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New Orleans Pelicans

The Rebirth of Terrence Jones

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I’m not sure any team will be able to produce a more bizarre pair of back-to-back results this season than the ones the Pelicans just completed. After giving up 143 points and losing by 29 to the woeful Brooklyn Nets at home with Anthony Davis in the lineup on Friday, New Orleans went out and beat the defending champion Cavaliers without Davis on Monday. Though Cleveland would close within two by the final buzzer, the Pelicans never trailed and led by as many as 22 in what was at times a thorough domination.

With Davis out, the Pelicans relied heavily on Jrue Holiday, whose return to the lineup in November has turned the Pelicans season around and made a postseason spot attainable for a team that started 2-10. But, even more so than Holiday, the Pelican most responsible for the surprising victory was Terrence Jones, who is undergoing a renaissance season in his first year in the Crescent City.

In an offseason when even unproven role players were rolling in dough, Jones had to settle for a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract from the Pelicans after fielding no offers during the first few weeks of free agency. It was surprising given the potential Jones showed during his first two seasons with the Rockets, but chronic injury issues kept him out of the lineup last season, clouding Jones’ future. Still though, Jones is clearly talented and it was odd not to see any team, particularly one like Brooklyn or Sacramento, take a moderately expensive flier on him.

Instead it was New Orleans who convinced Jones to sign at way below his market value, though I suppose if Jones had a higher market value he wouldn’t be playing for the minimum. Ironically, it was Ryan Anderson’s departure to Houston that opened up the backup power forward spot in New Orleans, and Jones has stepped into that role and performed well. Jones is a totally different player than Anderson, but he gives the Pelicans a spark and he’s versatile enough to play alongside Davis when he needs to. Only Davis, Holiday and Dante Cunningham have a better net rating than Jones, meaning the Pelicans are generally at their best when he is on the floor.

Jones’ diverse skill set was on full display against the Cavaliers when he tied his career high of 36 points on 13-of-18 shooting while collecting 11 rebounds and three blocks. Jones inability to hit 3s consistently is perhaps the biggest reason the Pelicans found him in the bargain bin this summer, and that trend has continued this season as he is shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc. But Cleveland learned how dangerous Jones can be when he has his shot going. Jones was 3-of-4 from deep against the Cavs, capitlizaing on the acres of space the Cavs afforded him.

That 3-point shot is so vital for Jones. When he has it going, it frees up the other delightful elements of his game that make him a tough cover for most other power forwards in the NBA. Watch here as Tristan Thompson crowds Jones at the top of the key, extending his arm to dissuade the long jumper. Jones uses the space to get moving toward the basket, stops on a dime and unleashes a gorgeous behind-the-back move to get right to the rim.

Jones is one of the most frequent pump fakers in the NBA. It is almost like a nervous twitch. Sometimes you can tell Jones never had any intention of shooting the ball and few things can irk coaches more than when their defenders fall for a pump fake from someone shooting 27 percent from deep. But when Jones does claim a victim, he takes off and drives into the paint, where can either finish or find an open teammate if the defense helps. Jones is shooting 65.2 percent in the restricted area this season, which is the same percentage as Davis.

On the other end of the floor, Jones is in an unenviable position of ambiguity. He’s not quite quick enough to guard small ball fours and he isn’t long enough to play the five for prolonged stretches. He can do a job on players in his own category, but isn’t an obvious plus defensively. However, forced into the role of rim protector against Cleveland with Davis and Omer Asik out, Jones delivered with solid interior defense, including a devastating rejecting on LeBron James late in the fourth quarter.

Jones was a forgotten man during one of the most player-friendly offseasons in sports history, and he had to settle for a make-good one-year deal in order to get a chance to prove himself as a reliable rotation player. Thus far, Jones has done far more than that in New Orleans. He hasn’t exactly cemented himself as a long term frontcourt partner for Davis, but he has shown that the variety of tools in his arsenal are still there. And if he can manage to become a more consistent outside shooter, he won’t be playing for the veteran’s minimum again for a long time.

Get That Ish Out Of Here

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It is not very difficult, nor is it especially flattering, to be considered a “breath of fresh air” on a team with a 1-30 record. But for Ish Smith, any welcoming admiration is received with open arms.

Smith is everybody’s favorite peripatetic. His resume is built on 10-day contracts, D-League assignments and end-of-the-bench roles. Only once in his six-year career has he spent an entire season with one team. He’s been waived six times and traded five times. In a 10-month span, Smith was traded to the Pelicans and waived on the same day, signed by the 76ers, signed and waived by the Wizards, claimed by the Pelicans and traded to the 76ers.

Philadelphia’s recent acquisition of Smith is the most promising move for Smith in terms of sticking around for longer than a couple of months. Whereas those other trades included Smith as an inconsequential and purely financial asset, the Sixers gave up two second-round picks to get Smith. It was a bit of an odd move for a team so focused on building from the draft to give up two high second rounders (Philly’s own and one from Denver), but new chairman Jerry Colangelo wanted to bring in a player with experience with his first act in charge of the team and Smith certainly has that.

The Sixers were not exactly phlegmatic before Smith’s arrival; they are a spirited young team that plays hard for Brett Brown that happens to produce depressingly bad results. Smith has given this team a bit of direction and corrected a bit of the chaos. The Sixers have won three of their nine games since his arrival and were within 10 points against the Cavs, Lakers and Jazz. Smith had a career-high 28 points on 55 percent shooting against the Raptors and he compiled double-digit assists against the Cavs, Wolves, Clippers and Jazz.

Even before he was traded to the Sixers, Smith was playing well. The Pelicans started the season without Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, so Smith filled in and averaged 30 minutes a game for the first month of the season. He was scoring 12 points per game and was close to the league lead in assists with an average of eight a night. When Holiday and Evans returned, Smith was banished to the back of the rotation. Although New Orleans got a very nice haul for an end of the bench guy on a one-year deal, Philadelphia was happy to get Smith back into action.

Smith has a spartan skillset and most of his success can be attributed to his speed. He drives as much as Russell Westbrook (10.6 times a game) and averages 1.4 assists on drives per game, the second most in the league behind Rajon Rondo. Smith’s divisive pick-and-roll game, as well as the hiring of pick-and-roll guru Mike D’Antoni, has helped both of Philadelphia’s young big men become more efficient players. Rookie Jahlil Okafor is shooting 60 percent when sharing the floor with Smith, a good 12 percent increase over his season average (47.8 percent), and Nerlens Noel is shooting 68 percent (compared to 50.5 percent for the season).

Smith has shown flashes of being a useful bit player at almost all of his stops, but third-string point guards on minimum deals don’t have much of a shelf life. As a result, Smith has a more colorful costume closet than the late David Bowie. But in Philadelphia, where the goal is to create a semblance of structure whilst maintaining a strong lottery presence, Smith fits perfectly as the 76ers’ engine. With a speedy player like Smith who can break down defense and open up gaps for the bigs to attack in the paint, Okafor and Noel are getting some genuine pick-and-roll reps, making the acquisition of Smith a developmental supplement if anything else.

Mo Shots In Motown

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I understand the risks you are taking when you sign Brandon Jennings to a multi-year deal that will eat up a significant portion of your camp space. He’s shown some maturity issues, his on-court production has never matched the hype (and he’s yet to realize this) and the Bucks were an astounding 12.45 points per 100 possessions worse with Jennings on the floor last season per Basketball Value, which was the second worst mark in the league.

And yet, I am still shocked that it took until July 30th for a team to finally work out a deal to acquire the young point guard. After all, Jennings is just 23 years old, he’s spent most of his career playing for a coach that many players, including himself, clashed with and the potential for him to emerge as a more efficient point guard that effectively utilizes his scoring and distributing talents is still there.

But that’s the era that we are in right now. As the off-season played out and teams like Dallas and Utah and Sacramento found themselves new point guards via free agency, trades and the draft, the market for Jennings became extremely bare. There’s no better illustration of this golden age of lead guards than the fact that a 23-year old point guard with obvious talent had no logical suitors. Jeff Teague was in a similar situation a couple of weeks ago, and at one point a Jennings-for-Teague rumor sprouted up presumably so the basketball gods could kill two birds with one stone.

After weeks of waiting, and even some rumblings that Jennings was considering playing for the qualifying offer this season and becoming an unrestricted free agent next year, today we learned that the Detroit Pistons, who have had one of the most active summers in the league, will acquire Jennings in a sign-and-trade deal that will send former lottery pick Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov to Milwaukee.

Given what Joe Dumars did the last time the Pistons had cap space, it was hard to envision them having a positive off-season, but I find myself liking the team they’ve put together. Dumars essentially pulled off the same move that Dell Demps did with the Pelicans, quickly shifting his team out of rebuild mode and into playoff competition. The reason the Pistons won’t get as much praise for their off-season is because they’ve acquired a couple of unsure things and added them to a core that was already unproven.

The Pelicans started with a strong base of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis and added an all-star caliber point guard in Jrue Holiday and likely sixth man Tyreke Evans. Of that group, assuming Gordon actually plays this year, only Evans is a question mark, and I’m not sure you can blame him for establishing that reputation on that dysfunctional Kings team. Under the leadership of Monty Williams and on a team that actually makes sense roster-wise, I expect Evans to find his niche this season, and overall this is a roster that fits together extremely well.

The Pistons started their quick rebuild with a potential laden base of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. While that duo has shown promising signs, we don’t know for sure that Drummond will ever be more than a hyper athletic rebounder and shot blocker; though a hyper athletic rebounder and shot blocker is always an asset, Drummond did shoot 37% from the free throw line last season and he made all of two baskets outside of the restricted area. Monroe has shown a much more polished offensive game with a decent set of post moves and a nice feel for things when distributing from the high post, but he too has his limitations with a lackluster jumpshot and slow feet on defense. It’s a young duo that several teams would envy, but by themselves that’s not a particularly strong foundation.

The additions of Josh Smith and Jennings certainly make the Pistons better, but that doesn’t mean that they solve all of their problems, either. Both players have shown that they can be all-star caliber players when they play to their strengths – Smith with his uncanny ability to defend the rim and the perimeter at an elite level and Jennings with his lightning quick speed and expansive court vision – but they also have a tendency to get lazy, jack up bad shots, gamble on defense and portray a mopy attitude if things don’t go their way.

Smith is also an awkward fit positionally, as he’s been at his best as a power forward; now, he may end up playing power forward alongside Monroe a lot this season, but that means the Pistons will be playing Drummond less, and he was one of the few players on the team to have a positive statistical impact on their performance. A Smith-Monroe-Drummond frontcourt is likely the best way to utilize the talents of all three of these players, but the floor spacing of that unit will not be pretty.

While the Pelicans found a way to add impact players that fit in perfectly with what they had in place, the Pistons have gambled on some impact players that may not mesh with the Drummond/Monroe duo. On top of that, the team also hired a new head coach – former Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks – this off-season that will be tasked with managing all of these egos for the first time. All signs point to Detroit’s transition to contender going less smoothly than it will in New Orleans, and yet I don’t think Dumars massively screwed up this off-season, at least not compared to what happened in 2009.

I’m not sure this is a playoff team right away – not with Washington, Cleveland and Toronto also freshly in the playoff hunt and only the Celtics definitely dropping out of the post-season picture – but I’ll back the method used to build it.

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