Currently, the Pelicans are on a three game winning streak, and at 6-5, are over .500 for the first time since 2015. That’s the good news. The bad news is that their current formula for how they got there is unsustainable when projecting over an 82 game season. Simply put, the Pelicans are relying on two mega stars to carry them every game, and might be riding them into the ground just to get early regular season wins.
Anthony Davis is leading the league in minutes played per game (40.3) when you take the Portland game out of his averages. DeMarcus Cousins is 3rd at 38.3 (Oh, and Jrue Holiday is 4th, by the way). Over the course of a season, this would put Davis and Cousins at over 3100 minutes played, which would be huge leaps for both with regard to their career highs. Cousins career high came last season, when he played a total of 2465 minutes. Davis’s career high also came last season, as he logged 2708 minutes over 75 games.
To expect two guys to increase their career highs in minutes played in a season by 20-25 percent each is unrealistic. And if they don’t play that many minutes with this current roster? Well, then the Pelicans simply won’t be good enough to win, hence the “unsustainable” part. With both players on the court, the Pelicans are playing at a contender level (+6.8 per 100 possessions). If even one of them is off the court, they are worst team in the league bad (-11.7 per 100). And the reason is simple: The Pelicans currently have the most top-heavy rotation in league history.
PER is only one stat amongst many, and is by no means the be all, end all, but in this case it shines a light on something we can all see with our eyes anyway. AD and Cousins have been fantastic, putting up MVP level PER’s (31.8 and 26.9 respectively). After that, not one single current Pelican is putting up a PER higher than 11 (which is replacement level by the way). The NBA has never seen a team with a discrepancy like this. Countless times in the past, a team has been buoyed by two superstars, but never has the drop off to their 3rd, 4th, and 5th players been this dramatic.
Remember, the great Jazz teams with Stockton and Malone? Of course you do, and those two guys are the ones who get all the glory. As they should, they were great. But Jeff Hornacek put up a 19.3 PER in 97-98. Shannon Anderson was a slightly better than average starter at 15.7. And 5 other regular rotation players ended up between 12.5 and 15 as well. Heck, even the Deron Williams/Boozer teams that were just solid playoff teams had 9 guys in their rotation with a PER over 11, including 7 with one over 14.
The Thunder, carried by KD and Westbrook for all those years, had between 6-9 guys every year with an above replacement player PER. The Blazers, in the Roy and Aldridge years – and then again in the Lillard/Aldridge years, routinely had 6-10 players with a PER that was at 12 or higher, and never had a third guy lower than 17. I can go on, and on, but you get the point. Two guys can’t possibly do it alone, and even if they can, you would need these two to play an unreasonable amount of minutes, and an unlikely amount of games to just be able to carry this team to around 45 wins and a potential playoff spot in the West. The odds of one guy being able to maintain that heavy of a workload for 80+ games is low. The odds of both of them doing it is miniscule.
So, what’s the solution? Well, luckily there are a couple. First, and foremost, some of the other guys on the roster (or currently in suits) could step up and take on more of the workload. The top candidate here would be Jrue Holiday, obviously. He is already logging the minutes, but seeing some actual offensive production would help as well. If he were even able to just give the Pels his career averages, he would increase his scoring over five points per 100 possessions, while also producing an additional 2 assists per 100. Those 9 extra points per 100 could dramatically ease the burden off AD and Cousins.
Another candidate is Rajon Rondo, who is scheduled to be back in the next week or two. His playmaking could theoretically open up opportunities for other guys, enabling struggling players like Holiday, Moore, and Cunningham to be more effective. Solomon Hill will help as well, when he returns in a couple of months. His ability to play the four and push Cunningham to the four more often, will allow AD and Cousins to rest more, theoretically. But all this pails in comparison to what one more quality big man could provide, and the fact of the matter is that the big the Pelicans need is not currently on the roster.
Forget any current timetable for the possible returns of Ajinca and Asik – those two are done and can never be relied upon again to give anyone consistent, productive minutes in the NBA. Conversely, Diallo is currently healthy and could very well be a solid rotation player some day, but that day is not today. In the 46 minutes he has played so far, he has given the Pelicans plenty of