New Orleans Pelicans: Playing Lonzo Ball off-ball will open up the offense

Lonzo Ball #2 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball #2 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

What impact will moving Lonzo Ball off-ball have on the New Orleans Pelicans offense?

Stan Van Gundy was on the Lowe Post Podcast way back on July 20th, just eight days before the NBA season resumed in the Orlando bubble. He was there specifically to talk about the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, at the time Alvin Gentry was still running the team (although his footing may not have been very strong) and SVG had not publicly discussed a return to coaching.

That makes what he said about New Orleans all the more intriguing, as he was speaking from a purely analytical place. Stan Van Gundy wasn’t stumping for Gentry to lose his job, he was simply saying what he thought the team should do with certain players, including Lonzo Ball.

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The comment that caught the most attention in New Orleans was the idea of moving Lonzo off the ball and turning him into more of a 3-and-D type player. Many fans lost their minds at the thought of moving Lonzo off-ball more in the half-court, should they have?

In the clip that has been widely circulated in the days following the Pelicans hiring of SVG, Lowe makes the point that Lonzo is best playing the transition point and New Orleans should get plenty of opportunities every game to do so, Van Gundy agreed.

"“Where his development has got to come is shots off the dribble. Both at the rim, can he find a way to finish? He hasn’t really figured that out. And he really can’t shoot the jump shot or a floater, he doesn’t really have any of that off the dribble right now. So if he’s asked to put the ball on the floor and go at the basket he’s simply looking to pass the ball.” Van Gundy said."

If Lonzo does move off-ball in the half-court, which he should, it will open up more opportunities for other playmakers to distribute. Remember, Lonzo isn’t one of the better players at breaking down a defender and doesn’t shoot well near the rim. Doesn’t it make more sense to allow guys who can make a layup to drive to the rim and kick it out than someone who’s not a threat to lay it in in the first place?

If Lonzo has worked on his ability to beat a defender off the dribble and score near the rim this offseason then the front office should consider using him in a similar role to last year. But if that part of his game still needs improvement, which I suspect is the case, then having Lonzo play off-ball with the starters is more beneficial to the team.

New Orleans Pelicans: Lonzo Ball isn’t the only playmaker

Once Zion Williamson made his debut, this team was loaded with guys who can facilitate the offense. Zion can be something similar to Draymond Green for Golden State, a high post playmaker who sets screens and either destroys the rim or kicks it out for an open three.

One thing we saw more during his lone college season was Zion distributing the ball. During his first few NBA games, it looked like he was trying too hard to move the ball to an open teammate via a tricky pass. Frankly, Zion was playing too fast and once he settled into the league a little more the game seemed to slow down and he made smarter passes.

Another season of growth from Zion and the New Orleans Pelicans’ offense could de devasting.

Brandon Ingram, 2019-20 Most Improved Player, has made huge strides in this part of his game. His first season in New Orleans saw Ingram set per game career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage. All while playing basically the same number of minutes as the two seasons prior and committing the same number of turnovers per game.

I’ve already written about the defense warping play that is the Brandon Ingram – Zion Williamson pick and roll, but it’s worth revisiting now that the Pelicans seem more willing to entertain the idea. Ingram was already a very high-level assister (assist-maker? assist-giver? assist-disher?),

Ingram was in the 93rd percentile of all forwards in assist rate. That number put him above guys like Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam, and Gordon Hayward.

But what hurts Ingram is that those assists didn’t frequently come on designed plays given that he had an assist-usage rate of just 0.68. That number was way below the leaders like Draymond Green (1.65), Andre Iguodala (1.37), and LeBron James (1.32). It’s no coincidence in a league headed towards big playmakers that two of those three appeared in the last six NBA Finals.

Could Ingram evolve into a player like them? It’s too early to tell but we should get a clearer picture this season.

Jrue Holiday has long been the lead ballhandler for New Orleans even though he has been hesitant to take that role. Maybe he’s been miscast in that role as Holiday is best suited as a secondary ballhandler so that more of his energy can be spent on the defensive end.

Similar to Ingram, Holiday is has a very good assist percentage but an assist-usage ratio that doesn’t reflect his abilities. With a 28.4% assist percentage, Holiday is in the 85th percentile of combo guards. That’s better than Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell, and Carius LeVert, two of those get more media attention than Holiday and the third is often the main part of trade packages involving the Pelicans and Nets.

This shows Holiday can handle more of the playmaking responsibilities, although the presence of Ingram, Zion, and Lonzo make it so that New Orleans is loaded with potential creators. Holiday is also more capable of breaking down defenders off the dribble and while Jrue and Lonzo make the same percentage of shots near the rim, Holiday is much better from the mid-range.

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That’s just the starters, Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker could see an increase in playmaking opportunities with the second units. Those second units could see more of Lonzo as the lead playmaker if J.J. Redick gets more reps with the starters.

Simply put the New Orleans Pelicans have a glut of initiators for the coming season, which means that Lonzo Ball doesn’t have to initiate the offense in the half-court.

Lonzo will still be throwing his full-court bombs to Zion but we will see more ball movement in Stan Van Gundy’s offense, as well as more people handling the ball.