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Pelicans: Five Proposed Lineups For Final Five Weeks

New Orleans should lean on leadership but also discover the abilities of its younger players going forward.

NEW ORLEANS - The New Orleans Pelicans went into the NBA All-Star break with reasons to be optimistic. After three-straight post-break losses, Willie Green's squad is at a crossroads and facing the reality of their falling from initial expectations. According to Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III, there is a "cloud" over this locker room.

Once sitting in first place out West, the Pelicans (31-32) fight for the last NBA Play-In Tournament spot.

A 40-point night from Brandon Ingram in Portland got the Pelicans back in the win column, but there's a long way to go between victory in a playoff game.

Regardless of the regular season, the front office needs Green to lean on the leaders to see how they respond. David Griffin and co. also need to find out if their young players, Dyson Daniels, and Kira Lewis Jr., are worth further investment. The same goes for any Herb Jones contract extension.

Pelicans head coach Willie Green in Portland

Willie Green's squad played with more structure in the 121-110 road win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Before mapping out the lineups to lean on and learn from these last few weeks, let's set some rotational parameters. Consider these the five rotational directives to live by for the rest of the regular season. These guidelines have stipulations affected by the bad news on the most recent injury reports.

  1. Chemistry Counts: McCollum and Ingram will play the bulk of their minutes together to build chemistry. Ingram is the last starter subbed off, barring foul trouble, even when/if Zion Williamson returns to the lineup.
  2. Biding Time With Trey: At least one of Ingram or McCollum will be on the court for at least 40 minutes. One of the Big 3 is always on the court when/if Williamson returns. If CJ and B.I. are both on the bench, Jonas Valanciunas or Trey Murphy III must be on the court.
  3. Try-Hard 3-n-D Trio Rule: Never play Naji Marshall, Herb Jones, and Josh Richardson together. When serving as the small-ball five defensively, Jones can play with one or the other.
  4. Point Guard Pick-em: With Alvarado out, Dyson Daniels and Kira Lewis Jr. run the point when McCollum sits, not Jones. Ingram is likely the primary ball handler for a good chunk of these minutes as is. Naji Marshall can also shoulder the burden of bringing the ball up. No one else, for the sake of playing within a more well-defined structure.
  5. Big Man Minutes Budget: Jaxson Hayes gets 20 minutes per night. Willy Hernangomez gets 5-10 until Nance Jr. is back. Maybe less if Dyson Daniels is trusted. Herb Jones gets some chances as a small-ball five.

First, if this team is going to make a run, Ingram, McCollum, and eventually Williamson has got to find a rhythm. Secondly, the offense craters lately when none of the Big 3 are on the court. If this team is going to get the most value out of Valanciunas and get up 35 three-pointers a night, going with a four-out look that gets paint touches and space for a couple of shooters is an avenue to explore.

The third rule is in place because the defensive-minded approach needs to be tweaked. Putting three barely-average shooters on the court simultaneously to limit the opponent only works for so long. Playing this defensive trio together limits the firepower of the second unit. Playing just two of them at the same time is risky.

Lastly, give Daniels, Lewis Jr., and Jaxson a chance to show what they can or cannot do to help down the stretch. Alvarado was last year's spark off the bench. Now that Alvarado is out, that role is wide open for one of the former first-round picks. Seeing what they offer should be a priority, and it gives Ingram a chance to get free off the ball instead of long stretches of dribbling as the sole focus of all five defenders.

Trey Murphy III

First Five Out, Last Five In

The Pelicans have won just ten road games. They've given up 35 first-quarter points in the past three home games. New Orleans fails to stop anyone early and have scored more than 30 points in the opening 12 minutes just once in the past six games. For a team that used to impose a will and average 120 points per game, it's quite the downswing.

The last five in the huddle during the previous five minutes also need adjusting. Murphy III has star potential. He needs the reps in star-making moments, as proven last year in the Play-In win over the LA Clippers. A team in dire need of space and shooting should not be subbing in Murphy III, down 6 points with 23 seconds left, as done in a Feb. 27 loss to the Orlando Magic.

Proposed New Starting Lineup: CJ McCollum, Josh Richardson/Naji Marshall, Brandon Ingram, Trey Murphy III, Jonas Valanciunas

Jones can close games as the best defender on the court, but New Orleans needs the immediate spark provided by Murphy III. The defensive star known as Not on Herb has been off the mark lately on the offensive end, but Marshall or Richardson should be able to handle the starting role for a few minutes.

Getting to come in an attack instead of standing in the corner could help Herb's confidence. He isn't the type to take this kind of adjustment personally, and a swap for Valanciunas could give opposing teams problems making adjustments.

Josh Richardson

Sticking to a more orthodox rotation: Daniels and/or Jones off the bench for Murphy III and Richardson, then Jaxson Hayes and Naji Marshall for McCollum and Valanciunas mix up the overlapping talents to create rotations that need to be seen together. Ingram still gets to be the last starter to be subbed out, and perhaps this is the type of minor shake-up to start the game that will give the team a jolt.

Proposed Closing Lineup: McCollum, Ingram, Williamson, Murphy III, Jones

Without Zion, plug in whoever the matchup dictates. It could be Nance Jr., Marshall, or Valanciunas. Dyson Daniels makes sense if Jones can play the five, as he did against Portland. For a team lacking three-point volume, Murphy III and/or Daniels should be the primary options going forward, regardless of injuries.

Decisions in these moments will weigh heavily into Green's post-season evaluations, especially if Jones is ignored offensively, tires defensively, and needs to be replaced by Richardson, Daniels, or Marshall.

Second Units, Surprising Sixth Man Sparks

Jose Alvardo's journey from being an undrafted G-League scrapper to one of the NBA's household names came at the end of last season. The Pelicans needed a high-energy boost from the bench, even if Alvarado was a DNP-CD most nights to start the NBA career. Once he got on the court, Green had to play the Georgia Tech alum.

The second unit will have to find a way to rebound without Larry Nance Jr. and Alvarado over the next few weeks. The reserves must also find enough points to keep opposing teams from pushing out double-digit leads.

McCollum or Ingram needs to be on the court at all times right now. However, they also need rest. The frustration of being overburdened in carrying the team is becoming apparent. Still, separating them too much is forcing the issue, encouraging isolation games, and inviting more frustrating, momentum-killing mistakes that have plagued the team lately.

Second Line Surge Lineup: Kira Lewis Jr., Dyson Daniels, Josh Richardson/Naji Marshall, Trey Murphy III, and a big man.

The only constants for the second unit are Murphy III, a young point guard, and a secondary ball-handler who can play defense. Murphy III would be asked to focus more on rebounding his position and drawing attention as a perimeter threat. Marshall was trusted to bring the ball up the court late in the road win over Portland. Perhaps Green gives Daniels and Lewis Jr. alternating minutes.

Possibly allow Hernangomez 20-30 minutes per game to show off his Euro-centric skills. Sure, Hernangomez needs to improve as a rim protector, but so does Hayes. Jones would be covering for Jaxson in this case. If not, at least the Eurobasket MVP knows where to go on offense and can clear the boards. 

This lineup in any of the configurations can run the floor and is still stout defensively if Daniels, Nance Jr., and perhaps Jones are sharing the court. Murphy III and Lewis Jr. might get hunted on defense, but they need the repetitions and can learn on the job next to above-average help defenders.

Herb Jones and Naji Marshall celebrate against the Orlando Magic.

Big Three, What Could Be?

Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum are supposed to be the Big Easy's championship core Big 3 but have played just 10 games together. Will the trio get to play even another 50 minutes together over the last five weeks of this season? If not, how will the front office know how to retool around this core during the summer?

Leave No Doubt, All Nickname Lineup: Big Z, CJ, B.I., Trigga Trey, Not on Herb (w/ Mr. GTA for Trey on occasion)

The Golden State Warriors have their Death Lineups. Willie Green's "You gotta fight!" highlight was similar to the "Leave no doubt!" speech in Remember the Titans. The team needs to get healthy to remember the joy of earlier this season.

Besides Alvarado, who gives Zion a boost at times, this is the same as the preferred closing lineup mentioned above. Still, it's yet to be assured this lineup will get another chance together this year.

Point Zion lets McCollum relax in the combo guard spot he grew comfortable in a while playing with Damian Lillard. Ingram and Murphy III would get plenty of clean looks running off of curls and pin-down screens. Herb can space the floor, attack closeouts, push the pace, and cover up for Zion patrolling the paint.

At least, that's how it is supposed to work if the world gets to see that lineup. 

Four-Outs & Fast Breaks

Working inside-out allows Jonas Valanciunas to get paint touches while surveying the cuts from the perimeter. The reads must be decisive, but going to a four-out system for a stretch could give the team space while encouraging more movement. Those cuts will at least give the opposing defense more to think about than the iso-heavy looks of the past week.

The Pelicans are among the worst three-point teams gauging by volume per game. Finding a way to get up cleaner, in-rhythm looks instead of the contested shots of the past week will go a long way to boosting the team's confidence, which Green says has been lacking this last week. This also gets the most bang for the buck from the starting big man.

Firebombing Four-Out Lineup (3PT%): Lewis Jr. (45%), McCollum (38%), Ingram (41%), Murphy III (39%), Valanciunas (34%)

Brandon Ingram

Pleading The Fifth

Give Willie Green some slack. Zion, CJ, and B.I. have played ten games total together. However, when it comes to future roster versatility, Green's Point-Five (0.5 seconds) basketball needs to find out if No. 5 (Herb Jones) can play the five (center) in certain situations.

Griffin said, "I give (former coach Alvin Gentry) all the answers to the test, and he still fails." This season is not quite a failure yet, but it will be if the team bombs out of the playoffs no clear picture for the future either.

The front office will soon seek to give Herb Jones a contract extension. If the Alabama alum's shot is not falling, a move to playing more of an inside game could be necessary. A trade for O.G. Anunoby did not pan out, and Valanciunas could be on the move.

Can Jones, listed as a 6'8'' shooting guard as a rookie, put up enough resistance as a defensive small-ball four or five to give the Pelicans some roster flexibility going forward? If not, and the three-point shot remains broken, how much can the Pelicans commit to Jones while flirting with the luxury tax threshold?

The Pelicans gave themselves a cushion against the Trail Blazers with a funky five that included Dyson Daniels.

Funky Five Lineup: Dyson Daniels, CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Trey Murphy III, Herb Jones

Herb Jones

It's an experiment worthy of the time, and it got some in the win over Portland. New Orleans built a double-digit cushion with this crew also corralling Damian Lillard. It deserves more time on the burner to simmer to see how this recipe settles.

For a reason, Daniels has been rated a better prospect than all the other guards on rookie contracts. This season is already teetering on the brink, but this situation allows experimentation. Letting the opportunity go to waste and not getting more data points on how much Herb can do before making another big financial commitment would be a problem.

Some of Green's lineups must show confidence in the team's leaders. Some lineups provide an opportunity to learn more about the Pelicans before pushing the limits of the luxury tax. 

The season is not lost, but it is time to test the limits and lay out a plan for developing future rosters.

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