If you got both of them out there, then it’s tough.”