pelicans

Previewing tonight’s game with Mason Ginsberg of Bourbon Street Shots

The Raptors wrapped up a five-game Western Conference road-trip with an expected, yet disappointing, record of 2-3. Zarar and I discussed the road-trip on the latest episode of the Raptors Weekly podcast, so I’ll keep my thoughts on the matter brief. The five games exposed some of the Raptors’ biggest flaws — lack of shot creation, and defending opposing front-lines. As with most teams, they simply need to hold tight until the All-Star break, which should give the team some much needed rest.

However, before they get to the break, they’ll face a pair of deceptively tough opponents in the Pelicans and Hawks, two teams that feature skilled power-forwards at the point of attack. When healthy, Amir Johnson is usually up to the task, but as he admitted after the loss to the Clippers, the “nagging pain is just bothering [him]” (which he probably sustained in the fourth quarter in the game against Orlando). The health of his ankles will be immensely important to the success of the Raptors in the upcoming games.

Before we move to discussing the specific match-ups, I caught up with Mason Ginsberg of Bourbon Street Shots. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding the Pelicans:

1. So…Anthony Davis is pretty good, huh? In his sophomore season, the Uni-bomber is averaging 20.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and a league-leading 3.2 blocks per game. Oh, and he’s only 20 years old. What’s the ceiling for this kid, and can be the number one option on a contending team sometime in the future?

Mason: To the latter question – I think there’s no doubt about it. He is already filling that role for the Pelicans as a result of all of the team’s injuries while maintaining the same high efficiency level and he’s only 20 years old. The former question is a little more difficult, but I’d be willing to go so far as to say he’ll be the best player in the NBA by the time he’s 26 years old (assuming LeBron and Durant age like normal human beings).

2. Whose absence impacts the team more: Ryan Anderson’s herniated disc or Jrue Holiday’s stress fracture?

Mason: Great question, and a really tough one. The loss of each both resulted in massive downgrades at their respective positions; Brian Roberts is nowhere near the same kind of facilitator as Jrue, and Jason Smith isn’t even healthy to fill Anderson’s minutes. If I’m forced to pick one, I ever so slightly lean towards Anderson – the Pelicans’ offense reaches a whole other level with his floor spacing ability, as it opens up far more space for players like Tyreke Evans to attack the rim. Without him, it’s really difficult to stretch the defense very far.

3. Speaking of Jrue Holiday, how does the “two first-rounders for Jrue” trade look in retrospect?

Mason: The Jrue trade will forever be a question of risk vs. reward. The Pelicans opted for one sure thing – a young, athletic borderline all-star with room to get even better – over a player coming off of major knee surgery and an assumed low lottery pick in a deep class. Based on historical performance of players in relation to their respective draft slots, New Orleans made the correct decision, but it’s easy to play the “what if” game as well. Unforeseen injuries have also made the deal look better than expected for the 76ers.

4. Do you believe that this roster, as currently constructed, can challenge for a playoff spot next season? If not, which part of the team does GM Dell Demps need to upgrade?

Mason: Yes, and I actually voiced this answer in Friday’s ESPN 5-on-5. Apart from getting healthy, Anthony Davis’ rapid development will be the biggest key to the Pelicans’ playoff chances. With some better chemistry on defense – which should come from simply playing together more – this team should be one of the best eight teams in the Western Conference, as they already have a top-10 offense at full strength.

5. What’s the key to stopping the Pelicans? Contain Davis and keep Gordon and Evans to the perimeter?

Mason: Containing Davis in all aspects of the game is certainly one of the most important key to beating the Pelicans. Not just his continuously expanding offensive arsenal, but keeping he and the other Pelicans bigs off of the offensive glass. New Orleans will often settle for relatively low percentage looks, so encouraging those while ensuring they don’t get second chances is paramount. On the other end, go at their foul happy centers (Stiemsma & Ajinca) to get into the penalty early in quarters and capitalize on their tendency to loosely defend the 3-point line (though they have improved in this regard as of late).

The success of the Pelicans relies heavily on the performance of the “Uni-Bomber”. Anthony Davis’ exploits and achievements are well-documented, yet they cannot be understated. He’s nimble, he’s agile, he’s quick, he’s long and he is tremendously skilled.

On offense, Davis likes to operate in either the mid-post, or in the pick and roll. Luckily, Jrue Holiday is out with a stress fracture in his right leg, so Brian Roberts (not the overrated second baseman for the OriLOLs) is starting at the point. However, Jrue’s absence has not hampered Davis’ production on offense in the slightest as he is still finishing at the rim and canning jumpers from the mid-range. Davis is also a very capable passer, but outside of Eric Gordon and Anthony Morrow, the Pelicans are bereft of outside shooting.

Defensively, Davis is a menace. He has impeccable basketball IQ, and his wingspan is the stuff of Jay Bilas’ dreams. He hedges hard on pick-and-rolls, yet he’s able to effectively recover in-time to defend the roll-man. He’s also a very quick leaper, which allows him to block a surprising number of jump-shots. His defensive presence on both the perimeter, and at the rim is truly spectacular.

However, the defense really falls apart behind Davis, which explains why the Pelicans’ defense ranks 25th in the NBA at 105.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. Outside of Al-Faroq Aminu, their wing defenders struggle mightily with containing dribble penetration, which has resulted in opponents shooting 61.8% in the restricted area (8th highest in the NBA). They also concede an above-average number of three-point attempts to their opponents, especially from the corners.

Offensively, the Pelicans rely on a three-headed combination of Davis, Gordon and Tyreke Evans to generate shots. Eric Gordon has not been the reliable scorer of yesteryear. His scoring efficiency is below league average (52.3 TS%) and he’s getting to the free-throw line at a career low rate (only 27% of his possessions). Gordon is still a capable playmaker and he can still shoot from deep (39% on the season) but he’s not as dangerous as his reputation would suggest. The same goes for Tyreke Evans, whose shooting chart looks like this:

Shotchart_1391983553664

However, the Pelicans are beginning to turn it around of late. They’ve won seven out of their last ten contests (last night’s loss to Brooklyn notwithstanding), including impressive victories against the Bulls, Hawks and Timberwolves. Increased defensive intensity has keyed their recent success (5th best by Defensive Rating), as the insertion of Aminu and Ajinca (seriously, that Alexis Anjinca), in addition to Davis’ usual stalwart defense has frustrated opponents on both the perimeter, and at the rim.

Positional Match-Ups

Point Guard — Brian Roberts has performed adequately in Holiday’s absence, averaging a respectable 12.7 points and 4.1 assists per game over his last ten games, but Lowry has been performing at an All-Star level all season long. If the Raptors could get anything decent out of Vasquez, that would be Gravy (see what I did there?).

Advantage: Raptors

Shooting Guard — Remember when everyone was championing Eric Gordon over Demar Derozan? Oh, how the tables have turned. Derozan has been hot of late, averaging 26.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 55.7 TS% over his last ten games, and Pelicans head coach Monty Williams (Flying Circus) will likely cross-match Al-Faroq Aminu onto Demar. The key for Derozan will be to stay aggressive and attack the interior, rather than settling for jumpshots. Getting Davis into foul trouble will pay dividends for the Raptors as a whole.

Advantage: Raptors

Small Forward — Ever since his 51 point outburst, Ross’ offensive contributions have been marginal. Teams have clued into his dead-eye shooting from beyond the arc, and his handles are not at the point to which he can attack opponents off-the-dribble with any consistency. His defense on Tyreke Evans will be crucial, as Evans is a bully who does the entirety of his damage on the interior. Given Ross’ poor performances of late, the advantage has to go to Aminu and Evans.

Advantage: Pelicans

Front Court — This one is hard to assess. On one hand, Davis is by far the best big-man on either team. However, his fellow front-liners are Alexis Ajinca (of former Raptors fame), Greg Stiemsma (of Heinsohn’s “Bill Russell-like shot-blocking ability” fame) and Jeff Withey (of no fame whatsoever). The Raptors boast more depth, and more size on the block, but factoring in Amir’s bum ankles and subsequent poor performances of late, this match-up is a wash.

Advantage: Tied

Bench — Patrick Patterson has become a consistent contributor, so the only real question is “will Vasquez, Salmons and Hansbrough show up to play?” The Raptors will need either one of Vasquez or Salmons to provide some play-making. The Pelicans sport Evans and Morrow off the bench, but the game-plan for those two is straight-forward — don’t let Evans get into the paint, and never help off Morrow.

Advantage: Raptors, slightly.

Predictions

All in all, this is a game that the Raptors should win. Their opponents are banged up, and they’re on the second night of a back-to-back. If the Raptors can adhere to Mason’s gameplan — contain Davis, control the boards — the Raptors can guarantee an above .500 record at the All-Star break. However, Anthony Davis represents exactly the type of player that has decimated this team during this recent stretch of Amir’s malaise. If Amir is fully rested, I have full confidence in his defensive abilities. If not, I hope Dwane Casey gives him the quick hook and either matches 2Pat, or Hansbrough to contend with AD23 on defense.

Vegas says: The Raptors are -7.5 point favorites to win this game. The over-under is set at 192.5 points. Erm, there’s some stuff about -110 Toronto/+110 New Orleans, but I presume that’s just the relative temperature difference between the two cities in Kelvin. Either way, I direct your degenerate gambler-glasses to this site if you’re interested in burning your hard-earned cash.

William say: Raptors win by 5. It’s going to be a close one.