The New Orleans Pelicans are coming off of their most successful regular season since they shipped Chris Paul to Los Angeles for
Pau Gasol Eric Gordon. Making the playoffs for the first time in the Anthony Davis Era, the Pelicans headed into this offseason wanting to build off the momentum of the past year.
Their first major move was cutting ties with coach Monty Williams. Williams, who was well liked by his players, struggled with managing the clock and his rotations. While it was daring to move on from a coach who had the full support of Anthony Davis right before his extension was up for negotiation, the Pelicans made an excellent choice finding a replacement. Alvin Gentry, the new coach of the Pelicans, has had success in the past as a head coach and last season helped architect Golden State’s high flying offensive machine of doom.
With a new coach in the fold, New Orleans quickly locked up Davis to a Rose Rule contract that will see him make $145 million over the next five years. This was a no-brainer for all parties involved, as Davis could not have made any more money elsewhere and the Pelicans would be insane to not offer AD all the money that the CBA allowed them too. Just minutes into the offseason, the Pelicans appeared to be headed down the right track.
But just as soon as it seemed the Pellies could do no wrong, general manager Dell Demps re-signed center Omer Asik to a five year, $60 million contract.
It’s not difficult to defend the signing: Asik started 76 games for a team that made the Western Conference playoffs. The contract, large by the standards of NBA Yesteryear, will become a bargain as the salary cap explodes in the next two seasons. Asik, who just turned 29, is not overly reliant on athletic ability and should not see a huge dropoff in production as he enters his early thirties. The move to re-sign Asik and preserve some continuity for a team that has had near constant turnover over the last five years seems like a decision any general manager would make. Despite all that, I think the decision to bring back the Turkish center is a big mistake for New Orleans.
Asik is regarded as a very good defensive center, the type of player capable of anchoring a top defense in the league. Paired with athletic freak Anthony Davis, Asik should have wrecked havoc on anyone foolish enough to attempt a drive to the rim. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, this was simply not the case. New Orleans surrendered 104.7 points per 100 possessions this last season, a mark that put them in 22nd in defensive efficiency. New Orleans’ finish in the bottom third in this stat is puzzling given the pedigree of their starting front court.
Asik’s reputation as a staunch defender may not actually be deserved. When defending shots at the rim, opponents scored on Asik 51% of the time. Of the 72 players to defend five shots at the rim per game, Asik ranked 42nd. Asik only averaged .7 blocks per game in 2014-15, his lowest average since his rookie year. Asik’s block percentage, a metric measuring the percentage of two point attempts blocked by the player while on the floor, was just 2.1%, by far the lowest of his career.
With Asik on the court, the Pelicans defensive rating was 103.3, about a point and a half better than their overall average. But Asik, who only averaged 26 minutes per game last season, had the benefit of playing two-thirds of his minutes alongside Davis. With Asik and AD on the court, New Orleans held opponents to 100.5 points per 100 possessions. When Asik was on the court with Ryan Anderson, the Pelicans hemorrhaged over 112 points per 100 possessions.
Asik’s defense is certainly not bad. He is definitely an above average defender, but not much more than that. The real problem with the Pelicans’ decision to sign the center to a five year contract is his utter lack of any offensive game. While Asik’s presence on the court improved the Pelicans’ defensive efficiency, it also dragged the offense down with it. New Orleans scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions when Asik was on the pine, and just 103.7 when he was playing.
Asik provides absolutely no floor spacing on offense. Last season Asik attempted 412 field goals, all coming from two point range. Of those 412 attempts, 89.6% came within the restricted area. Asik managed to shoot 55% on those attempts, but shot just 21% on shots between three and ten feet from the hoop. Asik’s shot selection allowed teams to completely ignore him and focus on shooters around the arc. The Pelicans had a lower true shooting percentage in the minutes Asik played than when he was off the court.
With Asik and his backup Alexis Ajinca both re-signed, Anthony Davis will again play almost all of his minutes at power forward. In 2013-14, before New Orleans sent a first round pick to Dallas for Asik, Davis played power forward 58% of the time and center 42% of the time, per Basketball Reference. Last season, with Asik on the team, Davis logged 94% of his minutes at power forward. I’m sure New Orleans views this as a way to save AD’s body from having to bang in the paint. He’s already suffered a multitude of bumps and bruises in his three NBA seasons, and the Pelicans want desperately to protect their gigantic investment.
But anyone who watched the NBA Finals knows that the days of trotting out post-up bruits who clog the paint are long gone. The Pelicans would only need to be concerned about a handful of teams taking advantage of the slight Davis down low. Also, Davis is just 22 years old and could easily thicken his frame as he gets older. The avenue to offensive success in the modern NBA is surrounding an athletic rim protector with as many guys who can drive, dish and shoot as possible. Anthony Davis should be the prototype of a modern center. Instead, the Pelicans have elected to cramp their spacing and shoehorn Davis into the four spot.
The Pelicans barely made the playoffs last season. Had Kevin Durant’s fingertips been a fraction of an inch longer, New Orleans easily could have been a lottery team. Had they missed the postseason, would Dell Demps have been so inclined to re-sign Asik? Is it possible Demps wanted to re-sign Asik to avoid embarrassment over trading a first round pick for a one-year rental?
However you slice it, I don’t like this decision. New Orleans will likely remain a team that must fight until the last day of the season to sneak into the playoffs. Tying up $12 million a year and a valuable roster spot to get the band back together for an eighth seed push is certainly not how I would go about constructing a team.