When looking at teams across the NBA in regards to depth, it is often the best ones that stand out. Teams like the Warriors with a guard rotation of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Ian Clark or the Rockets with Chris Paul, James Harden and Eric Gordon. But not every team is well run. For as many teams as there are in the league with loaded position groups, there are just as many with horrendous ones. The fun part of the NBA is that things can change in a hurry. All it takes is one player to break out to turn a position group from a disaster to something better.
Finding out who that potential breakout player could be is the hard part. Luckily it is late July and I have a lot of time on my hands. So over the next few weeks I plan to wander around to some of the worst position groups in the league and see if there is one player who can break out and elevate the group from tire fire to average. It won’t be easy but nothing fun ever is. To start, I decided to take a look at the group that got me thinking about this project — the Pelicans small forwards.
As we enter the 2016-17 NBA season, the Pelicans have a lot of important questions to answer. First and foremost, can DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis play at a high level together? Is Cousins going to agree to stay in New Orleans long-term? Is Davis happy? A “no” to any of those questions is a very bad thing for the Pelicans going forward. And many of the answers to those and other important questions cannot be answered without the help of the other players on the roster. Players like the rag-tag group of small forwards the team currently has.
For those unfamiliar, that group has four players at various stages of their careers. Quincy Pondexter has been the best NBA player of the group but hasn’t played in either of the last two seasons. Solomon Hill is the best current NBA player. Darius Miller is returning from a two season stint in Germany after washing out of NBA in his first go-around. Then there’s Axel Toupane, who has bounced around three different NBA teams for a total of 25 games while dominating the then D-League.
So where exactly could the breakout come from?
Pondexter is probably the least likely candidate with the highest possible outcome. After being acquired in January of 2015, Pondexter did exactly what the Pelicans needed that winter. He knocked down 43 percent of his 3-pointers while taking almost four per game and provided above-average defense on any type of small forward the Pelicans needed him to defend. Unfortunately for Pondexter and the Pelicans, it looks like that season could be the one that ends his career. After playing through an injury, he has now missed two straight seasons after two surgeries on that injured knee. If he is somehow able to get healthy and play at a level close to what he was in 2015, the Pelicans suddenly have a legitimate two-way small forward on their roster. But that isn’t close to likely to happen.
At this point it also seems certain that Hill will not be that breakout player. A career 33 percent shooter from beyond the arc, Hill’s lack of shooting is a terrible fit next to Davis and Cousins. The Pelicans don’t ask Hill to do much. Just take advantage of the space that the Pelicans are giving him when Davis or Cousins are involved in the play. Space like this:
Hill hasn’t shown the ability to do that at all. The shooting alone is a problem — he ranked in the 54.8 percentile last season with 0.98 points per spot-up possession and made only 37.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers — but what makes it worse is the fact Hill brings little else to the floor on offense. For his career, Hill has an assist percentage of just 9.9 percent which makes sense for a relatively low usage player. His career 13.8 turnover percentage, though, is thanks to careless decisions (clip one) and still undeveloped skills (clip two).
While there are surely some people out there who believe Hill can still break out offensively, it seems unlikely that it will happen as a 26-year-old entering his fifth year in the league. Hill’s defense is still very good which makes him worth a rotation spot, but it’s a problem if he is your best small forward. A problem the Pelicans now find themselves trapped in.
With Hill and Pondexter eliminated from breakout potential, only two players remain to help New Orleans reach their potential: Toupane and Miller.
Much like Hill, Toupane’s greatest weakness comes from his inability to shoot from distance. In 68 career games with the Raptors 905 in the G League, Toupane has shot just 32.9 percent from 3-point range on almost three attempts per game. He hasn’t done any better in his short NBA stint, either, shooting just 31 percent on two attempts per game. While Toupane does add a bit with his attacking and passing, the Pelicans really need their small forwards to knock down open 3s to be most effective.
All of this leaves Miller as the only remaining option for a breakout to upgrade the small forward position for the Pelicans. During his first NBA stint in New Orleans, Miller was another guy who fit the “if only he could shoot” mold. But over the last two years in Germany, he has shown some flashes. This past season Miller shot 40 percent on over four 3-pointers per game for Brose Baskets Bamberg. While the FIBA line is shorter than the NBA, that has to be encouraging for the Pelicans.
The questions come on the other end of the floor. While Miller won’t ever be Hill defensively, the Pelicans could give up some if he contributes with the expected shooting. However, Miller may not even get to average on defense. According to this great scouting report from Rafael Uehara, Miller isn’t a great defender in a team construct. And unfortunately for Miller, fixing that in the NBA won’t be easy, especially when defending elite small forwards.
The biggest problem for the Pelicans when looking at their small forwards is their ceilings. Hill seems to be topped out somewhere between slightly below average and average. Pondexter seems to be done as an NBA player due to injuries. Toupane seems like the guy stuck between too good for the D-League/G League and not good enough for the NBA. And even if Miller widely outperforms expectations, it is hard to see him as much above average.
It’s why the Pelicans need fit to trump talent. If Miller is able to come back to the NBA and knock down 37 percent or more of his 3-pointers and play average defense, their best lineups suddenly have a new small forward. And with the talent of Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, it would make them very hard to defend. If that doesn’t happen, the Pelicans have one above-average skill in the four small forwards on their roster, which doesn’t seem great considering how important this season is for the future of their franchise.