It has been a busy offseason for the New Orleans Pelicans and general manager Dell Demps.
Upon receiving word from owner Tom Benson that he would be given the “resources we need to upgrade the roster,” (per John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune), Demps got to work.
Upgrading, in Demps’ case, meant parting with two-fifths of last year’s starting lineup. While franchise player Anthony Davis, shooting guard Eric Gordon and small forward Al-Farouq Aminu are all returning, Greivis Vásquez and Robin Lopez—coming off of career years—will be suiting up for different teams next season.
Days before the 2013 NBA Draft, Demps had a deal in place with Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie for point guard Jrue Holiday, according to Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com. That was contingent on the Pelicans selecting one of Nerlens Noel, Anthony Bennett or Victor Oladipo. As it turned out, New Orleans drafted Noel and the trade was in motion.
Then, in the first hour of free agency, Demps and restricted free agent Tyreke Evans verbally agreed to a four-year, $44 million contract, resulting in a sign-and-trade and revamping the Pelicans backcourt altogether.
Throw in the signings of Anthony Morrow and Greg Stiemsma, plus the healthy returns of Jason Smith, Austin Rivers and Gordon, you’re looking at a completely different team. A team filled with talent. A team that’s ready to win.
But, can they put it all together? It’s going to take a team effort to transform from 27 wins to a playoff-caliber team.
On paper, the Pelicans look like a squad guaranteed to make the playoffs. However, there is no guarantee in sports. Putting in the necessary time, effort and commitment ultimately leads to success.
For a team with five different players that previously participated in an All-Star weekend Rising Stars Challenge, it's vital to play complete team basketball. This means no selfish acts; playing for the win and not for padding individual stats.
It’ll be difficult to come together in year one, but with talent up and down the roster, don’t be surprised to see New Orleans make a complete 180-degree turn and right the ship.
They just have to focus on a few things to reach their potential.
Take Advantage of Depth
Any team that reaches the playoffs needs more than five players. The Miami Heat didn’t win solely on the production of the “big three.” Often times throughout the playoffs, LeBron and co. relied on the likes of Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Shane Battier.
While New Orleans had some worthy bench contributors in 2012-13—Brian Roberts (2.8 assists), Jason Smith (8.2 points and 3.6 rebounds) and Ryan Anderson (16.2 points and 6.4 rebounds)—they are now much deeper by all accounts.
When it’s a possibility that Anderson, Evans, Morrow, Rivers and Smith will make up the second unit, the argument could be made that New Orleans won’t miss a beat.
The team is loaded with scorers that will inevitably increase New Orleans’ points per game, which was sixth-worst in the NBA at 94.1 during 2012-13.
The question that head coach Monty Williams needs to answer is how to keep everyone happy. The depth is one thing, but if the shooters take a me-first approach, depth won’t mean anything.
The Pelicans also have two top-tier shot-blockers. Though rookie Jeff Withey needs some grooming, he averaged over 3.5 blocks in both his junior and senior seasons at Kansas. Additionally, Davis blocked 1.8 shots per game in his rookie campaign, good for No. 11 in the NBA.
Because of the injuries suffered last season and the downhill slope the team encountered, providing this type of depth will allow New Orleans to stay afloat.
Still, the players will have to adapt to new roles and most are unsure of what that role may be. With the athleticism on the roster, receiving quality contributions form the sixth to the 12th man will undoubtedly give New Orleans a boost.
It’s all about comfort and commitment. If they can take advantage of the depth they have been given, it would be surprising not to see New Orleans in the playoffs next season.
We’ll see a lot of transition baskets in New Orleans next season. The young, quick legs will work the break on both ends of the floor.
Speed on offense will lead to lay-ins and speed on defense will lead to blocks and stops.
The backcourt of Evans, Holiday, Rivers and Gordon each has a quick first step and possesses the ability to finish strong at the rim.
Evans, who is a career 27.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc, has seen his successes because of his speed and finishing ability. He made over 63 percent of his shot attempts at the rim in 2012-13, according to HoopData.com.
Quickness also comes into play during set offense schemes.
With the Pelicans ability to spread the floor, the backcourt can use its speed to drive-and-kick out to the wing where Anderson will be waiting to take the shot.
Rivers’ explosiveness was on display during the summer league in Las Vegas, playing aggressive and drawing fouls on his way to 18.2 points per game.
Gordon, at 24 years old, is coming off a productive, injury-riddled season as he led the team with 17 points per game in 2012-13. He can drain a jump shot but is extremely quick to the basket, beating defenders off the dribble.
As the roster now stands, the 14 Pelicans players—including Roberts, Darius Miller, Withey and Jackson—have an average age of 23.7 years, younger than the 24.2 years from last season.
What makes this unique is the experience every player has at the NBA level. Anderson, Gordon, Morrow and Smith are entering their sixth season as pros, making them the most tenured players on the roster. Holiday and Evans have played four seasons; Aminu three.
Demps told Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com,
We’ve acquired a number of guys that are between the ages of 22 and 25, but yet they’re going into their fifth and sixth years in the league. They’re young guys at their athletic peak, but yet they’re experienced.
In a competitive Western Conference and even more competitive Southwest division, New Orleans is going to have utilize the quickness of its players and run opponents off the court.
Youth will work to the Pelicans advantage when it comes to playing in transition and driving through the defense to attack the rim.
Step up the Defense
If the Pelicans wish to be successful, the defense absolutely must improve.
With four players who averaged over 15 points last season—and Davis capable of reaching that mark—the offense will be there, but if you can’t stop you’re opponents from scoring it’s going to be a long season.
That is what plagued last year’s Hornets team. New Orleans had a -3.8 points per game differential as the opposition owned a 55.7 percent true shooting percentage, fourth-worst in the league (per HoopData).
The perimeter defense was abysmal last season. Vásquez, a slow defender, was replaced by the younger, quicker Jrue Holiday.
Holiday plays stingy on-ball defense, putting his body in front of passing and driving lanes while using his athleticism to contest shot attempts. Former teammate Andre Iguodala went as far as to say that Holiday is the best on-ball defender in the NBA, per John Finger of CSNPhilly.com.
Evans also has the potential to be a lockdown defender on the wing, but must commit himself. Focusing on offense isn’t going to help this team win. Demps discussed Evans with Eichenhofer, saying “We want to maximize all of his strengths. We also think he has the tools to become a very good defender.”
This gives an indication of how the Pelicans wish to utilize Evans.
The interior defense is strong, with four defensive minded big men guarding the paint. Withey, Davis, Stiemsma and Smith are all known for their defense. Stiemsma is 6’11” while the others are all 7’0”.
If the Pelicans players can accept their roles and commit to Coach Williams’ system, this group is capable of making a run in the West.
In the end, the most important factor is defense. If Williams' team learns how to play together and adjust to defensive problems, they're bound for the playoffs in 2013-14.