The Death Lineup: New Orleans Pelicans Have An Emerging Monster

The small-ball “Death Lineup” has been the staple of Golden State’s dominance over the past eight years. The New Orleans Pelicans have the tools to mimic the Warriors’ formula and dismantle teams for stretches this season. Although the potential Death Lineup has logged exactly zero minutes, it has the capacity to mercilessly rampage through the NBA. 

PositionPlayerHeightWingspan
PGCJ McCollum6'3"6'6"
SGTrey Murphy III6'8"7'0"
SFBrandon Ingram6'8"7'3"
PFHerb Jones6'7"7'0"
CZion Williamson6'6"6'10"

2021/22 Results Sans Zion Williamson

Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III were unable to play with Zion Williamson as rookies because a foot injury forced Zion to miss the entire season. However, they built chemistry with Brandon Ingram and trade deadline acquisition CJ McCollum. The sample was small, but the results were nevertheless impressive when those four stepped on the court together. 

Across 34 regular season minutes, lineups containing all four players had a 125.7 Offensive Rating, 104.3 Defensive Rating, and 66.3 eFG%. For context, all of those marks would have led the league. They also played 34 minutes in their playoff series versus the 1st seed Phoenix Suns, and the results were similar – 145.2 Offensive Rating, 105.6 Defensive Rating, and 68 eFG%. The four only managed six minutes during the play-in, but it’s worth mentioning that they churned out a 56.4 net rating. 

Jonas Valanciunas was the most common 5th player on the court during the regular season and playoffs, but substituting Zion for him will elevate this lineup to another level. In his sophomore campaign, he shredded every defense to the tune of 27 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 3.7 APG on an astounding 61.1 FG%. The new Death Lineup of McCollum, Murphy, Ingram, Herb, and Zion coordinates perfectly and maximizes each other’s strengths.

Rim Pressure & Spacing

Zion’s impact in the paint during the 2020/21 season was truly gargantuan for the Pelicans. 69.6% of his total FGA came from within three feet of the basket, and he had a 70.1 FG% on those attempts. It wasn’t solely derived from lobs or clean passes either, as Zion often bullied his way to the basket off the dribble. The chart below from BBall-Index displays rim shot making (which takes into account factors such as shot quality, efficiency, defenders) and unassisted rim FGA per 75 possessions. 

Zion Williamson Rim Pressure

The only person who nearly matched him in rim shot making was Giannis Antetokounmpo – the best player on the planet. However, Zion created his own FGA at a higher rate than Giannis despite playing with non-shooter Steven Adams, which meant another defender was anchored near the basket. Eric Bledsoe’s presence also allowed perimeter defenders to sag towards the paint and act more frequently as a help defender. Zion will now have the luxury of four respectable shooters encircling his mammoth gravity, so his rim dominance should only increase. 

CJ McCollum is a premier spot up threat who commands tremendous defensive attention. While he thrives as a ball handler, McCollum spaces the floor to the highest degree in a catch and shoot (C&S) role. The following table displays the lethality of his spot up skills over the past five seasons.

SeasonCatch & Shoot 3PACatch & Shoot 3PT%
2017/182.843.5%
2018/193.239.4%
2019/203.446.0%
2020/213.147.6%
2021/22 (POR)3.939.4%
2021/22 (NOP)2.650.7%

Under no circumstance can a defender leave McCollum to aid his teammate in the paint. The same is true of Murphy – a lights out shooter. He had a 38.9 3PT% on 2.8 C&S 3PA, but that mark seems low given his quick release, tight form, and confidence. Herb, meanwhile, is a decent shooter who knocked down 35.2% of his C&S threes. Because Murphy and Herb have a season under their belt, they likely take a leap in efficiency. 

The final player in the lineup is Brandon Ingram, who was relatively mediocre last year at 36.3% on C&S threes. He produced a 42% and 43.2% on those attempts over the previous two seasons, so Ingram’s off-ball impact will definitely be felt by defenses. 

Because of Zion’s rim production and the deadly spacing surrounding him, opposing squads must pick their poison. Do they double inside to slow Zion but allow open threes? Or do they stick to the arc and allow Zion to embarrass the only defender in the paint? Either option looks grim no matter the defensive personnel. 

Ball Handling & Off-Ball Movement 

The Pelicans can throw a variety of sets at opponents because of the versatility engraved in this lineup. McCollum is a pick and roll savant who can pull up for a jumper, drive to the basket, or create a high quality shot for teammates. Even if the defense is smothering him, McCollum has the scoring chops to routinely hit contested shots off the dribble. 

A McCollum/Zion pick and roll with Herb setting a pindown screen to get Murphy open is absolutely terrifying, especially with Ingram either spotting up or cutting. If the play becomes broken on CJ’s drive, he can pass out to Ingram, run through the paint, and reset since Ingram’s an effective ball handler and underrated playmaker. Ingram also has the size at 6’8” that McCollum lacks, so more passing lanes would be available to him. 

The Pelicans could also utilize Zion in this manner. When he operated as the pick and roll ball handler for 197 possessions, he orchestrated 0.99 points per possession. His per game volume and success aligned with names such as Pascal Siakam, Marcus Smart, Lonzo Ball, and Jaylen Brown. New Orleans will also dump the ball to Zion in the post and allow him to bulldoze the defender. His size and burst is virtually unguardable, so it’s almost a necessity for the defense to send help. 

While this lineup has a multitude of ball handlers, it contains crafty off-ball players who move with purpose. On cuts, Zion ranked in the 78th percentile by producing 1.42 points per possession. Herb was in the 72nd percentile, while Ingram resided in the 60th percentile. All three must carefully be watched by defenders in case they take off for the basket. This adds a sense of paranoia for defenders and can confuse them if communication is shoddy. 

In addition to cuts, they will punish opponents with their off-ball movement from screens. Murphy, McCollum, and Ingram can navigate screens and quickly release a shot. Because of Murphy and Ingram’s length, their release will be incredibly difficult to bother. Overall, the Pelicans offense with this unit projects to overcome any defense with ease. In the blink of an eye, they can raise their lead from 5 to 15 points or cut a significant deficit. Scoring points won’t be a problem, but can this group also get defensive stops as well? 

The Brilliance of Herb Jones 

It’s rare that a rookie suffocates opponents on the defensive end, but Herb Jones was certainly an exception. Because he stands at 6’7” with a 7’0” wingspan, Herb can fluidly guard 1-4 and be a nuisance for centers. He thrives against guards since his superb footwork allows him to mirror them without losing precious space or time. 

In the chart below from BBall-Index, D-Lebron measures defensive impact per 100 possessions, while matchup difficulty relates to their defensive assignment. 

Herb Jones Defense

Herb earned the highest D-Lebron and matchup difficulty grade for a player whose primary role was wing stopper. His impact and difficulty was most similar to Matisse Thybulle and Lonzo Ball – both of which are elite perimeter defenders. He did this as a rookie, and he will only improve next season! The Pelicans can count on him to lock down the opponent’s best offensive player while also acting as a help defender for beaten teammates. 

Defensive Length & Switches

Murphy, Ingram, and Herb are all 6’7”-6’8” with a 7’0”-7’3” wingspan. Their interchangeable length will frustrate opponents on the wing due to the sheer amount of contested shots. They are not at Boston’s level, but constantly switching with these three is in the realm of possibility. Although Murphy and Ingram don’t have Herb’s defensive instincts, they are still solid defenders who can hold their own in isolation. 

One of the primary advantages of small-ball is that the player at center can survive on the perimeter. Zion’s bulk seems like a death sentence for him against guards, but he defended well in space through his agility. He was able to flash out against spot up shooters and limit the pick and roll. Zion is no Draymond Green, but the Pelicans are not doomed with him as a small-ball center. 

McCollum & Rim Protection?

While he excels on offense, McCollum is a weak link on defense that the Pelicans must hide. He consistently grades as a poor defender because guards beat him off the dribble with ease. McCollum also struggles to navigate screens or switch onto bigger wings. Their plethora of lengthy players will do their best to aid him, but McCollum will surrender points sooner or later. Luckily, his offense more than makes up for the lousy defense. 

The other question mark on defense is their rim protection. Zion doesn’t deter attackers at the same rate as traditional centers. He can stonewall the opponent through his strength, but he’s not elite at sliding from the weak side and meeting the opponent in the air. It will take a group effort to prevent attempts around the basket, but their perimeter defense inspires hope. If they frequently cut the offense off at the midrange or arc, then it’s not a huge problem. 

Overall Takeaways & Predictions

It’s unknown how often New Orleans deploys the lineup of McCollum, Murphy, Ingram, Herb, and Zion; however, I suspect it makes frequent crunch time appearances once they understand its devastating potential. There are defensive questions, but it only has to hold for stretches. This unit’s offensive firepower and fit will be unstoppable, especially with growth from Zion, Herb, and Murphy. I expect this unit to be one of the best in the NBA by producing around a 125-135 Offensive Rating and 105-110 Defensive Rating. We saw Zion wreak havoc upon the league with a sub-optimal lineup, so imagine him with this supporting cast! 

Braxton has been writing for Lineups since December 2021 with the majority of his articles focused on the NBA. He is currently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he has spent the last few years working with various UPenn athletics teams and contributing to the UPenn Sports Analytics Group.

Hot NBA Stories