Familiar names headline the NBA’s offensive rankings this month.
There’s Golden State, the defending champions led by a quartet of All Stars. And Houston, whose historic 3-point mystique is charged by a pair of All-NBA guards.
In between them, there’s New Orleans.
Yes. The Pelicans’ offense is situated between two of the most innovative and well-executed attacks in basketball history, thanks to a continuous evolution that’s morphing into a revolution.
After a sluggish start, New Orleans has established itself as one of the NBA’s most explosive scoring teams, capable of hanging shot-for-shot with any of the league’s elite offensive arsenals.
“What we have is a philosophy and we plug the pieces in to try to put guys in the best position to make them successful,” said assistant coach Chris Finch, who is responsible for the offense. “So, we don’t try to copy anything we’ve done in the past exactly, but we are trying to find the right guys to accentuate each other’s skills.
“That’s really the secret sauce.”
The Pelicans’ ‘sauce’ isn’t an easily digestible one, like “3-pointers and layups” in Houston. Or “pace-and-space” in Golden State.
To watch the Pelicans’ offense unfold doesn’t feel particularly unique at first sight, but looking up at the scoreboard reflects its effectiveness. And digging into the specifics reveals its nuance.
Many times, New Orleans is playing from an inverted position, utilizing All-Star big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins on the perimeter as much as in the post, pushing shot blockers outside of the paint and opening lanes for dribble-drive penetration, sending defenders into scramble mode.
That’s when the Pelicans’ unselfishness kicks in.
Multiple passes prey on moving defenders, leading to open shots. It’s allowing New Orleans to dish 26.7 assists per game and convert 49 percent of field goals this season, trailing only Golden State in both categories.
“We are moving the ball,” Cousins said. “Our bigs are diving, and we attract a lot of attention when we dive to the rim and our guards are doing a great job of relocating on the outside and I guess the easy part is just shooting.”
This is what coach Alvin Gentry envisioned when he tapped Finch to join his staff this summer, luring him from the Denver Nuggets as part of a coaching shakeup.
And while Finch is hesitant to take any credit for the rapid improvement, Pelicans players have fawned over the system. It has allowed not only Davis and Cousins to flourish, but transformed E’Twaun Moore (48.3 percent) and Darius Miller (45.9 percent) into 3-point threats ranked among the NBA’s Top 10.
Meanwhile, meshing skill sets of guards Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have come to fruition, freeing Holiday to dominate in isolation setups and Rondo to use his trademark passing to find open cutters.
“Our shooting I like to attribute our ball movement which is at all-time high,” Finch said. “We stress and value the pass-pass combination, whether it be drive-pass-pass or pass-pass-drive. That unlocks a rhythm of offense, so guys can anticipate where their shots will come from.
“We’ve also given everyone the ultimate green light and that’s something that starts with Alvin. We don’t want guys second-guessing their shots. We think that’s given some confidence.”
Despite the bountiful scoring, Finch still sees an array of opportunities for improvement.
While he admits the pass-heavy style will always keep the Pelicans at risk for heavy turnovers, he believes New Orleans can still mine for extra possessions on the offensive glass.
Even in this torrid December stretch, New Orleans ranks just 22nd in offensive rebound percentage and 25th in second-chance points. Considering Davis’ and Cousins’ dominance on the defensive glass, it’s a curious and correctable shortcoming.
“If I had to go back and do it over again, I think I would have pounded away at that aspect a little bit more,” Finch said. “I think the culture has been to get back on defense, which is fine. But, I think we can do both. Nowadays, so many teams are running, I think you have to put pressure on the glass to keep them from running clean and starting their transition.
“It’s something we have to get better at, but those habits are hard to change in the middle of the season. Even when we have our big lineup in there, our bigs play like guards, so we often have them on the perimeter and we need them tracking back on defense.”
Ultimately, though, Finch and Gentry are pleased by the production and direction of their offense. Whether the Pelicans can break through and win consistently will likely pivot on their defensive strength, which has sunk to 26th in efficiency.
For now, the Pelicans are leaning on a varied, creative and successful scoring attack which is turning role players into feared weapons.
The next step is unlocking the full potential of Cousins and Davis by using their All-NBA skill off of each other. While both are amongst the league’s leaders in several areas, Finch believes there’s another stride to be made in balancing the floor to keep defenses from properly diagnosing what’s coming next.
If it clicks, it will be no surprise to see the Pelicans sharing the limelight with the league’s best offenses.
“Our big three has done a really good job of sharing the floor and you’ve seen those times when the big-to-big plays have been successful, but I think it’s something we can get better at,” Finch said. “Initially, I thought we would be further along with those, but with lineups we’ve had and the way defenses have packed the paint, there just hasn’t been a lot of room.
“But, now that we are able to spread teams out more I believe we can start to attack defenses that way. When defenses adjust to what we’re doing with our shooting, pocket playmaking is probably something we can do more from our bigs. It’s always about adjusting.”