The New Orleans Pelicans are, somehow, tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for eighth in the West despite suffering multiple injuries. Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon have all missed at least 10 games, and yet, the team has been able to find help from unlikely contributors like Alexis Ajinca and Luke Babbitt, who have now become part of the rotation. Other players not named Anthony Davis have also had to step up. Gordon is once again showing the three-point shot and playmaking ability that he showed before injuries derailed his career, for example.
By far the most interesting development brought upon by injuries, however, has been the play of Tyreke Evans at point guard. (Evans recently sprained an ankle himself, but he’s not expected to miss too much time.) With Holiday out, Evans has gone back to the position in which he shined his rookie season, and it looks like that’s where he needs to be in order to be successful. Since Holiday went down, Evans is dishing out almost three more assists per game and has improved his shooting significantly:
Evans’s lack of a consistent shot has been his biggest flaw since entering the league. He’s a career 27 percent three-point shooter and a 32 percent shooter from beyond 16 feet and within the arc. Spacing the floor isn’t something he can do, and after a lifetime playing point guard, he doesn’t have the instincts as a cutter a player like Dwyane Wade has to make teams pay for playing off him. In simple terms, Evans is only a threat to score with the ball in his hands.
What Evans can do better that most players is set up teammates with his drives. Evans is one of only 22 players to boast an assist percentage (percentage of teammates’ buckets he assists while on the court) over 30 percent. The other 21 players are 18 point guards, LeBron James, Wade and James Harden. Evans drives more than any other player in the league, according to NBA.com’s SportVU data, and his drives yield the third-most points for his team, behind Harden and Ty Lawson. Even though he’s not on the level of the league’s greatest dual threats, good things tend to happen when Evans has the ball, as he’ll either score or assist.
That has always been the scouting report on Evans, and why many doubted the fit in a crowded Pelicans backcourt. Since New Orleans traded a lottery pick for Holiday and his more traditional game that relies less on isolations looks like a better fit for the Pelicans going forward, it was assumed that if one of them had to go, it was going to be Evans. It’s unlikely that has changed, but it’s impossible to ignore that since Holiday has been gone and Evans took over point-guard duties, the Pelicans are 17-10 as opposed to the 17-19 record they had with Holiday running point and Evans playing off the ball.
Things get even more complicated because what New Orleans desperately needs is a wing stopper who can shoot, a typical 3-and-D wing. Quincy Pondexter is a solid bench player, but shouldn’t start and it’s clear at this point that Evans can’t fill that role. But he can do some of what Holiday does, and the team will have a chance to match any offers on back-up point guard Norris Cole, who has excelled after being traded by the Heat. The Pelicans already have over $20 million tied up in point guards if we consider Evans to be one — and his play suggests we should. By trading one of Holiday or Evans and bringing back Cole at a fraction of their salary, the Pelicans would be freeing up resources to target the type of player they need.
Of course there’s always the possibility that the front office will want to see how the team meshes when healthy for an entire season, since Holiday has missed significant time in both his years with the Pelicans. Asides from lowering his market value as a trade piece, his absence has denied him the opportunity of adapting to his teammates, Evans included. Holiday is a decent shooter who could provide enough spacing next to Gordon and Anderson for Evans to handle the ball in lineups in which all three share the floor, and Evans would be free to dominate the rock when Holiday rests. The team would still lack a true small forward to defend the Durants and LeBrons of the league, but Evans can handle most tasks.
No team’s offseason will be as intriguing as the Pelicans’. They have a true superstar in Davis who keeps getting better and better, and a handful of above-average players that so far have proved to not fit well with each other. However, they could still find ways to make things work with time together on the floor, something that injuries have made impossible. Through it all, they’ve still managed to get a 36-29 record that has them in the playoff hunt despite playing in arguably the toughest division in all of sports.
The Pelicans don’t really need to make a huge change, at least not urgently. What Evans’s play as a point guard has provided them, however, is a chance to re-evaluate their roster. If they can successfully channel the former Rookie of the Year’s significant talent by having him handling the ball, they can either try to trade Holiday, let Norris Cole walk or stay the path and try to make it work with four talented guards that could in time learn to play off each other. The Anthony Davis era started with some questionable moves by the front office, Evans’s signing included. It’s imperative they make a good decision regarding the point-guard position going forward, and Tyreke Evans’s improved play has at least given them options.