Who Should Start in the Pelicans Backcourt?


Starting positions matter. There’s 240 minutes in a regulation NBA game, but the five players who play those first key minutes can set the tone and narrative of the entire contest.

Smart NBA fans know that good rotations, smart lineups, and efficient distribution of minutes matter more than a perfect starting lineup, but a perfect starting lineup can still be an important asset nonetheless.

The Pelicans have started 10 different players this season, so it’s safe to say their starting lineup has been in a state of fluctuation.

Still, we know Anthony Davis will start at Power Forward and we know either Asik or Ajinca is going to get 10-15 minutes starting at Center. Small forward is Gee right now, but will likely be Pondexter once he comes back healthy.

The question is who starts in the backcourt.

Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans are the candidates, and provide three possible combinations. What I’m going to do in this article is breakdown each and every factor in deciding which pairing is best, and come to a conclusion on which pairing truly deserves the starting nod.

Criteria #1: Offense

Mar 19, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans (1) and guard Eric Gordon (10) against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Pelicans 74-72. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Offense will always be the first thing people consider when grouping players together.

When I tell you to imagine a Tyreke + Gordon backcourt you’re very likely to imagine Tyreke furiously driving to the rim and finding Gordon for a three, and less likely to imagine Tyreke getting lost on a rotation and Gordon being finished over by a bigger guard.

That’s fine, offense is easier to evaluate with the naked eye, and so it makes sense we place so much importance on it.

Let’s compare how our three backcourt combinations stacked up against each other on the offensive end last season.

Basic stats:

Advanced stats:

I’m not sure what our best offensive pairing is, but I know it ISN’T Tyreke and Gordon. They all fired relatively equally across the board, though Gordon and Tyreke had an offensive rating of 106.8 vs. 110.4 and 111.5 in lineups involving Jrue.

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One would think that pairing our best driver/slasher with our best shooter/spacer would be the ideal offensive combo, but the data says otherwise.

It’s worth noting that when Jrue was getting to play with Tyreke and Gordon before his injury, they were passing to Salmons, Babbit, and Rivers whereas when Gordon and Tyreke began to gel after the All-Star break it was with Dante, Cole, and Pondexter.

Not a huge upgrade, but worth mentioning.

Jrue’s lineups also played at a faster pace than the Gordon/Reke lineup, and in a Gentry offense that might give Jrue the nod alone.

The bottom line is that if you want to focus on offense when deciding on the starting guards, it would seem Jrue is the clear pick to be one of them.

Criteria 2: Defense

Nov 20, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) attempts a shot over San Antonio Spurs forward Kyle Anderson (1) and center Tim Duncan (21) in the first half at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This is where I really though Jrue would shine.

The offense was a surprise, whereas I expected his defensive numbers to be better than Tyreke and Gordon. Jrue passes the eye test the most, but maybe he doesn’t have the impact I assumed.

Defense also isn’t just about how well you defend your individual man; Tyreke might be the best option to put on a bigger guard like Demar Derozan, but his help defense is terrible.

Gordon might be better at defending a smaller quicker point guard than Tyreke, but he also doesn’t allow you to switch pick and rolls as freely.

Let’s look at the stats and see who comes out ahead.

(Pre Dante, Cole, + Pondexter)

Again, things are relatively equal outside of a strange and jarring jump in “OFBPT” meaning “opponent fast-break points” which existed in duo Gordon was absent from.

This makes some sense, Gordon is probably the Pelicans fastest guard and that means he’s the best at getting back on the break. He isn’t as good of an on ball defender as Jrue, but I can buy that he might be better at sprinting the length of the court.

If I had to come to a conclusion, I would saw Jrue-Gordon is out best defensive pairing with Jrue as the best primary on ball defender and Gordon in there to prevent some easy transition opportunities.

Criteria 3: The Future

Based on the raw lineup data, it would seem that Jrue-Gordon is our best option.

Strange right?

Most Pelicans fans would say Tyreke is our 2nd best player, and I don’t disagree, but if he is then I don’t see a clear reason why. Lineups with Tyreke stood out nowhere here, whereas Jrue’s lineups had better offensive numbers and Gordon’s seemed to work best in transition defense.

The reason why I listed “the future” as an option is because Jrue and Tyreke are on contracts that will expire in 2017, whereas Gordon is a free agent this summer.

Maybe you say that the lineup differences here are negligible, and you simply want Jrue and Tyreke to play together as much as possible.

Jan 9, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) and guard Tyreke Evans react following a basket to end the first half by guard Jrue Holiday (11) during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a valid argument, but at this point everyone outside of AD seems to be on the trade market and I’d rather just play the best lineups I can. Tyreke works better with the bench unit then Gordon does, and it seems Gordon works better as a starter than Tyreke does.

If Gordon is to come off the bench, then Norris Cole will likely remain the primary ball-handler (bad thing). Now if Tyreke comes off the bench Cole is likely to be an off-ball player and cutter (good thing).

I was optimistic that Tyreke might “breakout” under Gentry, but more and more it seems like he’s still the high usage average production player we’ve seen these past few seasons.

Granted, it’s early, but if the potential for him to become something greater isn’t there the team should do what’s best to win now.


Tyreke’s combinations showed nothing special, whereas Jrue and Gordon each added a quantifiable advantage. Additionally, Tyreke is a better fit playing with the Pelicans bench than Jrue or Gordon are.

When healthy, Jrue and Gordon should start in the backcourt with Tyreke Evans as a sixth man. That’s simply the best way to maximize this team’s production……