Just when it appeared the pieces were falling back into place, the New Orleans Pelicans are forced to re-think their point guard situation.
Elfrid Payton fractured his left pinky finger just eight minutes after returning from a nine-game absence, and spun the Pelicans into another new direction, despite earning a pair of home victories.
Now, as Payton undergoes surgery next week, coach Alvin Gentry and his staff are tasked with accomplishing a complicated goal.
How do they use Jrue Holiday as their primary point guard, while still maximizing his opportunities off of the ball?
“I think it takes away what he’s great at,” Gentry said. “I thought him and Elfrid was a really good team. But, it’s not there and we have to make adjustments and there’s other things we’ll change. Obviously, we don’t know how long Elfrid will be out.”
In the meantime, there’s no simple solution.
But, the Pelicans’ decision-making and ball movement in Saturday’s 125-115 win over the Denver Nuggets might have provided a preview as to what the their best options are.
New Orleans dished out 29 assists, and only eight came from Holiday. It’s an important step.
But regardless of any potential tweaks, New Orleans’ lack of a traditional point guard will require Holiday to play the majority of his minutes on the ball, and he’s still defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer on the other end. But Gentry admitted he’s trying to engineer his rotation to provide him some relief.
However, it requires a layered and imperfect approach.
First, he moved Wesley Johnson back into the starting lineup, adding length to the Pelicans’ best unit, allowing Holiday some added flexibility in his defensive assignment.
“(Johnson) is a good defensive player and he allows Jrue to take breaks and not always guard the No. 1 scorer on the floor,” Gentry said. “He’s been really good with that.”
Then, Gentry switched up the ball-handling assignments for particular segments of the game, putting additional playmaking responsibilities on the frontcourt and changing up the look of his half-court offense.
The best salve, though, may come through the Pelicans’ pace.
When New Orleans is going at its desired tempo, the burden of dribbling and distributing is more circumstantial than predetermined. And when the Pelicans owned a 17-0 advantage in fast-break points, it wasn’t only charged by Holiday’s passing.
“We play through some of the other guys when we can,” Gentry said. “We play through Julius (Randle) because we feel like he’s a good player and good facilitator. Some of the other stuff we do in transition, our big guys end up being the decision makers anyway.”
The strategy was particularly beneficial when Holiday got into foul trouble midway through Saturday's third quarter. Ian Clark was the Pelicans’ only traditional guard on the floor for an eight-minute stretch, as New Orleans ran a more isolation-heavy offense, featuring Randle and Davis while still taking advantage of transition opportunities.
In fact, Davis tied his career high on Saturday night, dishing eight assists and Randle chipped in with three of his own.
“They kind of took over,” Holiday said. “They run point. They get to the free-throw line. They get all of the assists. They do the guards job, really. We are just there for support.”
Ultimately, though, the playmaking pressure will fall on Holiday’s shoulders. And he expressed excitement about Payton returning earlier in the week, which only makes the added absence sting more.
“It’s going to be big, and I get to run the wing again, which I’m excited about,” Holiday said before Friday’s game. “I get to play off of him and cut back and do those kinds of things. So, it’s great.”
Instead, he’s back to handling the full responsibilities of the point guard spot. It’s a position Holiday said he feels comfortable with, but the Pelicans want him to be more.
Saturday proved what’s possible when the rest of the roster gets involved.
“Every night when we share the ball we have been really successful,” Nikola Mirotic said. “Jrue has been amazing so far. Not just offensively and sharing the ball, but defensively, too. We are glad he can help us at the position right now and we want to help him, too."