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Pelicans could take a page from the Thunder

New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) slam dunks in front of Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) and forward Danilo Gallinari (8) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Anthony Davis dropped 50 points on Wednesday night, making a loud statement to the basketball world that he is still the best young player in the league. Given the absences of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter, as well as adjusting to Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore getting shots instead of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, the New Orleans Pelicans had some encouraging moments.

Though it’s only one game, they had the fastest pace in the league in their opener. That’s a good thing. This team doesn’t have the skill to finesse their way to victories. They need to get out in the open court where Davis makes defenders look like a junior varsity squad going up against varsity at the end of practice.

Right now, due to a combination of injuries and unanswered questions about the roster, they don’t have the shooters or finishers to take advantage of the pace, but in the long run it will pay dividends to run. But while playing fast, the Pelicans need to simultaneously be a top-10 rebounding team, and if last year and last night were any indication, they have a lot of work to do there. New Orleans could use the Thunder teams of recent years as a blueprint on how to both run and rebound.

The Thunder have had a unique combination of pace and rebounding for years now. Rarely are teams top 10 in both these categories. It’s what allowed them to run with the Warriors and go up 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals last year, and also dominate the San Antonio Spurs on the glass in the previous round. While it will be an inferior version this year, expect Russell Westbrook to continue to push, and the likes of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to create havoc on the offensive glass. The Pelicans could learn from this.

Last year, the Pelicans finished 24th in both total rebounding rate and offensive rebounding rate, and 11th in pace. The Thunder finished first in both rebounding categories and eighth in pace. Although the Pelicans don’t have a comparable roster, there are some applicable takeaways. A closer look reveals that while the two-headed monster of Kanter and Adams had great moments in the playoffs, the Thunder’s rebounding success was in large part due to their backcourt. Serge Ibaka only averaged 6.8 rebounds per game and Steven Adams only 6.7. It was 8.2 rebounds from Kevin Durant, 7.8 from Westbrook and 3.6 from Andre Roberson in limited minutes that made the difference.

For New Orleans, this means they don’t need to turn to Omer Asik to solve all their problems. While he’s had his moments in the NBA as a solid help defender and rebounder, his PER of 11 last year won’t cut it. And Davis’ game is built for a four-out, one-in system. Playing Asik is giving opponents a quarterback spy to put on Davis, as they can ignore Asik and live with the one or two backdoor layups he gets per game.

Just look how badly Nurkic ignored him on this play:


Davis scored anyway, but that type of conceded help defense increases the difficulty of every shot attempt. The offensive costs of playing Davis at the 4 versus the 5 are not worth the benefits in team rebounding the Pelicans get with Asik out there.

The Pelicans desperately need their guards and forwards to rebound. Alvin Gentry needs to challenge Lance Stephenson, who grabbed 7.2 per game in 2013-2014. He needs to get everything he can out of Terrence Jones, who corralled 6.7 per game in 2014-2015. Buddy Hield can earn minutes by showing he is not afraid to box out. Solomon Hill had a respectable defensive rebounding percentage last season, and E’Twaun Moore plays with energy which can be targeted towards the glass. Cheick Diallo has the DNA to be the right type of big to pair with Davis.

The roster as currently constructed is not going to suddenly be the force Oklahoma City has been on the boards, but it’s a formula that can work for New Orleans moving forward. And when you have a talent like Davis to go with an underrated point guard in Holiday, everybody else needs to focus on defense, rebounding and improving their jump shots.

Davis has the tenacity of Westbrook to finish at the rim:


He also has the ability to handle the ball, curl around screens and shoot in a way only a player like Durant can at that size:


You can’t clog up the paint for someone this special just because Asik is the best of bad solutions on the boards. The Pelicans needs an identity, and they need to invest the season in cultivating that style even if it doesn’t work right away. Being top 10 in pace and rebounding is aspirational, but it is a rare personality that could make the Pelicans a force in the next few years.

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