The New Orleans Pelicans brought in an All-Star and a former Rookie of The Year this offseason, but that doesn't mean the first season under their new moniker will be smooth sailing.
Franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis gave HoopsWorld a very clear summary of his team's aspirations this season. "Our expectations are always high. We definitely want to make the playoffs, and beyond that." That's the attitude fans love from their star players, but Davis and his running mates will face obstacles on the path to that goal.
One of the primary concerns head coach Monty Williams will face is working out the backcourt rotation.
From an options standpoint, it's a good problem to have.
Jrue Holiday is only 23 years old, but he is the clear-cut leader of the group. Coming off his first All-Star season, in which he averaged 17.7 points and eight assists, his stock is trending upwards and landing him commercials with several highly regarded point guards.
The future is a little murkier for the other guards vying for playing time.
Shooting guard Eric Gordon was one of the big chips in the trade that sent Chris Paul to Los Angeles, and he's been a productive player for New Orleans—when he can stay on the court. Gordon has only laced up his sneakers for 51 out of a possible 154 games over the last two seasons while he's battled a myriad of knee and ankle issues.
A healthy Gordon would be the perfect complement to Holiday. Gordon has a nice athletic package—Draft Express lists his max vertical at 40"—that he uses to get into the paint. He has the shot splits of an effective player, with most of his attempts coming at the rim or from downtown.
Whether he can be the same player who once averaged 22.3 points on 45 percent shooting is up for debate. The idea of Eric Gordon is nice, but the three-point shot that was his weapon coming out of college has declined since his rookie year.
Last year's 10th overall pick, Austin Rivers, has had struggles of his own. An ESPN article from last December speculated if Rivers was having the worst season ever. Rivers grew more comfortable as the season went on, but the numbers are cringe-worthy: 6.2 points on 37.2 percent shooting. He created little offense for himself and even less for his teammates (2.1 assists).
Doc's son is still just 21 years of age, though, so the best should be yet to come. His lack of explosive athleticism and size limits his ceiling a bit, but his pedigree indicates that the production should come eventually.
There's one last potential competitor at the guard spot, but he might not be playing guard at all.
That player is offseason pickup Tyreke Evans, acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings.
Measuring out at 6'6" and 220 pounds, Evans has the body of a stout shooting guard and a scorer's mentality to match. His career average of 17.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting is a solid, respectable number for someone who has played on his fair share of bad teams.
He has shown growth in the shot selection department, which resulted in a career-high true shooting percentage (55.8) and effective field goal percentage (.508) last season.
Evans' game is predicated on his ability to slash to the hoop. He has a nice all-around package of size and speed that gives him multiple ways to create separation in the paint.
That slashing ability is part of what opens up his ability to pass.
Evans dished 5.8 assists in 2009-10, joining the elite trio of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as just the fourth rookie to average 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in a rookie campaign. By sucking in help defenders, Evans opens up easy look for big men underneath the hoop.
Offensively, Evans appears to be a fit with the rest of the projected starting lineup. Holiday, Gordon and Ryan Anderson are threats from beyond the arc, the weakest point of Evans' repertoire. With those three providing kick-out opportunities and Anthony Davis serving as a devastating pick-and-roll threat, room to operate should be plentiful.
It's the other end of the court where playing Evans at the 3 could backfire.
He is dwarfed by many of these players, and as a wing he'll be expected to rotate into the post when necessary. Evans is a strong guy, but expecting him to guard players four or more inches taller than he is in the paint seems unreasonable.
His own past is certainly not encouraging from a defensive standpoint—the 111 defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference, is putrid—but part of that is a product of his teammates. Evans has played next to defensive sieves like DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmer Fredette, which certainly didn't help mask his deficiencies. That hasn't stopped him from averaging 1.4 steals for his career.
Presumably, the Pelicans expect Davis to be the cure for all their defensive ills.
Davis has the tools and motor to be a high-impact player on both ends, but defensively is where it's more obvious that he can be a difference-maker. It's unrealistic to expect him to match his 4.7 block average from his lone season at Kentucky, but Davis doesn't necessarily need to block shots to have an impact.
Watching Davis as he approaches opposing drivers is a treat. While young players are usually overeager, jumping at the first hint of a shot attempt, Davis is on his toes, ready to strike on his prey. Even when he does over-pursue, his length and athleticism are so significant that he can recover to alter a shot on a second jump.
The only thing to watch in that regard is Davis' health and ability to take on more minutes.
Davis missed 18 games last season, a significant enough number to lend credence to questions about how his lanky frame would hold up in the pros. Without Robin Lopez around to eat up minutes in the middle as a steadying defensive force, Davis will be asked to shoulder more of the load in Year 2.
Ultimately, his long-term health comes before the immediate success of the franchise. Ownership has made it clear that the team is making a push for the playoffs, but they'd be best served keeping a close eye on his physical state. It's easy to forget he's just a 20-year-old kid who is still growing into his body. Time and hard work will help fill out his lanky limbs and ensure his ability to withstand punishment inside.
Optimism should be the theme in New Orleans. Along with their new name and look, the Pelicans have brought in a lot of promising players that fit nicely next to their core pieces. That doesn't mean that ignoring these hurdles is an option.
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