Jrue Holiday is a lock, but who else will join him during crunch time?
This article was originally posted on TheBirdWrites.com and features contributions from Oleh Kosel, David Fisher, Kevin Barrios, Chris Conner, Travis Tate, Mike Delayo, Jamile Dunn, Jason Albert, Ben Pfeifer, and Charlie Gonzalez
Which New Orleans Pelicans will finish most games? Will Alvin Gentry entrust a certain five or six players or do you expect the head coach to pay particular attention to matchups/stick with the hot guy/lineup often down the stretch?
It is traditional thinking that the starting five should also be the closing five in tight games because those are your best players. With the Pelicans likely starting only two seasoned vets, this will likely not be the case. I imagine that Gentry will lean towards a closing five of Holiday, Redick, Ingram, Zion and Favors, barring any injury or foul trouble and Ball as the last sub. Redick provides more experience and range and is built to play off the ball while Holiday helms the point in the most crucial minutes.
I find this question hard to answer because there is so much flexibility, talent and variables at play. I think the closing five will be determined by game situation and matchups. However, as to not cop out I’ll give you a lineup I could see closing a lot of games: Holiday, Redick, Hart, Ingram and Favors. I’m hoping the staff goes with the hot hand at the end of the game and does more to dictate the style of play — trying to force the opponent to match up to what the Pelicans are doing.
Health has limited the Pelicans ability to display consistency with closing lineups over the past decade. Alvin Gentry gets a weird rep for being irregular with his rotations versus some nights of just simply aiming to make chicken salad out of well…chicken Pelican. He’ll make adjustments depending on the circumstance, but given the depth of this roster, we shouldn’t expect anything drastic because an obvious closing lineup exists.
Zion Williamson, JJ Redick, and Jrue Holiday are easy selections as they’re arguably the best trio of Pelicans from a role and fit perspective. The surprising members I think some are missing out on are Lonzo Ball and either Derrick Favors or Brandon Ingram. We should expect New Orleans to go small with Zion at center to close certain games against smaller matchups; however, there are enough teams — especially in the Western conference — possessing impactful traditional sized centers. The last thing Gentry should want is New Orleans most prized possession to bang with beasts in closing games during his rookie campaign. Countering that would be simple as everybody’s analytical darling in Derrick Favors should be given the opportunity to shine. This would keep Zion fresh, allowing him to make those ungodly defensive plays we witnessed off the ball at Duke when shooting gaps and being aggressive in space.
Lonzo Ball can’t be a forgotten piece as we should consider him the biggest prize from the Anthony Davis trade. Ball fits Gentry’s system, should be motivated, and is immediately the second best on ball defender at New Orleans disposal. If Ball continues to improve offensively, it’s difficult to see a scenario where he’s on the bench in the closing minutes of games especially with Holiday’s openness about enjoying playing shooting guard…off the ball — pun intended.
That brings us to Brandon Ingram. The four-year small forward is entering a very important time in his career as he’ll be looking for a hefty raise and contract extension next summer. In addition, Ingram’s long term health is an unknown variable, and questions about his ability to shoot consistently from deep at the next level have followed him since college.
But that’s where the question marks stop. Ingram remains a humble 21-year-old with a vast skill set for his height. What he lacks in strength, he can make up with in length, toughness, and craftiness off the dribble. I acknowledge that his playmaking skills from a passing perspective may be more of an attribute for other periods in games surrounded by lesser talents, but his ability to create for himself could come in handy. You can never have enough creators on the floor at once if they’re unselfish and self aware — BI checks both boxes.
I would be surprised if any of Ball, Holiday, Williamson and Favors weren’t crunch time guarantees. The luxury that Gentry will have is that the players most likely to fill that fifth spot play similar positions. Ingram would probably be the least likely to get run here, but if he was on a tear a particular night, I could certainly see him staying on the floor. Redick and Hart are ideal dichotomous options; Redick’s spacing and shooting would provide a boost to everyone on the offensive end while Hart can contribute some of the same with much better defense. I would expect matchups to dictate which of those two finish games.
A lineup of Favors, Williamson, Redick, Holiday, Ball could be a strong closing unit for the Pelicans next season, but I admit that Lonzo nearly got left off the list due to his poor free throw shooting — Ball owns a 43.7% percentage from the line in his short career. It’s hard to close games with any player shooting that poorly when games routinely turn into a free throw contest late. Ball will have to improve his foul shooting — pun intended — if he hopes to stay on the floor in crunch time minutes.
However, what Ball lacks in shooting he makes up with his playmaking and defensive versatility. The combination of Jrue and Lonzo should allow New Orleans to cover for certain defensive liabilities of Redick while Favors and Zion provide good rim protection and rebounding.
My proposed five might close most nights, but I except Alvin Gentry to use several different closing lineups based on the opponent. When the Pelicans play teams with longer scoring wings, Gentry could opt to play Brandon Ingram down the stretch. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a Williamson, Melli, Ingram, Reddick, Holiday lineup finish games against smaller teams. This is probably one of the more fun lineups the Pelicans can throw at opponents this year and I’m really hoping to see it. Both Melli and Redick are deadly three point shooters which could create huge lanes for Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday to attack the rim.
Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors are locks to finish games in my mind. They’re the two best players. Zion Williamson is going to be out there because he has to play these high leverage situations to learn the league. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zion shifts out some for offensive possessions to put another wing or Nicolo Melli out there for spacing as well.
The other two slots will be a toss up depending on health, the matchup, and the situation. Redick, Ball, Ingram, and Hart are all candidates. Redick certainly on offense. The others will vary. I have high hopes Ball can get his free throw shooting back on track and he becomes a regular closer as well.
So much of the closing lineup is dependent on the breakout, or lack thereof, of newly acquired players like Derrick Favors and Brandon Ingram. If Favors proves to be more of an offensive fulcrum than he was considered in Utah, it’s possible the Pelicans will be able to rely on him and Jrue as the offensive “closers” while filling in the other spots with the most effective match ups night to night. Ingram should be the other most consistent offensive player on the roster and likely get the nod to close games as well. Given the offensive quality among the three, I would expect the Duke duo of Zion and JJ to fill out those final two spots…and now I’m salivating again.
I think outside of Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors, the other spots on the closing unit will be in flux early on. Lonzo Ball is going to have to show that he won’t be a liability offensively late in games, and the other forward positions will be filled in depending on matchups. The younger players need late game experience and both Favors and Holiday have enough of it to be effective in those situations.
Given the depth of this Pelicans’ team, I would guess Alvin Gentry mixes up his closing lineups, based on matchups and whoever is playing well on any given night. Zion Williamson and Jrue Holiday are locks here and I would fill the rest of the closing lineup with Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick and Jrue Holiday. I would love to see the Pelicans experiment with small closing lineups, putting shooters around Zion Williamson and letting him dominate. Brandon Ingram will likely close a lot of games. This could be a solid option due to his volume scoring and on-ball defense, though I would prefer they put a lineup with superior talent and fit on the court.
Crunch time minutes usually see the pace of the game slow and, of course, a premium is placed on all final possessions. With that line of thinking, we should expect Holiday, Favors and Redick to be among the finishing five for at least the first few months or so. Holiday is self-explanatory — he’s one of the best players in the league, Redick’s gravity and shooting outweigh his defensive concerns and Favors’ paint protection is far and away the best on the team — despite the high IQ, Zion is going to need time to learn all the nuances of controlling areas in and around the rim as a center.
As for the other two spots, I’m expecting more of a grab bag approach. If Lonzo displays a high level of confidence on offense and this is corroborated by a higher FT%, Gentry is going to jump at the chance of having Ball finish games. Two great defenders next to Redick on the wing plus a player who can create easy scoring opportunities with his ability to push in transition and find open teammates would be gold. If Ball can’t deliver, Josh Hart should be given the deserving nod and Holiday will be entrusted with running the offense down the stretch next to two really good perimeter shooters.
For the last spot, one hopes the young transcendent talent to get the bulk of the run for developmental purposes, but Gentry could also turn to Brandon Ingram — once he’s proven he’s back to being the player we saw last season right before the blood clot was revealed.
Obviously, all of this is subject to change. For a team so young and with so many new pieces added, I hope Gentry doesn’t stick to a one size fits all strategy coming out of preseason. The coaching staff needs to experiment continuously and find out what works best throughout the full slate of games and practices because young players can improve individually, chemistry can develop on the fly with a new roster and so on.
With this many guards, Alvin will surely go with whoever is hot. One game might be Jrue and Redick and Hart; another might involve Ball and Moore. Even Kenrich’s style of play allows him to grab late-game minutes when rebounding becomes crucial. Jrue might be the only guarantee; based on fit, maybe Zion finishes at center instead of Favors; is Ingram going to finish as a 3 or a 4? Expect to see more combinations than ever this year.