The Best Backcourt No One is Talking About
An article by Matthew Haugh
When the Pelicans acquired Lonzo Ball in the soon-to-be-official AD trade, they got something not a lot of people realized they needed, a starting caliber point guard. But why do the Pelicans need a point guard when they have Jrue Holiday? Most people assume Holiday is best played at the point since he’s a bit undersized for a shooting guard at 6’4, and he can facilitate like a point guard, averaging 7.7 assists per game last year and 6.4 over his entire career. In reality though, the Pelicans have always been at their best when Jrue is playing as a combo guard, sharing the ball handling and facilitating duties along with a more traditional “true” point guard.
Last year,, the Pelicans best 5 man lineup that played at least 50 minutes together was Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, E’Twuan Moore, Nicola Mirotic, and Anthony Davis with a net rating of 29.3 points per 100 possessions. In addition, Holiday’s best 2 man lineup pairing, aside from the obvious Anthony Davis at a 9.5 net rating, was Elfrid Payton with a 8.7 net rating. The year before, Rondo was a huge piece in getting the Pelicans past the first round. So, how does Lonzo fit into this mold?
Last year Elfrid Payton averaged 10.6/5.2/7.6 (PTS/REB/AST) with the Pelicans shooting 43.4/31.4/74.3 and the year before Rondo averaged 8.3/4.0/8.2 on 46.8/33.3/54.3. Lonzo has career averages of 10.0/6.2/6.4 on 38/31.5/43.7 shooting splits. Granted those shooting splits are absolutely atrocious but otherwise he slots in pretty similarly with Payton and Rondo. While they do both shoot better than him, none of these players are on the court looking to score every time they get the ball; all three are pass first point guards so really their scoring is more about making sure they’re not an absolute nonfactor than it is about the scoring itself. In order to make the pass they have to make sure their shot or drive is respected.
It is important however to note that a major factor influencing the success of New Orleans’ two facilitator lineups was Anthony Davis, and how much of a constant threat he is to be fed. Whether it’s on the fast break, the lob threat, the pick and roll, or even just letting him get position in the post and tossing the ball over to him, defenses are always worried about AD which is why having so much passing has worked for the Pelicans. AD is obviously gone, but the Pelicans do have Zion. Now I’m not saying Zion is AD, not even close, but thinking about the way they play I’m actually surprised I haven’t heard the comparison more. First of all, both are physical freaks, but also think about the way I just described AD’s game: “Whether it’s on the fast break, the lob threat, the pick and roll, or even just letting him get position in the post and tossing the ball over to him, defenses are always worried about AD”. You could finish that sentence with Zion instead and no one would bat an eye. And with how much running Zion is going to be doing, Lonzo’s ability to grab boards thanks to his size and his precise full court passes are going to make the Pelicans a huge threat in transition.
So all this seems to say that next year the Pelicans will have a starting backcourt that’s about as good as they’ve had the past two years, in other words above average. So what makes this the “best backcourt no one is talking about”? Defense. Everyone knows Jrue Holiday is an elite defender with two All-Defense awards under his belt, but Lonzo is also a very good defender. He had the 2nd best defensive rating on the Lakers among players to play at least 41 games and average 25 minutes per game at 105.3 points per 100 possessions. Lonzo is tall and long for his position, but he doesn’t sacrifice too much quickness in the way someone like Ben Simmons does that disallows him from actually guarding point guards. This makes him a perfect pairing with Holiday defensively because it means they are totally switchable, both of them can guard either of the opposing team’s backcourts, and do a damn good job of it at that. These two are going to make the perimeter a living hell for opposing backcourts and while AD isn’t there anymore to hold down the paint and swat away everything, once again we’ve seen what Zion can do in terms of shot blocking. The only question is if it can translate to NBA level athleticism and physicality the same way it worked against college athletes.
They may not average 45 points a game like the splash brothers, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Pelicans end up with one of the best backcourts in the league next year.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com