New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson argues with a referee after he was called for a foul in the fourth period of the Pelican's loss against the Phoenix Suns at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Monday, April 1, 2024. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

The New Orleans Pelicans have toggled between the bruising Jonas Valanciunas and the light-on-his-feet Larry Nance Jr. at center this season. But for the final 4:51 of Monday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, neither was on the court.

With his team trailing by 15 points, Pelicans coach Willie Green went to a lineup featuring CJ McCollum, Dyson Daniels, Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Zion Williamson. The Pelicans offense looked stuck in the mud for much of Monday’s game, and the purpose of the lineup was to generate better shots. The Pelicans cut the Suns’ lead to as few as seven points in the final five minutes but never got closer than that.

“I thought it looked better,” Green said. “There was more space. It made (Jusuf) Nurkic have to guard Zion a bit more. He had to honor our wings and guards who were spaced out.”

As the playoffs approach, the question of how to distribute minutes at center keeps cropping up. Valanciunas, the starter at the position for the last three years, has seen his minutes decline over the past month. He is averaging 18.1 minutes per game since Feb. 28, and he has played fewer than 20 minutes 11 times in the past 16 games.

Swapping Nance for Valanciunas allows the Pelicans to better contain pick-and-rolls and other actions off the dribble. The downside is that Nance is not as aggressive of a scorer nor is he able to clear the defensive glass as consistently as Valanciunas.

The Pelicans gobble up 74.9% of defensive rebounds when Valanciunas plays, a mark better than the rate at which the NBA’s No. 1 defensive rebounding team collects them. When Valanciunas goes to the bench, the Pelicans grab only 69.5% of defensive rebounds, which is on par with the league’s bottom-five defensive rebounding teams.

Green is aware of these splits. He constantly talks about the necessity to rebound the ball when the Pelicans go small, but actually doing it is difficult.

The lineup the Pelicans closed Monday's game with showed promising flashes. Williamson converted a driving and-1 on his first possession of the game with McCollum, Daniels, Jones and Murphy surrounding him.

In the first half, Suns center Jusuf Nurkic sagged several feet off of Valanciunas. Nurkic parked himself in the paint to deter Williamson’s rim attacks, and the strategy worked. At halftime, the Pelicans were shooting 41.7% from the field, and Williamson had missed five of eight shots he attempted.

Going to the Williamson-at-center lineup in the fourth quarter loosened up the Phoenix defense. Nurkic, who was forced to guard Williamson one-on-one, came out of the paint more. The Pelicans cut into the Suns’ lead with drive-and-kick actions. They had a chance to decrease Phoenix’s lead to five with 2:21 remaining on a McCollum floater. It was a great look, but he missed it.

“With Zion at the five (center), we can play a little faster,” Daniels said. “We can get stops and switch one through five. We have to be better on the boards. Tonight, Nurkic killed us down there. When we do go to that lineup, everyone has to box out, rebound and run. I think when we went on that run, that’s what we did.”

Can lineups with Williamson at center hold up in high-leverage moments? That remains to be seen. Grabbing defensive rebounds has never been one of Williamson’s strengths. He does not think of himself as a center. He likes to remind people that he grew up playing point guard. He remains good at it, too. Over the past five years, the Pelicans often have functioned best on offense when he is the one at the controls.

“Even when we’re small, he’s still the point guard,” Green said.

This summer, figuring out a solution at center will be high on the priority list for the Pelicans. Valanciunas is an unrestricted free agent, and Nance has one more year left on his deal.

Dating back to last summer, New Orleans has explored a variety of options to get younger and more athletic at the center spot. For instance, the team had interest in Duke center Dereck Lively in last year’s draft. Lively went off the board at No. 12, two spots ahead of where New Orleans picked.

Before the trade deadline in February, the Pelicans inquired about Jarrett Allen of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Wendell Carter of the Orlando Magic. Neither of those players changed teams.

For now, New Orleans must make the combination of centers on its roster work the best it can. When Williamson is on the court with either Valanciunas or Nance, he is likely to see multiple defenders on his pathway to the basket. The Pelicans must have better answers for that coverage than they did early in Monday’s game.

“They did a great job of just keeping him at the rim and just shadowing Zion wherever he went,” Green said. “He (Zion) figured it out over the course of the game. But we may have to get more to a small unit to make them guard us.”

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