NEW ORLEANS -- Before the wildest dreams about Anthony Davis were realized in a 59-point, 20-rebound masterpiece, perhaps the only way for Pelicans fans to sleep easy amid a disappointing season was to count the jump-off-the-page plus-minuses of Jrue Holiday.
The single-game version of the statistic has its limitations, but it serves as shorthand for what has become clear as the 2015-16 season goes on: The Pelicans are a much better team with Holiday on the court.
"I've always been a big fan of him, and I was talking to him today -- I think he's in an elite class," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. "I tell him the one thing that he has to improve on is just his concentration. I think the skill level and what he does is all there. But sometimes he drifts a little bit, and that's the thing that separates him right now."
Holiday recently admitted that the right leg injuries that have kept him from playing more than half of the regular-season slate the past two years still worry him away from the court. During games, though, he said he's unburned by any lingering doubts, and his performance of late supports his claim.
Since Jan. 1, when Gentry said the strict minutes restriction Holiday had been under to start the season had been lifted, the 25-year-old is averaging 18.4 points, 7.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds in 29.8 minutes a game, during which the Pelicans (22-34 overall) are 12-12.
On the season as a whole, Holiday's shooting (43.5 percent from the field, 32.2 from 3) and assist rate (25.1) have straddled some of the worst marks in his eight NBA seasons, but the total package has probably never been better.
In his first year in Gentry's allegedly fast, open-floor system, Holiday has the ball in his hands more than ever and is using it to score in heaps (23.2 points per 40 minutes). That, plus an ability to run offensive actions with the control of an omniscient narrator (10.0 turnover rate), has resulted in a career-high player efficiency rating of 20.02, tied for 43rd best in the NBA and 12th among point guards. His real plus-minus of 1.33 ranks 14th among all point guards, and his individual plus-minus (plus-1.3) and net rating (plus-1.7) are the top marks on his team.
Throw in the size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) to guard multiple positions and you get a player who, outside of Davis, comes closest to the sort of versatility Gentry capitalized on in Golden State.
"I do think he gives us a little more freedom than most coaches, especially me at the point guard position, or even at the [shooting] guard position, where I have to take care of the ball a lot more than other people would," Holiday said.
"Especially in crucial situations. I think him kind of giving me the leeway to, in the beginning, making mistakes and figuring out the team and doing all that so when we get to this point, it's really just instinct. And I guess instinct is really either giving the ball to AD or trying to go for a layup, so he can go and get it off the backboard."
Maximizing Davis' varied gifts was surely the plan when the Pelicans traded two first-rounders for Holiday, fresh off his first All-Star selection, on draft night in 2013. Even after compiling one of the best PERs in history at age 21, Davis, albeit supremely skilled for his size, still requires an assist on almost 75 percent of his makes, according to NBA.com/Stats.
And he's at his peak when Holiday is the one charged with that task. Davis' true shooting percentage of 56.5 percent jumps to 60.8 percent with Holiday and falls to 51.6 percent without him, according to NBAwowy. A third of the 287 assists Holiday has dished out this season have gone to Davis, and in the record-setter against Detroit, eight of Holiday's team-high nine assists went to Davis, for a total of 17 points.
"I just think it gives us a punch. If we're playing well to start the game, it gives us an opportunity to stretch it out. And then if we're struggling a little bit, it always gives you a punch off the bench that usually the very good teams always have."Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry
There's just one problem: Even when healthy, the Pelicans' two best players have played together, on average, 19 minutes a game -- or 62 percent of Holiday's playing time. (Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, meanwhile, play 31 minutes a game together, which is 91.8 percent of Curry's playing time.)
Holiday said he started coming off the bench in order to keep a rhythm while under playing-time restrictions, and he has remained there even as his minutes have climbed back into the low 30s.
"I knew in the beginning, my minutes weren't as choppy coming off the bench," he said. "When I first came in, when I was really on a minutes restrictions, I would come and play like the first five minutes, and then I'd sit all the way until like the end of the second quarter and play like the last six. I guess that big gap where you're just sitting there ... sucks."
The role has suited him well. Since becoming a full-time reserve on Dec. 4, Holiday is averaging 16.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.6 rebounds, all in line or above his career averages, but in four fewer minutes.
"I just think it gives us a punch," Gentry said. "If we're playing well to start the game, it gives us an opportunity to stretch it out. And then if we're struggling a little bit, it always gives you a punch off the bench that usually the very good teams always have. If you go back and look at the Celtics teams from the past, [Kevin] McHale played off the bench almost his whole career. There's other teams that have had really good players that have played off the bench."
Those fast starts, however, have been few and far between. The starting unit the team settled on -- Davis, Norris Cole, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Dante Cunningham, Omer Asik -- in the wake of injuries to Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter had actually held its own before Asik's own injury; but its plus-2.7 net rating in 69 minutes leaves a lot to be desired. Swap Holiday for Cole, though, and the lineup receives a shot of adrenaline: plus-61.1 (albeit in a miniscule sample size of 22 minutes).
However, with so many non-scorers forced into action, keeping at least one of Davis, Holiday and Ryan Anderson -- the only players taking over 10 shots a game at a true shooting percentage over 50 percent (sorry, Norris) -- on the court at all times becomes essential and difficult.
Gentry said that, at this point, he doesn't envision altering the setup for Holiday for the rest of the season.
"He really likes it. He likes the group that he plays with. It's been successful, so there's no reason to change it," Gentry said. "I don't see any reason to change it now. Next year, we'll have to re-evaluate it again and see how it is, but right now, I think he's as good as any sixth man in the league. Obviously, [with] our record, we've struggled. But from his standpoint, he's as good as any sixth man in the league. He should have considerations for that, I think."
For the first time in his Pelicans career, Holiday is an answer to adjustments necessitated by injuries, not a source of them.
"He's such a valuable asset to this team and a guy I love playing with," said Anderson, who plays 19 minutes a game with Holiday. "Especially off the bench. I think we have a really good chemistry off the bench. I've always loved the way he plays. He's not just a one-dimensional point guard. He's a guy that can do so many different things, and that's tough to guard."