Can the Pelicans Break the Trend?

Written By: Matthew Yudin

It is no secret that the NBA has been transitioning into a more perimeter-oriented game that is dominated by guards and small forwards over the last few seasons. In fact, only two of the sixteen teams that made the playoffs in 2017 were led by a power forward or center in terms of Player Efficiency Rating (PER). This is part of the reason that the Pelicans’ decision to acquire All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins last February was so intriguing. They seemed to go against the trend by adding Cousins to a team that was already led by another All-Star big man, Anthony Davis.

While the duo only played 17 games together last season, they weren’t as successful as anticipated, going only 7-10 in those games. Their 41.1% winning percentage was well below the winning percentages of the other multiple-All-Stars teams, who had winning percentages of 62.2% (the 51-31 Raptors), 81.7% (the 67-15 Warriors), and 62.2% (the 51-31 Cavaliers). While 17 games is too small a window to accurately predict how successful their future will be, it may indicate why big men led teams have become so rare in today’s NBA.

Many NBA fans have noticed the widespread usage of smaller lineups in recent years. Basketball-reference.com provides the top 20 most played two-man combinations for each team. If all types of combinations were used equally, PF-PF, C-C, and PF-C duos would make up 20% of the duos since they represent 3 of the 15 possible two-man combinations. However, over the last season, these three combinations made up only 7% (42 of 600) of the most-played duos. This shows that teams are giving their big men less playing time together. This is understandable, considering the 42 big men combinations averaged a +0.2 when on the court together compared to the +1.2 the other 558 combinations had.

It is not surprising that power forwards and centers are getting less minutes together, since players from both positions have generally struggled to lead their teams to success in recent years. From the 2013-2014 season to the 2016-2017 season, I recorded the position of every team’s PER leader and the team's winning percentage that season. The stats can be seen below:

PER Leader Position N Mean Win% Median Win%
PG 31 .5480 .5732
SG 8 .4512 .4756
SF 16 .6029 .6341
PF 25 .4732 .4634
C 40 .4482 .4390

The 95% confidence intervals for each position showed that centers led their teams to significantly less wins than did point guards and small forwards. The small sample size of teams led by shooting guards meant there was too much variability and I was not able to accurately compare them to the other positions.

The data shows that teams led by centers are less likely to succeed than teams led by small forwards or point guards. There are many possible reasons for this. One of the blatant deficiencies that arose in the Pelicans’ case was their perimeter defense. Before the Cousins trade, they were holding opponents to 34.71% on their 3-point shots. This would have been 7th best in the league. After the trade, however, this number ballooned to 36.95%. If they maintained this average over the course of an entire season, it would have been 26th in the league.

When looking at how opponent 3-point shooting related to position, teams led by their centers gave up the highest average 3-point percentage at 35.82%. Small forward led teams defended the perimeter the best, holding teams to 34.56% shooting. Since making 3-pointers is a critical factor for winning in today’s NBA, teams that play poor perimeter defense are putting themselves at a disadvantage. If teams led by big men play statistically worse perimeter defense, then it follows that a team like the Pelicans – whose two best players are both big men – would feel the negative effects even more.

This upcoming season, many NBA fans will be eager to watch how the Pelicans’ experiment develops. Will Davis and Cousins’ abilities to stretch the floor make them more successful than big-man-dominated teams in the past, or will their poor perimeter defense be too much to overcome? We will have to wait and see.

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