Why a Brandon Ingram trade is Pelicans’ best path forward

With the New Orleans Pelicans season now over courtesy of a first round sweep at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the next battle for the team to face involves the future of Brandon Ingram.

The blame for how quickly the Pelicans’ season ended doesn’t fall solely on Ingram’s shoulders – losing Zion Williamson to injury (again) surely doesn’t help – but it is fair to say that Ingram was underwhelming this play-in/postseason cycle.

In four playoff games, Ingram is averaging 14.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game on 45 percent true shooting. If you add in his two play-in games, those numbers combine for an equally uninspiring 16.3/4.7/3.8 on 47.2 percent true shooting.

This stretch poses two major questions: 1) what is wrong with Brandon Ingram, and 2) what does it mean for his future in New Orleans?

Problem 1: Ingram’s strange fit alongside Williamson

The way I see it, two major problems are contributing to Ingram’s recent struggles. The first one is his fit next to the team’s other All-Star (Williamson).

All season long, I have been obsessed with the idea of lineup optimization. Through studying teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, and Atlanta Hawks, I have outlined a bright-line rule about lineup construction.

It goes as follows: having lineups composed of players that work well together is better than ones merely stacked with pure talent, but the ideal outcome is to create lineups with both cohesion and talent.

When Ingram and Williamson share the floor together, the Pelicans fall under the least optimal category (lineups merely stacked with pure talent). Ingram and Williamson are both great players, but their skillsets are redundant of one another. Both of them are offensively slanted players who work better with the ball in their hands and can’t space the floor from the perimeter.

We’ll leave Williamson’s shortcomings for a different article. For Ingram, while he’s done a lot to improve his three-point efficiency, his shooting release is still slow. This makes it hard for him to loft a high volume of triples (34th percentile in three-point attempts per 75 possessions, per Dunks & Threes). As a general rule, when it comes to perimeter spacing, three-point volume is more important than three-point efficiency.

Now, shooting isn’t the only way to be a useful off-ball player. When playing next to an interior presence like Williamson, you can provide value by attacking the tilted floors he creates with one or two dribbles off the catch (kind of like Trey Murphy III does). Unfortunately, Ingram isn’t really good at that either. For the most part, he’s a very methodical player – one who needs multiple dribbles to flow into his spots. On the year, Ingram was in the 97th percentile in frequency of shots taken after three to six dribbles (per NBA.com).

Since Ingram and Williamson aren’t very threatening without the ball in their hands, teams can sag off them when they don’t have the ball in their hands and load up on the other. This issue reached its climax in the Pelicans’ play-in clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.

It got so bad that Ingram had to be taken out early in the fourth quarter and was never heard from again. In that game (the one game the tandem has played together during Ingram’s slump), Ingram scored just 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting from the floor, posting a +/- of -16. After he left the game for the last time, the Pelicans orchestrated a thunderous comeback, one that would have landed them the seventh seed had it not been for Williamson’s tragic hamstring injury.

Looking at their season-long numbers shows that this occurrence wasn’t an isolated incident. On the season, when Ingram and Williamson shared the floor together (1,085 minutes), the Pelicans had a net rating of +1.97. Normally, you want your star duo to be putting together a net rating of at least +5 (per PBP Stats).

Even more concerning, the Pelicans’ best high-volume lineup (that includes both Ingram and Williamson) has a negative point differential. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Ingram, Williamson, Herbert Jones, CJ McCollum, and Jonas Valanciunas shared the floor together (905 possessions), they had a point differential of -1.3 (40th percentile). That is far from what you’d see from a team with championship aspirations.

Now, this isn’t all on Ingram and Williamson. Most (except Murphy) of New Orleans’ ancillary players are of the flawed one-way variety (either great shooters who can’t defend or great defenders who can’t shoot). But given their overlapping skill sets, the type of role players that they would need to properly flank them have to be a lot more versatile than the average role player.

Problem 2: Ingram’s a flawed offensive primary option

In theory, Ingram’s numbers would look better if he wasn’t sharing the floor with another ball-dominant player. So, why has Ingram struggled in his last four games without Williamson?

It isn’t because Ingram is necessarily a bad postseason player. In the only other postseason series Ingram has ever been a part of (Phoenix Suns, circa 2022), he averaged 27 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists on 58.5% true shooting. Ingram is a deluxe shotmaker (85th percentile in midrange efficiency) and an underrated playmaker (92nd percentile in Passer Rating, per Thinking Basketball).

The difference between that series against the Suns and this one with the Thunder is that Phoenix didn’t employ a player like Luguentz Dort. Dort is a fierce, physical defender, and over the years, Ingram has struggled against these types of stoppers.

According to NBA.com matchup data, Ingram was 11 for 33 (33.3 percent) from the floor on shots that have been defended by Dort.

Ingram’s inability to quickly attack off-ball also translates to his process when he’s the one pulling the strings. Ingram struggles to make speedy decisions and play with pace, which can result in the bogging down of offensive possessions. Look at the difference between a possession led by Ingram (first clip in the montage below) and one engineered by McCollum (second clip).

Ingram’s game clearly improves when he’s on the floor without Williamson (he scores more points, does it more efficiently, and racks up more assists – per PBP Stats). However, his pitfalls (handling physicality, 3-point shooting, getting to the rim, and decision-making speed) limit his upside as the primary conductor.

We saw this last year when Ingram returned from injury in late January. In their final 34 games without Williamson and with Ingram (for the most part), the Pelicans were 21st in offensive rating.

How do the Pelicans fix this problem?

To recap, Ingram is a suboptimal fit next to Williamson, and when he is the number one option, he’s not that great at it. So, what do the Pelicans do to fix this?

To me, there are three possible ways of doing this. First, the Pelicans can surround Ingram/Williamson with role players that make more sense around them (basically, field as much shooting and rim protection as possible). The issue here is that the type of role players they need are the ones practically every team is trying to find. So, their chances of pulling off a re-tool are slim.

Another option is that Ingram or Williamson (or preferably both) become better off-ball players. Since he has a higher baseline as a shooter, Ingram is the more likely candidate for this type of development. But considering Ingram’s age (he’s almost 27) and the fact that decision-making speed is arguably the hardest skill to improve, this pathway also seems improbable.

The third (and, in my opinion, the most likely) approach is that they trade one of their two stars for better-fitting pieces. Since Williamson is the younger and more talented player, he’d probably be the one New Orleans wants to build around. So, the Pelicans could try and trade Ingram to have more shooting, defense, and secondary playmaking around Williamson.

I know what you’re probably thinking: why would any team want to trade for someone as flawed as Ingram?

Ingram, much like guys like Trae Young and Julius Randle, is a very specific type of player. That isn’t necessarily intended to be a diss. You can win with specific players. You just have less margin for error when it comes to team building.

In Ingram’s case, you need shooting, defense, and a partner-in-crime who can create offense at a high level but also doesn’t need the ball in his hands to maximize his potential.

Which one of these choices will the Pelicans ultimately land on? As I alluded to earlier, I think it’s the trade route, but I’m not entirely sure. The one thing I know for certain, though, is that they have a lot of thinking to do.

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