Just when it looked like the New Orleans Pelicans may be able to start a season with good health and enjoy the benefit of having all their stars ready and able, it wasn’t to be. Once again, though, Jrue Holiday won’t be able to complete a full season for the Pelicans.
But this time his pending absence goes far beyond the importance of basketball. Holiday will be taking time off to miss the start of the season to care for his wife.
Lauren, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner with the U.S. women’s soccer team, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is waiting to undergo surgery after the upcoming birth of the couple’s first child in October. When such a situation arises, there’s nothing Holiday should do but leave basketball firmly in his rearview mirror and take care of his family.
While nothing but prayers will be going towards the Holiday family, the Pelicans and their fans are left wondering how their team will cope without Jrue (possibly until November or December) again.
He’s a vital player. The man who appeared in five of the Pelicans’ only nine lineups with a positive net rating last season, per Basketball-Reference. Not only as the starting point guard but as the most intelligent, selfless playmaker and the team’s third leading scorer (16.8 points per game, now replacing Ryan Anderson who was second last season), the pressure is on for the rest of the team.
The immediate reaction is that if there were ever a time for Anthony Davis to return with emphasis and put together MVP-level play, this is it. Especially after such a disappointing season for the team in 2015-16, and even more so after losing Holiday.
Davis taking over is what we all want. It feels like we’ve started to forget how remarkable a talent he is. The narrative of him being injury prone has crept in after he was cut short at 61 games last season. And as he failed to take another leap forward as many were waiting for, lost amidst the Stephen Curry MVP madness rather than being a candidate himself, the Pelicans slipped backwards to make matters worse.
Davis averaged 24.3 points per game last season on 49.3 percent shooting, stepping beyond the arc to make 32.4 percent of his three-point attempts (35 makes for the season) and recorded a career-high usage percentage of 29.6. In the absence of Holiday, though, who averaged 21.1 points in an impressive 28-game stretch over the end of the season, Davis’ usage can rise even higher.
From his smooth face-up jumpers to working in the post or as a roll man, and simply as the team’s best player by a mile, a little more Davis hero ball at times is one obvious way to alleviate some of the issues without Holiday.
Next, the pressure shifts to a weakened backcourt that had question marks even before the Holiday news emerged.
One such question is the future of Tyreke Evans. His solid assist numbers (6.6 per game and 7.7 per 36 minutes last season) don’t indicate how he can limit the offense and over dominate the ball at times, and he won’t even be ready for the start of 2016-17 due to a flurry of right knee surgeries over the last year.
Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders reporting at the end of August that the Pelicans have been “pretty aggressive” in looking to land one of the higher level remaining free agent guards also indicates how the team wants new options. They made a strong run at Ty Lawson before he joined the Sacramento Kings and even brought in Lance Stephenson recently for a workout.
If they’re considering adding someone like the latter, the future of Evans in New Orleans stays somewhat up in the air if they can find a way to part with him or add others.
With their existing players, though, how can the Pelicans keep going?
There are some new options in the backcourt to utilize, thanks to two signings from this summer: E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.
Galloway is coming off a season as a backup in the New York Knicks underwhelming point guard rotation. Shooting 39.3 percent and averaging only 3.7 assists per 36 minutes, he doesn’t come close to filling the Holiday-less void, but combining with others he offers energy, occasional scoring bursts, and sound defense.
Then there’s Moore. I wrote about his arrival in far more detail this summer after his four-year, $34 million deal caught some off-guard. In 21.4 minutes per game with the Chicago Bulls, Moore showed more than upside if you were watching.
He isn’t “some scrub” who got paid; he’s a highly promising two-way player who warranted a solid payday in the new market. As an excellent perimeter defender brimming with energy, more than capable of harassing opponents at the perimeter and taking on bigger opponents in the post, Moore proved his impact at that end of the floor.
Offensively, Moore made 45.2 percent of his threes and showed signs that he can create a little from mid-range off the dribble, attack with floaters, or simply operate as a great catch-and-shoot threat.
But while his current skill set is ideal for playing in that off-ball role alongside Holiday, Moore’s work to improve his ball handling and playmaking this summer will be tested. That wasn’t his forte last season, and he’ll need the help of his teammates.
Enter Tim Frazier, a third-year point guard who’s finally staying put after playing sporadically in Philadelphia and Portland. He signed a two-year, $4 million deal this summer to stay in New Orleans, and a strong spell of play to finish last season should give Pelicans fans promise that he can continue to prove himself in more time without Holiday.
In a 16-game run to close the season, Frazier averaged 13.1 points, 7.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 29.3 minutes per game, shooting 45 percent from the floor. It’s quite the stat line for a player who almost came out of nowhere after appearing in only 11 games as a rookie.
As he flashed his pace, court vision and willingness to share the ball, Frazier likely earned himself the starting point guard role for the unexpected absence of Holiday. The obvious issue is whether a glowing 16-game spell transfers into a new season.
While his 41.9 percent three-point shot will surely regress after never displaying such efficiency earlier in his career and his defense is a weakness, Frazier’s playmaking ability is intriguing nonetheless. Again, whether it continues is a major element of the team to look out for in this time without Holiday.
Ideally, though, Frazier should combine well with Davis — something he only enjoyed for two games before Davis’ injury — after displaying a knack of driving and kicking to teammates, also showing flashes as a solid pick-and-roll handler.
In backup roles or as a more off-ball starting shooting guard for Moore, this trio are a fine set of players. They can all serve a purpose going forward, and they help make up a solid backcourt rotation. Moore’s excellent defense helps make up for that weakness in Frazier, and Frazier’s passing helps make up for that weakness in Moore and Galloway.
They can partially balance each other out in that regard, and help an offense that will try to use Davis heavily and support him with shooters (Buddy Hield time?!).
If Frazier continues his impressive offensive spell to run the offense — benefiting immensely from the returning presence of Anthony Davis — that’s even more encouraging.
Together, the three guards are receiving a challenge that could help them develop as young pieces for the Pelicans’ future. However, the issue for Holiday’s absence remains: it’s harder to like such players when they’re forced to be those running the offense, not energizing it in bursts off the bench. Uglier play may be what to expect before benefits of this period arise.
As always seems to be the case with the hindered Pelicans, the success keeps hovering at the horizon.