TrueHoop: New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis is ready to take flight

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
2:50
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis on his breakout sophomore season, why he doesn't have a best friend and why he doesn't eat seafood.

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Q&A: Anthony Davis on life in the NBA

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
3:50
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Anthony DavisLayne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Pelicans' rising superstar, Anthony Davis, has it all ... well, except for a best friend and a Snuggie.
Have you been watching Anthony Davis? He’s crushing it. He ranks fourth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, and this is a stat that doesn’t even account for the defensive side of the ball where The Brow has emerged as the top shot-blocker in the league.

Davis is a somewhat reticent 21-year-old who doesn’t see himself as the rah-rah guy in the huddle. He says the physicality of the NBA is the biggest different between the college and pro games -- and is carb-loading to bulk up. We reached him in Atlanta, where the Pelicans face off against the Hawks on Friday night.

First off, how are you feeling? How’s that upper respiratory thing? Sounds nasty.

Davis: I feel good. It was a quick thing. I’m ready to get back out there.

Are you a power forward? Does it matter?

I’m a basketball player, but yeah, if you want to put a position on there, I’m a power forward.

What happens when Ryan Anderson is out there? Do you become a 5 on the whiteboard? And is that something you’re cool with?

I’m cool with it. We do different things, but it doesn’t matter what we’re called. It opens up the court and that’s good. Like I said, I’m a basketball player, and I’m still going to guard the rim whoever is out there. It doesn’t matter if I’m a power forward or a center. My job doesn’t change.

I know smart people who believe you’re the third-best player in the league already, behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Can you even allow yourself to think like that?

Nah, you can’t think about that. Maybe down the road, but right now I just have to get better. It’s about winning, doing the job, helping my team get better.

What’s it like to guard LeBron? How do you approach that?

Keep your hands up. He’s going to be aggressive, but you have to be aggressive as a defender. It’s still defense, so that doesn’t change at all. But he can hurt you in a lot of different ways. You have to go out there and do your job -- nothing changes defensively.

What’s your best skill?

Blocking shots. Cleaning up the glass, whatever it is. Changing shots, getting to the ball. Those are probably my best skills right now.

What’s the hardest thing to pick up about the pro game when you come into the league?

The pace, and how physical it is. When you come in, the guys you’re playing against have been in the league for like 16 years! I thought it was going to be a lot easier than what it is. You have to try to get stronger right away. You have to hold your own when you’re in the post. You have to get better right away.

A lot of guys, when you ask this question say, the defensive schemes.

I don’t really think so. Defense doesn’t change. Offensively, it changes a lot. The floor opens up a lot. One-on-one you have guys who can do so much more, who can make tough shots. As far as schemes, I don’t think that’s a big thing, at least not for me.

Whose brain do you like to pick about basketball?

My coach -- Coach Monty [Williams]. He knows so much. Coach [Gregg Popovich] was his mentor and did a lot for him. He’s the best coach ever. I definitely pick [Willams’] brain about a lot of things. He provides me with great feedback, and I want to be better. I want to be an elite player someday.

Are you going to be the guy who’s vocal in the huddle, who does the rah-rah thing?

I’m not quiet, but I’m not that guy. Anthony Morrow is the perfect rah-rah guy. He gets everybody up. I’m more talk to the guys before the game, get everyone ready, but as far as keeping everyone amped up for 48 minutes, I wouldn’t say that’s me.

What’s the most challenging thing about managing millions of dollars as a young player?

I don’t really spend money like that at all. You’ve got to know to save. It’s easier if you’ve got the right people to help, financial people that you trust. I think that’s the thing -- have good people around you.

I imagine that everyone comes out of the woodwork to ask you for stuff.

All the time. For crazy things. You definitely have to learn to start saying no. You’re going to lose a lot of friends. You just have to live with it. And they keep coming back. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with helping people. They usually go to my mom or my dad. Nobody really asks me for anything. They might talk to me about something and I tell them to talk to my parents.

Should the NBA have an age limit for rookies?

If a guy is ready to come into the league, if they think they can play, by all means they should. Age shouldn’t matter. Kobe came in at 18 and became one of the best players. I don’t think age really matters at all.

How do you take care of your body? What do you eat -- or what do you not eat?

I don’t eat seafood, but I eat everything else really. I’m trying to put on weight, so I eat a lot of pasta. A lot of vegetables. And anything to help put on weight.

Who’s your best friend in the league?

I don’t have a best friend.

Are there guys in the league you’re tight with?

I’m not really tight with anybody. I mean, the guys on the team, but I’ve only been in the league for a couple of years. Maybe the guys from Kentucky, but that’s really it.

Did I read somewhere that you used to fly with a Snuggie?

I did at one time.

So the Snuggie is gone?

The Snuggie is gone.

New Orleans' new era: Fight or flight?

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
11:42
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
DavisJerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Davis is a bona fide superstar. Now comes the hard part: building a winner around him.
For all the dealmaking, recruitment and asset management that go into building a winner in the NBA, the most reliable way to engineer a contender is by the sheer luck of the draft. More specifically, landing the top pick when a surefire superstar is on the board.

In the spring of 2012, six months after Chris Paul departed for Los Angeles, the Pelicans lucked their way into Anthony Davis. They didn’t have an owner at the time, nor more than 650,000 television households in their market, but they had the No. 1 pick.

Davis has lived up to it thus far. He ranks fifth in the NBA in player efficiency rating (PER) at 26.72, nearly a five-point uptick from last season. He’s an intuitive pick-and-roll player with good hands and good timing. He’s a gazelle in transition and a lethal cutter in the half court. He drains 43 percent of his midrange shots, and few in the NBA gets to the line at a greater rate than Davis, who converts 76.6 percent of his shots when he’s there. So long as he maintains his health, he’s poised to be one of the five most efficient offensive players in the game for the next dozen years.

That’s just the appetizer because defense projects to be Davis’ greatest long-term asset. At 20, he isn’t yet the quickest decision-maker on the floor, but he’s just getting started on a team that can’t keep a healthy lineup together. When it comes to basic pick-and-roll stuff, matching up with a perimeter ball handler off a switch and shot-blocking instincts, he’s already proficient and getting better.

“A.D. is a phenom in a different realm,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams says. “Everyone wants to compare him to Tim [Duncan]. I see him more like LaMarcus [Aldridge], but with a better handle. And what A.D. does that throws you off is he’ll get two steals and five blocks. He does it a different way. He can do more from a [ballhandling] standpoint.”

Davis’ presence alone puts the Pelicans at a sizeable advantage over the overwhelming majority of the league. For at least the next five years, they get the chance to construct something special with Davis, and it doesn’t matter that they play in a tiny television market that’s expressed a longtime indifference toward NBA basketball. Bring them a dynamic top-five superstar and they’ll start following.
 

A cornerstone like Davis provides a firm foundation, but plenty of organizations have botched the task of building up from there. Cleveland was never able to develop the right combination of parts around LeBron James and is currently stuck in the mud trying to do the same around Kyrie Irving. Orlando got close with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard but never cracked the code. The head start provides a huge opportunity, but it’s fraught with difficult choices, without much time to deliberate. Management must quickly identify who they are and where they want to go.

“We knew we were going to get Anthony [Davis], so what do we want to do with him?” Pelicans general manager Dell Demps says. “Do we want to keep this veteran group? Or do we want to kind of start over? Or -- and it was the route we chose -- do we want to build through a combination of free agency and the draft?”
[+] EnlargeLeBron James and Anthony Davis
AP Photo/Joel AuerbachWill the Pelicans struggle to build around Anthony Davis like the Cavs did around LeBron James?

Early on in the process, Demps identified a couple of features that were important to him when he went surveying the league for available players.

“We really were targeting guys between the ages of 23 and 25, what we call ‘young veterans.’” Demps says. “We were trying to say, ‘Let’s get a bunch of guys who have already been through the ringer a little bit, had some ups and downs, know the league, but are still young and in their athletic prime.'”

In addition to youth, Demps values certain skill sets. In his vision of an NBA offense, dribble penetration is the most effective way to generate the highest-percentage shots, and he wants perimeter players who can attack defenses off the dribble.

Eric Gordon fit both. After a game of chicken with the Clippers (for whom keeping Eric Bledsoe out of the deal was their prime objective), New Orleans landed Gordon as their consolation prize in the Paul deal. Seven months later, much to Gordon’s chagrin and despite his playing only nine of 66 games in New Orleans, the Pelicans made him their first max player of the post-Paul era.

Right about the same time, Demps nabbed Ryan Anderson, another player in the Pels’ coveted 23-to-25 demographic. Anderson wasn’t a conventional big and, like Davis, power forward is his natural spot, but the Pelicans wanted some stretch alongside their prized draft pick, who is devastating when he has ample space to work.

From the Pelicans’ perspective, things looked promising: A future superstar in Davis, a prototypical modern-day stretch-4 on an affordable contract and a shooting guard with two-way capabilities. Gordon made too much and wasn’t the perkiest guy in the office, but the Pelicans would still have in the neighborhood of $18 million in cap space and a decent first-round pick when Summer 2013 rolled around.
 

Late last spring, Demps started hearing rumors that Jrue Holiday might be available. After being initially rebuffed, the Pelicans struck a deal with Philadelphia on draft night 2013, sending the Sixers the No. 6 pick (Nerlens Noel) and their top-five protected pick in the 2014 draft.

“It all kind of went back to our plan,” Demps says of Holiday, referring to his target demo and ideal skill set. “Jrue was the perfect guy. He’s injured now, but when you look at his injury history before he went down, he’d played 96 percent of his games. Defensive-minded, can guard the other team’s point guard, can score, make plays and can become an elite-level point guard in the NBA. We also wanted to pair someone with Anthony and they could grow together. The two picks -- maybe we could’ve drafted guys like that. But with Jrue, we got that guy and he’s proven and getting better.”

A week later, Operation 23-to-25-Year-Old continued when Demps showed up on the doorstep of Tyreke Evans at midnight on July 1. Evans’ approval ratings as a player waned after winning Rookie of the Year 2010. But even though he’s missed a bundle of games over the past few seasons, he’s been efficient offensively when on the court.

From Demps’ standpoint, Evans was miscast in Sacramento. Rather than think of him as a point guard with the occasional bout of tunnel vision, Demps saw Evans as a scoring wing who passes the ball at a healthy rate and still had some upside. Demps promptly put an offer sheet of four years and $44 million in front of Evans, who soon arrived in New Orleans as part of a three-team deal, with New Orleans’ starting center Robin Lopez headed to Portland.

“That was a tough one,” Demps says about shipping out Lopez to Portland. With Davis, Anderson and Lopez, the Pelicans had a reliable and diverse three-man frontcourt rotation -- the do-it-all power forward, the stretch big and the 7-footer who can protect the rim and doesn’t need the ball. On top of that, Lopez carried a favorable deal: two years and $10.5 million, a bargain for a competent starting big man with a PER of 19.

Demps felt as if it would be easier to find a stopgap center who could give them some defense than land a dynamic scorer like Evans -- and because of cap restraints, the Pelicans couldn’t acquire the latter without casting off the former. Even if you have a charitable view of Evans’ game, it’s a reach to appraise four years and $44 million of Evans as a more valuable asset than two years $10.5 million of Lopez.

Sources around the league say the Pelicans’ intention was to unload Gordon to generate the space to pay Lopez, but no reasonable offers surfaced. The Pelicans deny they’ve ever actively shopped Gordon, but multiple team executives say that Gordon has never vacated the display window since last summer.
 

It’s ironic that the service Lopez provided inside are now cited by both Demps and Williams as the team’s most pressing need, all the while they’ll shell out $78 million for the Gordon-Evans duo over the next three seasons. Lopez might not be Roy Hibbert, but cutting an affordable starting center loose then lamenting the lack of interior defense six months later is the equivalent of setting a perfectly good couch on the curb, then complaining there’s nowhere in the den to sit.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to have a monster big who commands attention,” Williams says. “To me, that’s the biggest thing we have to address -- to get somebody like that next to A.D.”
[+] EnlargeJrue Holiday
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesNew Orleans is relying on Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to help lift the franchise to the next level.

When a team desperately needs a conventional center, chances are there’s a top-shelf power forward in close proximity who’d rather have his jaw wired shut than deal with Marc Gasol, Howard and company every night as a 5 (see Aldridge, LaMarcus; Garnett, Kevin in Minnesota). As a general policy, organizations do everything they can to keep that guy happy.

Demps says that bringing in a bruiser wouldn’t compromise the Davis-Anderson frontcourt pairing, which has destroyed the league offensively (115.4 points per 100 possessions in the 324 minutes they’ve shared the floor and a plus-6.0 differential). He pointed to last season’s rotation as proof.

There’s a popular sentiment around the league that with the max commitment to Gordon, the acquisition of Evans and the drafting of Austin Rivers in 2012 (and to a lesser extent, the trade for the scoring point guard Holiday), Demps has constructed a glorified AAU team of ball dominators. In an era when most NBA offenses are predicated on spacing, what a team really needs are wings who can shoot from distance, something Evans can’t do. And if these wings are playing with a rarified talent like Davis, they need to be expert pick-and-roll practitioners. Neither Evans, Gordon nor even Holiday can list that as a strong suit.

Demps confidently backs his vision, and his arguments aren’t without merit. He points to the lineup data: The Pelicans’ desired closing unit -- Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, Davis -- dominated the league offensively this season before its members started dropping like flies, scoring an ungodly 123.5 points per 100 possessions. The assist rate for that lineup is over 20 percent, well above the league average. Even when the three ball dominators share the floor, their assist rate is a respectable 16.8, about the league average.

“One of the goals was to make sure we had a team that’s deep and hard to guard,” Demps says. “We wanted to be hard to match up against, and we were before the injuries happened. At times, we were unguardable.”

This isn’t an unfair characterization. The night Holiday fractured his right tibia, the Pelicans were ranked seventh in offensive efficiency. That gangbusters unit gives the Pelicans a slew of options in the half court Have Davis and Anderson run a stagger screen up top for Holiday or Evans. Davis rolls, while Anderson pops -- both lethal in that context. Gordon spaces the floor on the weakside. Holiday can too, if Evans is the ball-handler. And if Holiday mans the point, Evans can be ready and waiting to cut or start the second-side action if he gets the pass. With the collective offensive skill set on the floor, there’s plenty more where this came from.
 

Sitting behind his desk at the Pelicans’ new training facility in Metairie, La., Williams is in no mood to discuss the Pelicans’ offensive potential. Williams is a serious guy, Eeyore to Demps’ Tigger, and as the coach of a team occupying the 12-spot in the West, the prospect of such a conversation is unseemly.

“I’m so tired of talking about offense,” Williams says. “I don’t care how many offensive guys you have -- from Ryan, to Tyreke to Eric to A.D. to Jrue, the bottom line is you have to defend. ... Our defense is horrible and you just can’t play offensive basketball all the time. All the top teams? Their defense is sound. Our defensive mindset has got to get better.”

While Williams is disgusted with the current state of his 26th-ranked defense, he believes there’s precedent from his first season on the job for vast improvement -- so long as the Pels can keep bodies on the floor. New Orleans has strong bookends with Holiday at the point and Davis up front and it’s difficult to believe that with those two guys accounting for the ball and the rim, the Pelicans can’t have at least a league-average defense.


Our defense is horrible and you just can’t play offensive basketball all the time. All the top teams? Their defense is sound. Our defensive mindset has got to get better.


-- Pelicans coach Monty Williams

New owners often like to redecorate the front office when they buy the place, but Pelicans owner Tom Benson pledged his support for both Demps and Williams. Almost immediately after the completion of the sale, new Pelicans executive vice president Mickey Loomis extended Williams a contract extension. A few months later, one was extended to Demps. Along with the new deals, Demps and Williams were given an imperative -- win sooner than later.

The injuries that have decimated the Pelicans have rendered that nearly impossible. Holiday and Anderson are sidelined indefinitely, as is starting center Jason Smith. The Pelicans now start Brian Roberts and Alexis Ajinca at point guard and center, respectively.

“The injuries make it hard to evaluate our plan on the court,” Demps says. “But we have a young core and we want to keep adding to it.”

The investments in Gordon, Evans and Holiday will make that process difficult. Demps will have the mid-level exception to work with, but little else. Unless it lands in the top five, the Pelicans’ first-round draft pick this season will go to Philadelphia to complete the Holiday deal. In retrospect, the Gordon contract was excessive for a player who looks increasingly like a third option and doesn’t feel comfortable playing at much less than 100 percent. Evans has his attributes, but a deal more akin to Paul Millsap’s two-year $19 million contract in Atlanta would leave the Pelicans less hamstrung when it’s time to pony up for Davis’ max extension.

The errors in planning are easy to enumerate and Demps tacitly admits some of his primary goals are cleaning up his own mistakes. Fortunately for the Pelicans, a single truth lies beneath the spreadsheets:

When you have a budding star like Anthony Davis, you can afford to make mistakes.

Still, if you wander off into the woods, you still need to be able to see the trail. When the Pelicans heal, we’ll have a better gauge of their navigational skills.

Race to the bottom

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
5:01
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Would an injured Kobe Bryant help or hurt the Lakers' chances of a top pick? Can the Pelicans lose enough games to get into the top five so they won't have to give the 76ers their 2014 draft pick? Chad Ford on tanking.

Warriors find their 'scout' in New Orleans

January, 19, 2014
Jan 19
12:28
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- The fortunes of an NBA offense fluctuate. Shooters get hot for a week or two, then the cylinder shrinks and the points dry up.

A sound defense, in contrast, is supposed to be slump-proof. There might be nights when the process doesn’t yield the intended results, when a scorer goes ballistic and the opponent’s prayers get answered. But if a team masters the defensive schemes and -- as coaches are fond of saying -- competes, it can’t be kept down for long.

The Golden State Warriors had been such a team since opening night. With the acquisition of Andre Iguodala and the health of Andrew Bogut, the Ws have hung around the top five in defensive efficiency all season.
[+] EnlargeAndrew Bogut, Al-Farouq Aminu
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Bogut anchored a renewed defensive effort for the Warriors, blocking five shots.

But over the past week, the Warriors have hemorrhaged defensively. On Wednesday night on their home floor, they gave up 123 points in 103 possessions to Denver. In Oklahoma City, authorities are still investigating the crime scene from Friday night, when Kevin Durant went off for 54 points while the Thunder scored 127 points in 99 possessions.

And in the first half on Saturday night in New Orleans, the beat went on -- 52 points in 44 possessions to a Pelicans team playing without Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith. By halftime, it was apparent: The Golden State Warriors were in a defensive slump, a funk every bit as abject as an offense that can’t find the basket.

“It’s the mental aspects of the game,” Iguodala said. “You can be sluggish. You can go through slumps as a team defensively.”

If the Warriors experienced such a slump, they snapped out of it at halftime. After trailing for virtually all of the first half, the Warriors ground the Pelicans into a fine powder in the second, surrendering only 33 points after intermission to cruise to a 97-87 win.

“It’s not a function of inconsistency,” Bogut said. “We just have to buy into our defense and move around like we know we can. The last two or three games for us we’ve just been lackadaisical defensively and have tried to win it offensively. It’s easy to get caught up in that and try to get your numbers, and so on. I think when we commit to being a good defensive team, we win games.”

Durant went unconscious on Friday, so let’s give Golden State a mulligan for that game. But the debacle against the Nuggets and the first half in New Orleans were unsightly. Skeptics who were slow to buy into the notion that the Warriors could ever excel defensively would point to the backcourt personnel and David Lee at power forward as liabilities too pronounced to build an elite defense around.

During this recent defensive slump, that’s precisely what the evidence showed. On Wednesday, Stephen Curry repeatedly got drawn to the ball while guarding the perimeter, while Klay Thompson died on screens as a matter of routine. And in the first half on Saturday, the Pelicans fed Anthony Davis one-on-one against Lee relentlessly.

“We lost the scout,” Iguodala said.

By losing “the scout,” Iguodala meant that the Warriors were forgetting to factor what they knew about their opponents when hunkering down to defend.

“A scout is: This guy likes to go right, so don’t let him get to his right hand,” Iguodala explained. “Ty Lawson got to his right hand a lot that game. [Evan] Fournier got left. [Randy] Foye got right. Wilson Chandler got right a bunch. Once they got their rhythm, they got their rhythm.”

So far as the first half against the Pelicans, the Warriors lost the scout on Davis, who went for 21 of his 31 points before halftime.

“We were a little inconsistent in the first half, and gave Davis quite a bit in the first quarter,” Lee said. “In pick-and-roll, when he was diving down the middle, our weakside [defense] wasn’t pulled over enough.”

After halftime, the Warriors were vocal defensively. Calls came from the backline. Iguodala could be seen directing traffic from the wing. The Warriors realized that with the likes of Greg Stiemsma, Jeff Withey and Alexis Ajinca on the floor -- and to some extent Darius Miller and Brian Roberts -- they could take liberties and flood the strong side of the floor with impunity. They keyed in on Davis and Eric Gordon.

“We made some adjustments at halftime,” Lee said. “More than anything, our effort just picked up all the way around. And I want to give myself some credit for being a great rim protector ... I’m just kidding.”

Cue laugh track -- but amid the festive Warriors locker room after the game, the business of defending the floor became serious again. Golden State found its scout in the Crescent City.

Houston's improbable midrange winner

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
1:15
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- The Houston Rockets use an offensive formula they’ve been cultivating for years under their current regime: 3-pointers and rim shots. Everything in between is for suckers.

The Rockets attempted 35 field goals in the first half of their 103-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. Only four of the 35 occurred between eight feet from the basket and the 3-point line. The trend held throughout the game, as more than 80 percent of the Rockets' shots occurred in their sweet spots.

That is, until the final minute of play, when Old Man Midrange reared his head and the Rockets soared back in time. Two possessions yielded two isolation plays for James Harden, the first resulting in a pair of free throws that briefly gave the Rockets a one-point lead, the second an ankle-breaking, step-back jumper that put the Rockets up 102-100.

But heroball this wasn’t. The Rockets didn’t run a 1-4 flat set with Harden pounding the ball into the hardwood until he felt inclined to put it on the floor. And though these shots didn’t originate from the Rockets’ preferred zones, each was cleverly crafted with one goal in mind: Take Harden’s primary defender, Eric Gordon, out of the play and draw a lesser perimeter defender on the switch. The way to accomplish that? A "small-small" pick-and-roll -- one guard picking for the other guard.

"Teams don't know how to guard it," Harden said. "Late in the game, either you’re going to switch it and put a smaller guy on me or they’re going to try to show and get confused. It worked tonight."

The first possession was more elaborate and took longer to materialize. It was a familiar NBA set: The point guard (Jeremy Lin) gets a staggered screen up top -- one screener a shooter (Harden), the other a big man who can roll (Dwight Howard). Harden pops while Howard rolls. The Pelicans defended it beautifully. Brian Roberts was able to fight over the first screen, allowing Gordon to stay home on Harden. When Roberts got hung up on the second screen, Jason Smith bought him some time, then quickly rotated back onto Howard. New Orleans survived the action with everyone in their right place.

That’s when Lin got crafty. He probed, reversed course and circled back out of the lane counterwise, with the sole intention of rubbing Roberts off Harden, thereby forcing Gordon to switch off of Harden and onto Lin.

The ploy worked. A pass from Lin went to Terrence Jones out on the perimeter, then Jones zipped it quickly to Harden. From there, Harden did his thing: one dribble, collision, whistle, two free throws, Rockets by one.

"I feel like it’s really hard to guard," Lin said. "You see, like, OKC [the Oklahoma City Thunder]. They run a 1-3 pick-and-roll, which is really hard to guard just because you’re not used to being in that position where they have to get out and show and do different coverages. They’re usually like sized enough where they’re, like, 'We can switch this.' But that gives us the matchup we want."

The game winner was more basic: Jones, Howard and Chandler Parsons along the baseline, with Harden at the foul line poised to set the 1-2 pick-and-roll for Lin.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams elaborated on the theme in Lin’s comment: It’s easy to say, "Don’t switch," but the consequences can be dire.

"The problem is the guy who’s setting [the screen] can shoot," Williams said. "If you try to hedge it and that guy pops, he’s going to get a shot. We wanted to try to keep Eric [Gordon] on him as much as we could. So we got [Brian Roberts] out of the game and put Austin [Rivers] in to try to give us some more size in case they do it again."

Harden set the screen on Rivers to Lin’s right (go figure) and, sure enough, when Lin turned the corner, there was Gordon waiting for him. Switch accomplished with relative ease.

"We run that play a lot, especially late in the game," Harden said. "We don’t really run it in the beginning of the game. They switched it, and Jeremy threw it back to me."

Harden explained that the element of surprise contributes to the 1-2’s effectiveness. Defenses tighten up in the closing minutes, which is one reason we see more switches late out on the perimeter. Nobody wants to be left out to dry. Switching poses the risk of a mismatch, but at least somebody picks up the ball handler.

Harden held the ball for a moment, thrust a head fake or two, then went right -- to his off hand.

"I was reading what the other four players were doing," Harden said. "They all stayed home. It was mano-a-mano."

Harden took one slick dribble, yanked the ball back as he thrust his arm forward at Rivers. Did it make contact? Hard to say. Harden then lurched back, with all the space in the Bayou to rise and shoot.

"[Harden] made a tough shot on Austin," Williams said. "Austin played him well. Austin thought he got pushed, but in that situation, you got to just play tough. You can’t even ask for the ref to bail you out in that situation. It’s just not going to happen."

With that, the team that’s driven the midrange jumper out of fashion won the game on a 21-footer.

Tank or try?

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
11:19
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Which teams should keep at it? Who should pack it in? We play "Tank or try" with Amin Elhassan.

video

Bad contracts, bad decisions

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
5:25
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan has identified some of the NBA's worst deals, and amazingly, almost all of them looked bad on the day they were signed, which is not flattering to NBA front offices.

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'Bruise Brothers' the answer for Wolves?

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
1:43
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to ESPN.com
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As this reconstruction of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise has been executed over the past few years, the idea of putting Kevin Love next to a frontcourt bruiser never seemed to be high on the list of priorities.

Find a scoring forward like Michael Beasley to form a dynamic, productive duo? They tried that.

Make sure Ricky Rubio comes over from Spain and starts cashing in on the hype and potential to make him the apotheosis of successful pure point guard play? That’s still a work in progress that could be under construction longer than the city planned.

Making Nikola Pekovic the bulldozer to Love’s wrecking ball may not have been the initial plan, but it has developed over the past three years as Pekovic became a viable option in the paint. When he re-signed with the Wolves for five years and $60 million, new president of basketball operations Flip Saunders seemed to have a vision of how this team would play.

Punishing.

“We envision Pek and Kevin Love being the ‘Bruise Brothers’ and forming one of the best front courts in the NBA for a long time to come,” Saunders said during a news conference this summer to announce the Pekovic re-up.

Wednesday night against a more modern, less conventional New Orleans Pelicans’ attack, the Wolves put that style into effect. They allowed Anthony Davis to chase Love around the perimeter. They took advantage of Ryan Anderson giving up roughly 50 pounds of brute strength to Pekovic in the post. And the Wolves lived at the free-throw line like they were designed to do.

The Wolves shot 35 free throws on the night, 31 of them coming through the first three quarters when the game was pretty much decided. It was the 10th time they attempted at least 30 free throws in a game this season and the eighth time they won such a game. When they get their mail forwarded to the line, they’re hard to beat, and that seems to be the plan.

“Well, it’s kind of the way we want to play,” Rubio said after the 124-112 victory, “Because that means we've been aggressive and we go to attack the rim. We don’t take too many shots from outside when things are going well.

"It’s been our problem when we don’t feel good, we start taking shots that don’t make sense. We don’t get to the free throw line and that allows them to get fast break [opportunities] too. We control the game from the beginning.”

If the Wolves are going to snap roughly a decade of watching the playoffs from their vacation spots, they have to remember their identity: Move the ball and get to the free-throw line. Abuse the competition inside. Let Love take the attention from the defense and then allow Pekovic to control the paint.

Everybody can play off of that and be aggressive.

“It was good for us, plays to our advantage,” Corey Brewer said. “Somebody has to guard Love out on the perimeter and someone has to guard Pek inside, so you have to pick your poison.”

There are still plenty of issues for this Wolves team. The bench needs consistency, the defense needs to protect the rim while keeping with the strategy of not fouling, and the outside shots need to fall when they’re created. But everything starts with bruising the interior and living at the free-throw line. They can still play the modern style of up-tempo and creating open looks, but it starts in the paint.

“Nights like today, when maybe they want to stop Kevin Love, we have another guy like Pek,” Rubio explained, “And he’s strong and if you don’t put a big body on him, [Pekovic is] going to destroy him.”

Top-Ranked Sophomores

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
1:58
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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David Thorpe says Anthony Davis is the best player in the NBA's sophomore class, but he's injured at the moment. That created a sophomore-ranking dilemma between Blazer Damian Lillard and Piston Andre Drummond, who vied for the top spot.

25 under 25

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
2:20
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Kawhi Leonard was a candidate for Finals MVP, and he's only 14th on the list of elite young NBA players compiled by ESPN Insiders David Thorpe, Kevin Pelton and Amin Elhassan. That means a lot of things, including that good times are ahead for the NBA. Elhassan joins us to discuss.
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Re-ranking the 2012 draft

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
6:39
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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David Thorpe says Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard are in a class by themselves at the top. The rest of his top 20 includes several lower-drafted and even some undrafted players. Missing: high picks like Dion Waiters and Austin Rivers.
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Anthony Davis on pace for history

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
1:11
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By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Anthony Davis
Davis
Anthony Davis had a career game for the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, setting a career high with 32 points, tying a career high with six blocks, and grabbing 12 rebounds to boot in a 96-85 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, improving the Pelicans to 3-3 on the season.

In Pelicans (formerly known as the Hornets) franchise history, only two players have had games with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. Alonzo Mourning, who did so seven times when the team was based in Charlotte, and now Davis.

Davis, who has four double-doubles in six games this season and is averaging a double-double for the season, is doing this all before his 21st birthday.

In fact, Friday night, he became the youngest player in NBA history to have a game with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks, at 20 years, 242 days old, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He broke the record shared by Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Webber, both of whom were exactly 20 years, 309 days old when they pulled it off in 1993 and 1994, respectively.

The season is young, but Davis is averaging over 23 PPG, 11 RPG and four blocks per game this season. Since blocks became an official stat in the 1973-74 season, only three different players have averaged those numbers over an entire season: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon (twice) and David Robinson.

The Pelicans have improved to a modest 3-3 this season, but it's impressive when you consider they went a combined 48-100 over the last two seasons.

Davis has been arguably as valuable to his team as any player in the league this season. With Davis on the court, the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by six points per 100 possessions this season. But with Davis off the court, opponents are outscoring them by 11 points per 100 possessions.

He has been especially valuable in the rebounding department. With Davis on the court, the Pelicans are outrebounding opponents by seven rebounds per 48 minutes. But with Davis off the court, opponents are outrebounding them by 12 boards per 48 minutes.

Davis' effect has been considerable on the club dating to last season as well. In 2012-13, New Orleans went 23-41 (.359 win pct) with Davis in the lineup, and just 4-14 (.222) without him.

The best offseason

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
3:45
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Indiana University professor Wayne Winston, a pioneer of NBA advanced stats, names the teams he expects to improve most this season.
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How Anthony Davis scored

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
10:45
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Anthony Davis
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Anthony Davis often caught the ball far from the hoop against the Rockets, and finished 9-for-16.

Dwight Howard will be one of the most interesting players in the NBA for quite some time -- he splits interestingly across the love/hate spectrum among fans.

So I was curious when I saw that in his first preseason game for his new team in Houston, not only did the Rockets lose to a so-so Pelicans team, but they did so while both giving up 116 points. Howard played 27 minutes.

How did that happen?

A peek at the box score revealed two interesting factors:
  • Omer Asik has a strained calf muscle and didn't play for the Rockets, which matters, because he's one of the most effective defenders in the NBA, and by GM Daryl Morey's own admission the Rockets' defense was lousy without Asik all last season. Howard has big shoes fill to make this team effective at that end.
  • Offensively challenged young Pelicans big man Anthony Davis was the game's most potent scorer (if you ignore Omri Casspi's supernatural 20 points in 20 minutes from 10 shots and 90 percent shooting), making 9 of 16 shots, to finish with 21 points in 27 minutes.

My quick question, as I dug into the video: What did Howard have to do with letting Davis' getting those buckets?

Answer: Almost nothing.

Second question: How did Davis, who only scored 20 points or more 10 times in his rookie year, do all that efficient scoring?

Answer: Attacking off the dribble, mostly.

In this game, Davis was strictly a power forward, mostly playing alongside Pelicans big Greg Stiemsma. As such, Davis was essentially never guarded by Howard, who had next to nothing to do with giving up Davis' points.

Davis took an array of jumpers. I am all for big men expanding their games with the jumper (and I'm even more all for big men shooting 3s to make room for their teammates around the hoop). But if this is going to work for Davis, he showed little sign of it in his first preseason game. He's willing to shoot 'em, which is something. But they're not going in. He took a horrible, contested turnaround long 2 with a hand in his face and a foot on the 3-point line. There's not a player in basketball who scores efficiently with that premise, and especially not 0-for-jumpers Davis, who also almost airballed a free-throw line jumper and missed several others too.

Fascinating, though, is what happened when Davis went into quick-attack mode, catching and heading for the rim with a live dribble. That's when defender Terrence Jones started to look helpless. Davis is long! And when he's fully extended, it takes help defense to bother his shots, and that proved difficult for the Rockets to muster. Davis didn't hit all night with his jumper, but on the drive he barely missed, hitting a couple of floaters, a memorable reverse and an old-fashioned running layup. Those made floaters -- high-skill shots -- can serve as the latest in a series of hints that Davis has a soft touch worth developing. Another: He finished last season making his last 17 free throws. No big deal in and of itself, but ... nice.

Add to that Davis' usual assortment of buckets-from-being-long-and-active (two alley-oops from Austin Rivers, an uncontested dunk off a shovel pass from Jason Smith, a putback dunk) and you have a the makings of a tidy offensive night with some promise.

You would also seem to have some endorsement of the idea that Davis' future is at power forward, not center. Thanks to the dribble attack game, Davis is a scoring threat of a kind even catching the ball well outside the paint. That point will be underlined even more convincingly if and when Davis can add some made jumpers to the mix, which'll let him not just beat the defense, but, even better, make it guess.

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