For many fans and pundits, the Pelicans began going in the wrong direction back in 2013, a year after they drafted Anthony Davis. Instead of taking Nerlens Noel, who unexpectedly slipped to them at no. 6 overall, they packaged that pick and their first-round pick the following season and traded them to the 76ers for Jrue Holiday. The following year they sent another first-rounder to the Rockets for Omer Asik. Rather than be patient and build a core of players the same age as Davis, they went all in and tried to win right away with “young veterans,” guys in their mid-20s, around him instead.
None of the players taken with those picks — Noel, Elfrid Payton, and Sam Dekker — has done all that much in the NBA so far, but the Pelicans still went against the conventional small-market wisdom of building through the draft. They were going to get only so many chances to acquire a second superstar to pair with Davis before his development pushed them out of lottery range, and they didn’t take any of them.
The talent they put around Davis was interesting — Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, and Ryan Anderson — but the team never really coalesced, as it was devastated by injuries on an almost annual basis. The Pelicans won an average of 36 games in the three seasons following the Holiday trade, and they made the playoffs only once, getting swept in the first round by the Warriors. The Pelicans were living the worst of both worlds: not good enough to be relevant and not bad enough to bottom out, consigning one of the NBA’s young superstars to the mediocrity treadmill.
They got off to a particularly ugly start this season, going 0–8 with Davis often scoring almost as many points as the rest of the starting lineup combined. Holiday, who returned to the team November 18, was on an indefinite leave of absence following his wife’s diagnosis with a brain tumor, which coincided with her pregnancy. The circumstances were obviously different, but the Pelicans were used to Holiday missing time. After missing a total of 14 games in his first four seasons in Philadelphia, Holiday struggled to stay on the floor in New Orleans, missing huge chunks of his three seasons following a series of complications due to a stress fracture in one of his legs, before breaking a bone in his face at the end of last season.
His injury situation was bad enough that the 76ers were fined $3 million by the NBA for not fully disclosing all of the information about his leg injury when the trade was made. In an effort to limit his minutes last season, Alvin Gentry moved him to the bench, further diminishing his role. As a result, Holiday has missed almost as much time as he has played in New Orleans.
When he has been healthy, though, Holiday has been a really good player. He doesn’t play above the rim and he doesn’t make a lot of spectacular shots on offense, but he’s one of the most well-rounded point guards in the league, someone who can play at a high level on both sides of the ball. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Holiday has the size and the speed to get into the dribble of opposing players while still being able to stay in front of them and contest their shot. He’s a versatile defender, able to match up with all three perimeter positions, as well as switch screens and hold his own in the post against bigger frontcourt players.
On offense, Holiday can get to the rim, run the pick-and-roll, and distribute the ball, or shoot 3s off the dribble. He never really plays out of control, and he is one of the smoothest players in the league, effortlessly gliding from Point A to Point B at high speed.
“He looks really good out there, and he plays efficiently as he always does,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle before the game against the Pelicans on Sunday. “Having him come off the bench sets him up to finish games, and he gives them a good punch in those situations. They aren’t the same team they were at the beginning of the season.”
The Pelicans are 5–2 since Holiday’s return this season, and he is averaging 17.1 points and 6.3 assists a game on 49.5 percent shooting. They have a net rating of plus-13.8 when he is on the floor, which is by far the best on the team, with the next-best player coming in at plus-4.6.
“He has really helped us. His presence on the floor gives us a little bit of a calming experience,” said Gentry. “Because he is back, we have been able to get guys back in roles they are more comfortable with.”
For as great as Davis has been this season, he plays at a higher level with Holiday. There’s absolutely no way to stop Davis when he’s in a pick-and-roll with a high-level point guard, and reducing the shot-creating burden when he’s on the floor makes it much more difficult for defenses to load up on him.
Holiday doesn’t just give the Pelicans a second option on offense; he also fills some holes they have on the perimeter defensively. With Pondexter and Evans still on the shelf, they have a weirdly constructed roster with small-ball power forwards (Dante Cunningham, Solomon Hill) and undersized shooting guards (Langston Galloway, Buddy Hield, E’Twaun Moore) being asked to play on the wing. Holiday’s size and versatility gives Gentry a lot more options when it comes to setting lineups, and almost every player on the roster has a better net rating when playing with him.
“My teammates have made it pretty easy on me. When I came back, they threw me right back into the flow and things have gone pretty well,” said Holiday. “I just try to bring some energy, help with scoring and stay with teams on defense.”
Believe it or not, the Pelicans have the outlines of a playoff-caliber team, with Davis as an MVP candidate and Holiday as his sidekick. They can get additional scoring punch from Tim Frazier, who has blossomed since becoming the starting point guard in Holiday’s absence, as well as Galloway and Hield, with 3-and-D play from Hill and Moore, additional firepower upfront from Terrence Jones, and Asik providing spot minutes as a shot blocker and rebounder. The problem is digging out of the hole they have put themselves in at the start of the season, which means they can’t afford any extended absences from Davis or Holiday, two of the more injury-prone stars in the league.
Holiday made an All-Star team back in the 2012–13 season, his final in Philadelphia, but it’s an honor few remember anymore. That will happen when you are the best player on a 34-win team, and then you miss most of the next three seasons with injuries. The interesting part about his career is that he’s still only 26, despite having been in the league for eight seasons, which means there’s still some room for growth in his game, especially if he can stay healthy. Compare his numbers last season, at the age of 25, to Mike Conley at the same age:
One of the biggest areas for growth for Conley over the past few seasons has been his ability to get to the free throw line, an area of the game where Holiday struggles, possibly due to the overall calmness he plays with. Because he can do everything so well, he takes what the defense gives him rather than trying to force the issue. Getting to the line generates extra points and increases a player’s overall efficiency, and also makes everyone else’s job easier because it gets the team over the foul limit earlier in the quarter, softening the defense in the process. Holiday has never averaged more than 3.3 free throws a game in his career, and he’s one of the worst at generating contact this season among starting PGs in the Western Conference:
Davis has a player option for 2020, and it hangs over everything the Pelicans do, but they have a really tough decision coming up on Holiday, a free agent at the end of the season. The Pelicans won’t have a lot of cap room in the near future, and they are unlikely to find anyone else in the draft who can blossom into a star player by the time Davis reaches the market. There will be a lot of teams interested in Holiday next summer, and a lack of other options means the Pelicans may almost have no choice but to give him a big contract. They bet big on him in 2013, and they are going to have to bet even bigger on him in 2017. The fate of the franchise could depend on it.