April 15, 2024

Pelicans have a clear Achilles heel at center. Can it be fixed before NBA playoffs arrive?


NEW ORLEANS — It didn’t take long for small ball to become a thing of the past in the NBA.

Along with having arguably the two best shooters of all time, the Golden State Warriors built their championship dynasty over the past decade using lineups that emphasize speed, athleticism and defensive versatility over size and strength. Draymond Green’s success as a then-undersized power forward who shut down top centers gave Golden State an advantage very few teams could emulate, even as they tried.

Over time, as more bigs entered the league built on the blueprint laid out by Green, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant, many of those same teams began covering two bases at once: Playing fast and playing big.

That list does not include the 2023-24 New Orleans Pelicans. Though the Pels have enjoyed one of their best seasons in recent memory, with a 45-29 record that has them tied for fifth place in the deep Western conference, they have a clear Achilles heel at the center position.

Jonas Valančiūnas and Larry Nance Jr. provide specific skill sets that at times maximize stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram on both ends of the court. Despite their clear limitations, each deserves credit for logging the vast majority of their minutes at center on a team that allows the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions in the league.

However, their ineffectiveness in Saturday’s 104-92 Pelicans loss to the NBA-leading Boston Celtics illuminated the challenge Pels head coach Willie Green will continue to face as he tries to solve perhaps this team’s biggest issue entering the postseason: How to get 48 minutes of effective center play against top teams that will exploit any weakness.

As he’s done more since the All-Star break, Green started Valančiūnas, but cut his minutes in the second half to lean into quicker and more versatile units that could better combat Boston’s five-out offense. Nance is usually the beneficiary of Valančiūnas’ playing time dip, but when he struggled, Green went even smaller. He kept Nance and Valančiūnas on the bench the entire fourth quarter, using Williamson at center instead. The Pelicans won the quarter by three points, but it never felt like they had comfortable footing.

“Trying to play faster, spread them out (and) give Z more room to operate,” Green said of his decision. “Small (ball) is part of our unit that we want to continue to try and look at.”

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans have a +4.9 net rating this season when they use small-ball lineups featuring Zion at center. That’s a decent figure, but the sample is small and it’s not at the same level as the best small-ball units of the recent NBA past. Williamson, in particular, often looks uncomfortable as the team’s primary rebounder and rim protector.

The Valančiūnas-Nance platoon, combined with a dose of Williamson at the five, is often enough for the Pelicans to counter many teams. They can deal with bigger ones by using Valančiūnas to battle it out in the paint. Nance, meanwhile, fits against smaller ones because he can switch all five positions.

But certain unicorn bigs who can comfortably move around the perimeter and play bully ball have given the Pelicans problems all season. On Saturday, it was the original unicorn himself, Kristaps Porziņģis. When the Pels went small, Porziņģis quickly got to his spots in the post. When Valančiūnas was on the floor, the Celtics got Porziņģis wide-open 3-point looks through their their pick-and-pop actions.

Porziņģis finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, going 1 of 6 on mostly open 3-point shots. New Orleans made his life tougher in the fourth quarter when Boston started giving him a lot of post touches, but asking guards like CJ McCollum and Naji Marshall to defend 7-footers isn’t a sustainable formula.

“They pretty much play all perimeter guys,” Green said of the Celtics. “(We were) just seeing if we can match up better with them.”

Valančiūnas’ role in particular has been steadily declining. The durable 31-year-old, who has missed just 11 regular-season games since arriving in a trade before the 2021-22 season, averaged just 18.5 minutes per game in March while logging fewer than 10 in the second half in 12 of the team’s last 13 games.

Recently, Green has regularly started Valančiūnas at center to begin the game before moving Nance into the starting lineup to open the second half. When asked why, Green said using Nance with the normal starting unit gives the team more defensive pop. Nance’s passing is also valuable when teams try to force the ball away from Williamson or Ingram.

While Nance’s skill set can be helpful to the starting group, so too is Valančiūnas’. Along with his soft touch around the basket, ability to command double-teams in the post and calming presence offensively, Valančiūnas provides great value as a rebounder, which is useful insurance for when Williamson and Ingram lag on the glass. According to NBA.com, when Williamson and Valančiūnas share the floor, the Pelicans grab 74.7 percent of their available defensive rebounds, which would rank No. 1 in the NBA. When Nance is in Valančiūnas’ spot, the team’s defensive rebounding rate drops to 71.5 percent, closer to the middle of the pack. Those margins may seem small, but they’ll jump off the page in the postseason when every possession matters.

Still, it’s hard to overlook some of Valančiūnas’ issues that are likely to become glaring in a playoff environment. While Valančiūnas has exhibited better effort and attention to detail on defense this season, his frame makes it hard to move his feet laterally against smaller opponents in pick-and-roll situations. The best offenses in the league can make him a target in the half court. It’s understandable for Green, a defensive-minded coach, to prefer lineups that don’t offer an obvious target like Valančiūnas.

The numbers with Valančiūnas aren’t great. Of the 14 leaguewide lineups that have logged at least 400 minutes together on the court this season, the Pelicans’ regular starting group (Zion, Ingram, Herb Jones, McCollum and Valančiūnas) ranks 11th in plus-minus (plus-2).

However, it’ll be important for Valančiūnas to stay locked in because the Pelicans may need him in certain playoff matchups. Valančiūnas has put together some of his best games in a Pelicans uniform against the LA Clippers, who currently hold the No. 4 seed. The presence of Ivica Zubac on the other end will make it easier for Valančiūnas to stay on the court and avoid defending a smaller player behind the 3-point line. Even if New Orleans drops out of the 4-5 matchup, Valančiūnas would undoubtedly be necessary in a potential series against two of the teams fighting for top-three seeds: the Minnesota Timberwolves (Rudy Gobert) and, in a worst-case scenario, the Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokić).

“JV, whether he plays 15 minutes or 20 minutes, he’s still getting his work in every day and he’s still showing up for us. We take advantage of his skill set when he gets opportunities,” McCollum said. “He’s been a pro throughout this entire process.”

Nance, also 31, brings a versatility on both ends of the court that can be tough to measure, but is essential to this team’s success. He’s a good decision-maker who keeps the ball moving on offense, and is also knocking down a career-high 42.1 percent from 3 this season.

He’s also an underrated defender at the point of attack who can make an impact in just about any defensive scheme. He’s great at playing the cat-and-mouse game with ballhandlers while in drop coverage against pick-and-rolls.

He can switch out on the perimeter and stay in front of smaller players.

Increasingly, Nance has also been an integral cog in the Pelicans’ zone defense, which is turning into Green’s secret weapon this season. Per Synergy, the Pelicans have accounted for the seventh-most defensive zone possessions in the league this season, and they rank third in points per possession on such plays. They were just 22nd in zone possessions last season.

 

Green has mentioned numerous times the importance of having defensive optionality and the need to throw curveballs to keep opponents on their toes. Nance’s adaptability and intelligence makes him an ideal fit in those situations.

“With the way teams can score now, it seems like scoring is going up every season. Being able to mix it up and take teams out of their normal pattern and rhythm during a game, it can help you,” Green said.

Nevertheless, the five-man units with Nance at center instead of Valančiūnas have posted similarly uninspiring plus-minus figures. Per Cleaning the Glass, when Nance is on the floor with Williamson, McCollum, Jones and Ingram, the Pelicans have a net rating of +0.1. Nance’s scoring, size and defensive rebounding deficiencies are just as vulnerable against good teams as Valančiūnas’ foot speed.

Ultimately, the lesson from the many Valančiūnas-Nance back-and-forths resembles an old football adage: “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none.”

The Pelicans’ unwillingness to fully commit to Nance or Valančiūnas tells us they don’t really trust either to log 30-plus minutes consistently against good teams. While both bring positive elements, the Western Conference is littered with big, versatile centers. Players such as Jokić, Davis, Gobert and Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis pose issues now, and youngsters such as Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama and Houston’s Alperen Şengün are sure to present problems for the foreseeable future.

The Pelicans might not find the right solution to their center problem this year, but they had better do so quickly. It’s not 2015 anymore.

(Top photo: Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)





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