The Pelicans Have a BIG Problem

I don’t mean the size of the problem. I mean they have an issue with how they use their big men, Jonas Valanciunas and Zion Williamson. The season is young but the Pelicans have struggled to incorporate their bigs on both ends of the floor. Now I grant you that they come a with set of defensive limitations, but the primary issue facing the Pelicans is on the offensive end of the floor. The defense just exacerbates things, because as hard as it’s been for JV to find a groove offensively with the starters, he simply hasn’t seen the floor at the end of games with the emergence of Larry Nance, Jr. Nevertheless, I maintain that the ill-conceived offense around Zion and JV has played a large part in the litany of problems seen on the other end of the floor.

The Pelicans started the season with a bang – routing the Brooklyn Nets and handling the Charlotte Hornets. Both wins were hallmarked by dominant interior play and offensive rebounding. Since those two games, it seems the Pelicans have largely abandoned their path to success, or have been unable to adapt as the league scouts have caught on. If you remove the first two games from the sample, the Pelicans starters have an ORTG of 106.8. For reference, the worst offense in the league clocks in at 106.4. This is especially rough when considering the collection of offensive talent in the Pelicans’ starting lineup. This same unit last year with Jaxson Hayes instead of Zion had an ORTG of 122.6. You mean to tell me that Jaxson is a better fit than Zion in this group? Not a chance.

Let’s take a look at what’s actually happening.

The Jaxson units rebounded 34.6% of their misses. Simply put, they dominated the offensive glass and either finished at a high clip in the paint, or got to the free throw line. They refused to shoot threes, literally sporting a 0th percentile attempt rate and it didn’t matter. They were winning the math problem in the paint by generating extra possessions and bludgeoning teams at the rim. The rest of the gaps were filled in by the cool midrange shot making of CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. This unit was BAD at defense (116.3 DRTG via cleaning the glass) and didn’t care – because they would blitz teams offensively and punish them on the glass.

The Zion units this year are doing none of those things. Outside of those first two games, the starters are only rebounding 24% of their misses – something Jonas agreed needs to be a priority when I asked him about it.

“The (offensive) rebounding is our strength. It should be our strength. Yes we can do a better job punishing offensively on the boards, but we are still doing a decent job.”

Beyond the rebounding, the starting unit is finishing 61% at the rim. Both marks are significantly worse than the Jaxson units from last year. Not to mention, the unit is somehow attempting even fewer threes than the 0th percentile unit.

Why is this happening? The issue comes from the off ball usage of the two bigs. Just like how Zion is seeing a career high usage in the post, Jonas is seeing almost 31% of his scoring possessions come off of post ups. This is a career high mark in a league that has largely left isolation post play in the past. Combine this with the fact he is seeing a CAREER LOW 14.2% of his scoring possessions come as the roll man in pick and rolls. Down SIX PERCENT from last year’s 20% mark.

To his credit, Jonas has embraced his role gracefully and says he’s here to help.

“I’m here to help. I’m here to do whatever I can to help this team win. If that’s my role, I’m okay, I’m gonna go fight every night, get touches, not get touches, set a screen – I just do my stuff. I just play hard and go rebound. It’s not always gonna be a scoring thing”

Zion, on the other hand, admits the increased post usage has been more of an adjustment. When I asked him about his increased post usage, he responded

“It’s definitely been more of an adjustment. I can do it, but new teammates, new coach, I got some things to still learn. As the season goes on, it’ll get figured out”

Taking turns posting up Zion and JV creates massive spacing issues. Let’s take a look at this clip.

It’s a basic pick and pop that creates a contested free throw line jumper for JV with 5 defenders in the paint. No one is in position to crash the offensive glass, because well, how can you? This was the second possession of the game and already there was no window to roll or attack the paint. Sure Jonas can hit this jumper, but is it a good look?

Same situation in the next clip here.

CJ McCollum makes a dump off pass to JV while Zion is supposed to space on the opposite side. The Pelicans once again find themselves with a crowded paint and nowhere to attack. The Lakers are easily able to converge on this and get the block.

Both Zion and JV existing off ball, even when they are setting ball screens, leave absolutely no room for McCollum or Brandon Ingram to operate. Here is Brandon Ingram with an isolation at the the top of the key that leads into a contested pull up with no room to rebound.

Here is CJ after a double drag that leads to a contested long two with again no room to rebound.

On the balance, the Pelicans’ tough shot makers CAN make these shots, but this certainly is not making the job easier on them. Relying on tough shot making as the main course instead of the gravy leads to long periods of stagnation. This goes for post ups as well. As talented as Zion and JV are, the way their post ups are being run leads to a lot of standing around and gives the defense ample time to help.

The Pelicans need to make a concerted effort to get their bigs on the move. Watch these two plays.

In this first play the Pelicans run a post ISO for Jonas that leads to contested missed jumper. Once again, no one is in position to rebound and the paint is crowded. The second play gets Jonas a shot from basically the same spot on the floor, but in motion and with more airspace. The quality of looks is materially different and over time this either makes or breaks an offense.

While getting Jonas in motion is one way to alleviate spacing concerns, it still doesn’t address the issue of Zion off the ball and his defender in the paint. The way I see it, unless one of Zion or Jonas suddenly starts attempting and making a high volume of threes, the Pelicans’ have to start putting the ball in Zion’s hand’s more. Not only does he bend the defense in ways no one else on the team can, all of a sudden, Jonas in movement becomes much more viable.

Just take a look at how the defense has to load up on Zion, leaving easy passes to Jonas open. Whether it’s Jonas setting in a handoff action for Zion or setting a fake screen for Brandon Ingram. In fact, the last play is a perfect example of spacing. The Pelicans use their two non-shooters to screen for their two good shooters on opposite corners while Zion has the middle of the floor. More of this PLEASE!

When I asked Zion if he also feels that he’s able to bend the defense and create more with the ball in his hands, he responds,

“Absolutely. That’s how I was always taught to play the game. I feel like I’m most effective when I do that. But at the same time I’m a winner. I want to win. Whatever my team need me to do, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

While both Zion and Jonas have expressed a desire to do whatever the team needs them to do, the team needs start giving back and tilt the offense around those two. It’s time the Pelicans start using CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram to space the floor for Zion and JV, not the other way around. This team is a sleeping giant on the offensive floor and it’s time to stir the beast and find out exactly how good the offense can be. The Jonas – Zion units might not have a great defensive outlook, but they don’t need to. They just need to beat the living hell out of opponents in the paint and on the glass. Let’s be honest, anytime the Pelicans need more defense on the court, they can mash the Larry Nance button. Very few teams should be capable of matching the both the big and small lineups. The Pelicans should be equipped for just about every matchup if they play their cards right.

If you haven’t seen my video on Point Zion, make sure to check it out. I think it’s time the Pelicans fully embraced this offensive identity. It’s still early in the season, and the starters have not had much time to really play together. “It hasn’t been an easy adjustment,” Zion says, “but I’m still figuring it out. Willie will put us in winning positions and as the season goes on, we’ll figure it out.”

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1 Response

  1. Brad Dawson says:

    Great article and examples, it is really a waste of Zion to see him standing in the corner. I’m no guru but anyone who watches goes why is just standing there? No one believes he’s a 3pt threat at this time. Maybe next year? The key to this team, IMO is the relationship between BI and Zion. They need to play off each other, CJ is a floor spacer not a lead guard.