After 14 games, Alvin Gentry knows the bellwether of his team’s success rests in two places on the postgame box score.
Assists and turnovers.
And the fluctuation between them is why the New Orleans Pelicans are carrying a 7-7 record into Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup against the New York Knicks.
In their seven wins, the Pelicans are committing 13.3 turnovers and generating 29.4 assists. In the seven losses, the Pelicans are committing 17.4 turnovers and generating 24.4 assists.
It’s cut and dry. Flipping those five possessions per night from assists to turnovers changes the entire complexion of the Pelicans’ performance.
Those numbers aptly illustrate why they’ve skidded to a 3-6 record since point guard Elfrid Payton sprained his right ankle on Oct. 27. It exposed New Orleans’ lack of ball-handling depth.
Without Payton, Jrue Holiday was forced to slide into the primary point guard role. Although he’s capable of manning the position, the added responsibility severely limited Holiday’s freedom to play aggressively, and ratcheted up the pressure on him to distribute, as the only above-average passer on the floor.
It’s partly what led Holiday to surrender six of the Pelicans’ 18 turnovers in Wednesday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Just like he committed six turnovers in a loss to the Thunder and a win over the Suns last week.
Compare those numbers to the season’s first four games — when he played next to Payton and combined for 10 total turnovers — and the culprit is clear.
The Pelicans need another ballhandler.
Despite Gentry claiming Payton is “really close” to returning, the past three weeks illuminated the Pelicans’ razor thin margin for error at the position. And there’s simply no guarantee Payton will remain injury-free for the rest of the season.
In the meantime, it’s become obvious how reliant the Pelicans are on Payton, despite the Gretna native signing to a middling one-year, $3 million contract in free agency.
While backup Tim Frazier can provide a burst of speed and energy off of the bench, he’s undependable defensively and can’t be paired next to Holiday in crucial situations.
In the past six games, Frazier’s average Game Score (a compilation of several statistics) is minus-0.3. By comparison, Warriors’ guard Quinn Cook, who New Orleans waived last summer due to a roster numbers crunch, is averaging a 12.3 Game Score while filling in for an injured Stephen Curry over his last six games.
It’s not going well for New Orleans. And, quite frankly, this is expected.
Frazier was only added as a stopgap option on opening night because the Pelicans’ failed to properly address their point guard depth this summer. Frazier was waived by the Milwaukee Bucks, and landed back in New Orleans because neither Darius Morris nor Jarrett Jack proved capable of earning the job in training camp.
While there are a litany of guards on the roster, Ian Clark, E’Twaun Moore and Frank Jackson aren’t adequately adept distributors to capably occupy the role.
So, if the Pelicans want to fill the void, it will have to come from the trade market. But, it’s complicated.
The position isn’t the team’s top trade priority, since they still need to replace Solomon Hill on the wing, whose poor performance has fully marooned him to the bench for the past six games.
So, where do the Pelicans turn?
There are a handful of capable point guards floating around the league who can be acquired, but what’s required to get them is unclear. And New Orleans can’t sacrifice its finite assets when it still needs to chase down a starting-quality wing.
Perhaps, they can alter their style, slowing down the pace to minimize mistakes? But, neither Gentry nor any Pelicans players have offered it as a desirable alternative to stopping the flood of turnovers.
“That’s the way we want to play,” Anthony Davis said Wednesday. “We want to play fast. Controlled chaos, but you know I think we try to do it and try to get everything back in one possession. We just start playing the right way, you know having a good shot, or at least a shot at the rim, you know? We’ve just got to push it fast, slow down, find guys and make the right plays.”
With the current roster, it’s not so simple. The Pelicans need a solution.
In the short-term, it might not matter. If Payton returns on Friday night, the Pelicans’ ball movement and passing proficiency will likely get back on track and the assist-to-turnover ratio will vacillate back toward winning margins.
But, the need for a reliable backup point guard will still exist. The past three weeks has proven it.
“We were trying to hit grand slams when all we need to do is hit singles,” Gentry said after a loss to the Spurs earlier this month. “We need to just move the basketball, and let the game come to us. [We need to] stop trying to force the issue. We have to get back to being who we are and that’s being a team who moves the basketball and makes elementary school plays — and then execute.
“That’s how you win games in this league.”