A move off the ball changed everything

by Wes Goldberg

Jrue Holiday is spending less time with the ball in hands and more time impacting the game on both ends of the court. He’s helping lead New Orleans to their most successful season of the Pelicans era.

As confetti fell down from the rafters of the Smoothie King Center, Jrue Holiday pogoed across the court to wrap his arms around the torso of Anthony Davis. The two could do nothing but smile after leading the New Orleans Pelicans to a first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. It was fitting that the duo was caught on camera, because they had put on one hell of a show.

We’ve come to expect heroics from Davis, who will pop up on many an MVP ballot. But from Holiday? Not so much. Holiday, however, was the seventh-most productive scorer of the first round of the playoffs, ahead of guys like DeMar DeRozan, John Wall and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Pelicans guard played a vital part in New Orleans advancing to the second round for the first time in a decade.

The last time the Pelicans were in the playoffs, in 2015, Holiday stunk it up, averaging just 6.3 points per game on 36.8 percent shooting. Holiday was dealing with a sore right leg and only played 55 minutes in that series. Oh, and they were playing the Golden State Warriors. But Holiday being healthy has as much to do with his recent surge in play as does his new role in the offense. This postseason, Holiday increased his points per game to 24.4 points on 52.6 percent shooting.

Holiday’s defense against Damian Lillard (and everyone else) was the hit single off his All-NBA Defense tour this season, but it’s what he did on offense that shows the biggest development in his game. After signing a five-year deal last summer he still plays in New Orleans but, since then, at a different position.

Alvin Gentry moved Holiday, a point guard for most of his career, off the ball this season. According to Basketball Reference’s play-by-play data, Holiday is playing 99 percent of his possessions on the wing this season — just one percent of the time actually playing the point, compared to 63 percent of the time last season. It’s allowed Holiday to focus more on scoring.

“When you play him off the ball you release him from all the decision making that has to go on,” Gentry told The Step Back after a recent shootaround in Oakland. “Jrue, he’s in attack mode, and when you have him in a situation where you can hit him and he can just think about attacking the basket or making a play, you take some of the pressure off of him to do some of the other things, and I think that’s why he had such a great year.”

It’s worked, not only for Holiday, but also for the Pelicans offense as a whole. Last season, the Pels ranked 26th in the league in offensive rating (103.3 points per 100 possessions). This season, they jumped all the way to ninth (107.7) and led the league in pace.

This isn’t the first time Gentry has experimented with playing Holiday off the ball. During his first season, in 2015-16, Gentry often played Holiday along with point guards Toney Douglas and Norris Cole. That was more out of necessity than anything else. The Pelicans dealt with a lot of injuries to their wings that season. Douglas nor Cole had the chops to run the offense on a full-time basis. It was the addition of Rajon Rondo this season that has allowed Holiday to lean all the way into playing off the ball.

If you dust off your dictionary and look up the definition of “floor general,” you’ll see a picture of Rajon Rondo. Maybe this one.

“He knows when you hit adversity how to calm everybody down and get back to focus and get back to the game plan is,” said Anthony Davis of Rondo’s value.

Gentry has allowed both of his guards to do what they do best. Rondo commands the offense, and Holiday hoops.

Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Holiday’s shooting percentage increased from 45.4 percent last season to 49.4 percent this season. He’s averaging nearly four more points per game while, remarkably, averaging only a shade fewer assists per game than his career average and posting his smallest turnover percentage since arriving in New Orleans. In other words: Holiday is still setting up teammates for buckets just as he always has, but is doing it — and scoring — more efficiently than ever. Everything comes in the flow of the offense.

No longer, Holiday says, does he have to worry about dissecting the defense and spreading the ball around. Now, that’s Rondo’s job.

“I don’t really have to do that anymore,” Holiday said. “Usually, he’s getting me the shot or he tells me to go. So my aggression turns on further in the shot clock rather than trying to get people the ball and then I get it back and start going.”

What happens when Rondo gets him the ball?

“I attack.”

Things are also easier for him. According to data from NBA.com/stats, almost 42 percent of Holiday’s field goals were assisted this season, compared to just 29 percent last season. He’s getting more catch-and-shoot opportunities and dribbling less.

You can tell Holiday is enjoying his new role. Gentry didn’t set out to move Holiday off the ball, but rather it was just a way to put his best five guys on the floor. “It kind of evolved in a way with us getting Rondo,” Gentry said.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr calls Holiday a combo guard. To some, that may have negative connotation (like “tweener” or “game manager”) but, coming from Kerr, it’s a compliment.

“He can be a secondary ball handler when Rondo is on the floor, or he can take over when they game is on the line like he did in Portland.” Kerr said. “He’s just playing at a really, really high level.”

The Pelicans are playing the Warriors in the second round of the playoffs and, after getting blown out in Game 1, it still seems as though New Orleans is a few light years behind Golden State. Still, that five-year, $126 million contract the Pelicans signed Holiday to seems to be paying off. It’s easy to forget that after nine years in the NBA, Holiday will be just 28 next season and is one of the top two-way players in the league.

It’s taken some time, but Holiday has found the perfect position, and the playoffs have been a stage. Get rid of the Rondo-like deductive reasoning and let the quick-twitch muscles do to work. No need to complicate things. Like he says: “I think me being aggressive helps our team out a lot.”

It’s that simple.

Wes Goldberg is a contributor to The Step Back and the host of the daily Miami Heat podcast Locked On Heat.

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