Early Win-Loss Predictions for New Orleans Pelicans This Season
Playing its home games in a city surrounded by the Mississippi River, several bayous and the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans' new moniker "Pelicans" is a much better fit than its old one, "Hornets".
The Pelicans' roster also makes far more sense than it did before their namesake change.
After trading the NBA's best point guard in Chris Paul two years ago, New Orleans suffered through a terrible 2011-12 season. Its 21-45 record and some lottery luck netted it the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, which it used to select Anthony Davis.
In 2012-13, the Hornets should have been better—but they weren't. Davis and Eric Gordon couldn't stay healthy, their other first-round pick Austin Rivers was worse than anyone could have imagined and the team finished 27-55.
Change had to come this summer.
Despite missing 18 games, Davis was fantastic as a rookie, and New Orleans would run the risk of losing him all too soon to either free agency or injury if it didn't start to build its team back up immediately.
Meanwhile, Gordon was looking to be traded, and the only way to keep him happy in Louisiana was to surround him with talent.
Change came rapidly.
After changing their name, the Pelicans dramatically changed their roster on draft night, trading their first pick Nerlens Noel (No. 6 overall) and next year's first pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.
A week later, general manager Dell Demps sent last season's point guard Greivis Vasquez to the Sacramento Kings and starting center Robin Lopez to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for guard/forward Tyreke Evans and center Jeff Withey.
With these two trades, the Pelicans were quickly transformed from cellar dweller to playoff contender.
After rolling out a lineup of Vasquez, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Davis and Lopez for most of last season, New Orleans is projected to start Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis and Jason Smith in 2013-14.
There are several qualities to this season's lineup that were not present last year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
While Vasquez averaged nine assists last season (third most in the NBA), the Hornets were only 23rd in the league in total assists. With Holiday's eight assists per game (fourth in NBA last year) and Evans' career average of 4.8, the Pelicans should be an above-average team in terms of ball movement.
More important than Evans' assist totals is the rest of his floor-general skill set. A point guard for much of his college and early NBA career, Evans has the ability to take the ball up the court, attack in transition, initiate the half-court offense and work in isolation.
Evans' presence will take pressure off of Holiday and vice versa. Gordon's ability to penetrate and score will often draw top defenders, creating even more space for Evans and Holiday.
This should allow those two—both talented scorers as well—to have breakout seasons offensively, as they will be able to play both on and off the ball and face favorable match ups.
The presence of a lethal offensive backcourt should in turn lead to Davis becoming a larger offensive factor in his second year.
After drawing regular double teams last season, Davis will find himself with far more space to operate down low this year. Having three excellent dribble penetrators will also create opportunities for offensive rebounds that were not present before.
Defensively, the starting five got significantly better in some places and slightly worse in others.
The two returning starters (Gordon and Davis) are both strong defenders, but neither shouldered nor should shoulder the load of being a shut-down guy.
On the perimeter, Aminu was New Orleans' top defender last season. He'll still be that coming off the bench, but the team will be relying on Evans to take on the big, strong wings that Aminu specialized in stopping.
Meanwhile, while Lopez was not the best interior defender, he was certainly a better paint protector than Smith.
Holiday is a major defensive upgrade over Vasquez, however, and having a good defensive point guard is more important than ever before, particularly in the Western Conference. Not having to switch a wing onto Stephen Curry or Tony Parker will prevent mismatches from opening up elsewhere, as they did last season.
Evans and Holiday also combined to average a steal per game more than Vasquez and Aminu did last season, which is somewhere to start for a team that was dead last in thieveries last season.
While the starting lineup went from weak to well above average this summer, the bench will be the key to New Orleans' success in 2013-14.
Ryan Anderson was one of the NBA's best sixth men last season, draining an astounding 213 threes and averaging 16.2 points. After that, New Orleans' bench was atrocious.
Smith struggled to provide rebounding or defensive help as the backup five, while point guard Brian Roberts was abused defensively even more than Vasquez. At the same time, he didn't provide the same offensive spark.
There wasn't a single backup wing player in the permanent rotation; the time was instead being divvied up between should-be benchwarmers such as Roger Mason, Lance Thomas, Xavier Henry and Darius Miller.
Then there was Austin Rivers, whose 23.2 minutes per game despite a painfully dreadful season (his field-goal and free-throw percentage added together equaled less than Steve Nash's free-throw percentage alone) tell you all you need to know about the Hornets' desperate need for quality reserves.
Unfortunately for Pelicans fans, their team's lack of depth will continue to hold them back in the coming season.
Demps has made some minor upgrades. Greg Stiemsma figures to provide far more rim protection than Smith did last season, and Withey will be a better third-string center than having no one—as was the case last year.
The acquisition of Evans also pushes Aminu to the bench, giving the team the backup small forward that they desperately needed.
Still, these small improvements will hurt the offense almost as much as they help the defense, and the rest of the bench is still quite poor.
Anthony Morrow replaces Roger Mason with essentially the same skill set: three-point shooting and nothing else. Point guard Pierre Jackson is unlikely to provide any sort of upgrade over Roberts. Rivers has to be better, but even a better Rivers is still worth about the same as a nice D-League find.
Even with a still-dreadful bench, there's no way that the Pelicans aren't quantifiably better than they were last season. Starters are the most important players on a team, and New Orleans has some really good ones.
Let's take a look at the 2012-13 Trail Blazers. Their strong starting five—with comparable players at every position at that—was enough to lead them to 33 wins, despite their complete lack of a bench.
Seeing as the Pelicans won 27 games last year and do have much more of a bench than Portland did (Anderson's 16.2 PPG alone was nearly better than Portland's entire bench total of 18.5 PPG), 35-37 wins should be a bare minimum for this team barring injury.
But there's more to it than that. Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Anderson, Aminu and Rivers are all 25 or younger, and it would be completely legitimate to predict a career-year for any or all of the seven.
Gordon should be healthy entering the season, meaning there's a great chance he plays more than the 42 games he did last year. The same goes for Davis and his 64 games.
Combining all of that with an ever-so-slightly weakened Western Conference (five teams besides New Orleans got significantly better while seven got worse by my estimation), the Pelicans should be fully expected to finish at .500 or above.
Whether or not that gets them into the playoffs is tougher to predict.
Dallas and the Lakers are the two most vulnerable of the bunch given their age, fragility and lack of defense.
This means that the up-and-coming Pelicans should find themselves fighting with Portland and Minnesota, the other two upwardly trending teams, along with Denver.
Much like a Hornet compared to a Pelican, the 2012-13 New Orleans roster may have been small, but still packed more of a punch inside than the 2013-14 team does. That, along with the team's lack of depth, will ultimately keep them from beating out these three teams and cracking the 2014 postseason.
But like a Pelican compared to a Hornet, the 2013-14 New Orleans team has the ability to soar much higher than the 2012-13 team and should find itself on the better side of .500 for a long time.
Final Prediction: 42-40, 10th in Western Conference
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