For a second there, it seemed like the plethora of gifted young guards all over our fair league was an NBA fan's wish come true. Unfortunately, it now seems like that wish was made using a monkey's paw.
The New Orleans Pelicans announced Friday that point guard Jrue Holiday has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right tibia, and will be out of the team's lineup indefinitely. The Associated Press notes that the team didn't specify when or how Holiday sustained the injury; he played 29 minutes in New Orleans' Wednesday loss to the Washington Wizards, but sat out the entire fourth quarter after being replaced by Brian Roberts with 35 seconds remaining in the third.
That might have had more to do with Holiday missing eight of his 11 shots and getting outgunned by John Wall (who'd put up 18 points and six assists through three quarters), and with the Pelicans having been outscored by 11 points in Holiday's minutes, although a right leg injury certainly could have had a hand in the poor output, too. (Roberts is expected to start in Holiday's place against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, according to John Reid of the New Orleans Times Picayune.) Whether, or to what degree, the injury played a role remains unclear, but it's inarguable that Holiday had seen his play tail off of late. The 23-year-old averaged just six points and 5.5 assists in nearly 32 minutes per game over his last four outings while shooting just under 30 percent from the floor. That represents a pretty steep drop for a player who'd averaged 16.3 points, nine assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on 47.8/38.5/80.8 shooting splits in December.
Holiday, who made his first All-Star team last season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, is just the latest in an increasingly (and depressingly) long line of guards to go down, joining the likes of Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams on the shelf. He's also the second integral part of the Pelicans lineup to hit the injured list this week, with sharpshooting power forward Ryan Anderson also ruled out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck on Tuesday.
New Orleans already figured to have a difficult time making up for the lost offensive production that came with Anderson laid up, and Holiday's absence will only compound the issues. Amid early-season injuries to Anderson, stud big man Anthony Davis, and fellow guards Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, Holiday has been the steadiest and most reliable contributor for head coach Monty Williams, averaging 14.3 points and 7.9 assists per game, shooting a career-high 39 percent from 3-point range and assisting on a career-best 37.3 percent of his team's baskets during his minutes. Moreover, he's the only Pelican to appear in all 34 of the team's games and leads the team in minutes played.
As you might expect, that means there aren't very many non-Holiday New Orleans lineups to review, and even fewer successful ones. The only five-man Pelicans group that's seen more than 10 total minutes, features neither Holiday nor Anderson, and has outscored its opposition is the world-beating collective of Evans, Roberts, Anthony Morrow, Greg Stiemsma and Lance Thomas, which rolled up a +11 mark in 19 minutes spread over five games against fellow second-unit lineups. I'd suggest Williams lean heavily on this juggernaut fivesome over the next few weeks, but Thomas is currently plying his trade for the Guangdong Foshan Dralions of the Chinese Basketball Association. Bummer.
On one hand, the Pelicans would seem relatively well equipped to handle the absence of their starting point guard, thanks to the presence of reserves Evans and Roberts, plus a pair of combo guards in Gordon and sophomore Austin Rivers who can handle the ball and share the playmaking load in a pinch. (You'd suspect that news of Holiday's injury would lead the Pelicans to pump the brakes a bit in their reportedly ramped up efforts to find a trade partner that will take Gordon's contract off their hands. Then again, maybe not.) On the other, though, there's a reason Williams hasn't allowed very many "absences of their starting point guard" thus far.
With Holiday at the helm, the Pelicans have scored like a top-three offense, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions, which would slot right between the No. 3-ranked San Antonio Spurs and No. 4-ranked Houston Rockets, according to NBA.com's stat tool. With him on the bench, they sputter to a bottom-10 mark, barely averaging a point per possession and falling down among the likes of the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers and Rondo-less Boston Celtics. And while the Pelicans have been an overall disappointment defensively, slinking down a dismal 28th in points allowed per possession this season even with Holiday playing more than 69 percent of their total minutes, they've been a bit worse without him on the floor to pressure opposing point men.
All told, New Orleans has outscored opponents by 1.5 points-per-100 when Holiday plays and been outscored by 6.5-per-100 when he sits. In terms of efficiency differential (whether you score more points per possession than you allow or vice versa), that's the difference between the Pelicans being a fringe playoff team (+1.5-per-100 would be the ninth-best mark in the West, behind the Minnesota Timberwolves and just ahead of the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks) and the fourth-worst team in the NBA, ahead of only Philadelphia, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Utah Jazz. That's pretty significant, and it makes the prospect of facing an extended period without Holiday all the more daunting.
The Pelicans didn't much in the way of detail about the injury, but Jeff Stotts of the informative/increasingly necessary site In Street Clothes has some info worth reading on how stress fractures happen and what Holiday's dealing with right now. The Pelicans also didn't offer an expected timetable for Holiday's return, though CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes reported Friday that the Pelicans are "optimistic [Holiday will] return in approximately a month," which would put him out for at least the next 15 to 20 games. Stotts pegs the average number of games missed due to tibial fractures at 22, but it could also prove longer; Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee has been sidelined with one since Nov. 10.
As I mentioned in discussing Anderson's injury, a four-to-six-week, 15-to-20-game absence might not be totally disastrous for New Orleans. While the Pelicans are in the midst of a rough stretch that includes matchups with San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies, their schedule gets pretty East-heavy thereafter through the end of the All-Star break, where they could welcome Anderson and Holiday back into the fold to make a push toward a playoff berth. The likelihood of that push, though, will depend largely on whether New Orleans can stay within shouting distance of the eighth seed over the next moth and a half.
They enter play Friday four games back of the eighth-seeded Mavs, and really can't afford to fall much further back. The Denver Nuggets look (for the moment, at least) like they've righted the ship. Injured center Marc Gasol appears to be getting closer to returning for the 15-19 Grizzlies. The Wolves could rocket up the ranks very quickly if they can get their late-game issues sorted out. Even the lower reaches of the West harbor dangers; the lowly Jazz have gone 12-11 since their abysmal 1-14 start and just hammered the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Kings feature an All-Star-worthy center, an explosive point guard and a suddenly sharp swingman who can each go off at any time. It's scary out there.
It will not be easy for the Pelicans to stay afloat without two of their three most important players. They will need a heroic month from their 20-year-old unibrowed savior, reminders of why they paid all that money for Gordon and Evans, and a best-case scenario turn from Roberts, and even that might not be quite enough to make it work. And each loss figures to feel doubly depressing, carrying as it does the reminder that Holiday was acquired in exchange for both Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick that will go to the Philadelphia 76ers unless it falls in the top five draft slots. Some in Philly are concerned that the Pelicans will go belly up to the point that they'll rack up enough ping-pong balls to wind up in the top five, but that seems unlikely; instead, the Pelicans could find themselves losing just enough to miss the playoffs but not enough to keep their pick. Yet another reminder of how much injuries stink, and how haggling over pick protections can be the difference between a reasonable fair trade and a potential heist.
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