Projecting the NBA using xWARP: New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans were a nice little team this past year- complete with promise, some solid young role players and a neophyte, likely franchise altering big man in the fold. They looked like a team that would add a top 6 selection to pair with their star, Anthony Davis, and later have another likely lottery pick in the much ballyhooed 2014 draft. That would have been one way to go. Many think it was the right way to go. It’s not the way the Pellies (I got you, Zach Lowe!) decided to go, though. Instead, they opted to cash their chips in now and bet on a player in Jrue Holiday who is no doubt talented, but may not be worth the price New Orleans paid to grab him.

The draft rights to Nerlens Noel, whom many observers believed to be the draft’s most talented and promising player, along with their selection in the 2014 draft seems like quite a high price for a very good player who is not in the elite tier of his position. On the other hand, the Pelicans got someone everyone knows is a good player, and there’s some value in that.

In addition, the Pelicans nabbed Tyreke Evans from Sacramento. Evans famously is one of very few players to ever average 20 pts, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds as a rookie. There are all sorts of problems with relying on counting stats per game, but anytime you’ve accomplished something only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robinson ever did- you’re in good company. The problem for Evans is what came after all that promise in his first season. He was, basically, worse the next two years, before finally reaching roughly the same level of performance as his rookie year, last year. The Pelicans are betting that he’s finally got things figured out and he’s set to take off in new surroundings. If he does, his roughly $11 million annual salary will seem like a bargain on a similar level to that of Celtics point man Rajon Rondo and maybe to a lesser extent, Stephen Curry’s absolute steal of a deal. In order for Evans to reach that point, though, he will have to keep up or surpass his offensive contributions of the past and improve significantly from his, frankly, below-average to bad defense.

There’s hope for these Pellies, though, to play in the playoffs. I have them projected as the ninth best team in the West for next year, but the playoff bubble is also subject to the vagaries of injuries, luck, and teams and / or players surprisingly outperforming their expected level of performance. This is a squad that could easily squeak into next year’s playoffs out West. So how do the projections say they will likely get there?

Note: These numbers have to be adjusted for the context of the entire league average, which projected to be roughly +1.11 per team. That’s impossible; average must xRAPM leaguewide must, by definition, sum to 0, so adjusting the Pelicans down to -.69 from their previously unadjusted expected point differential of .42, we get a team expected to win roughly 39 games. That’s about as bubbly as bubbly gets for playoff hopes.

According to Nathan Walker’s numbers Pelicans look to get things done with a team deep with slightly to nicely above average players in the starting lineup, lead by Davis, Ryan Anderson, and Holiday. Tyreke Evans also projects to be above average but not as far above it as you’d like from a guy making the salary he’s slated to make and certainly not as much as those gaudy counting stats from his rookie year would suggest is his potential impact.

The Pelicans also need a relatively healthy year from Eric Gordon, which they project to get here. Gordon’s no world-beater but he’s above average, which is much more than can be said for the sub-replacement contributors behind him in the guard rotation- Austin Rivers and Anthony Morrow. If New Orleans is to really compete for that bottom rung of the playoff ladder, a healthy Gordon is probably a necessity. Here’s hoping he can finally stay on the floor and show more of the talent that made him the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade for New Orleans.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr.