The New Orleans Pelicans are ready to begin their first season under a new moniker. Will their high-profile offseason moves lead to a playoff berth?
Entering Year 2 of the Anthony Davis era, the spotlights have shifted to account for an incoming pair of players next to the spindly shot-blocking machine. With All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans now surrounding Davis, the sky is the limit for the Pelicans.
To reach their potential, Monty Williams and the Pelicans will have to work through growing pains and figure out how to maximize the strength of their weapons.
Will Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans be able to coexist? Can Anthony Davis take the next step towards stardom?
These questions, among others, rest at the core of the inaugural flight of the Pelicans.
2012-13 Pelicans Season Summary
- 27-55 record
- Fifth place Southwest Division
- 14th place Western Conference
Key Stats: The Good and Bad
An area where the Pelicans should look to repeat their excellence is at the charity stripe.
New Orleans was eighth-best in the league at 77.6 percent from the free-throw line last season, bolstered by the impressive shooting of its big men. The trio of Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith all shot 75 percent or better from the line. Having the ability to play five guys with varied strengths who can all knock down free throws is a valuable asset for late-game scenarios.
For that asset to matter, the Pelicans must improve on defense.
Despite bringing defensive phenom Anthony Davis on board, New Orleans struggled to protect its own basket in 2012-13.
The Pelicans' defensive rating of 110.1 was third-worst in the league, ahead of only the Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats. This must be improved for the Pelicans to challenge for a playoff spot this season.
Offseason additions Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans have gained notoriety for their offensive prominence, but their impact on the defensive end will determine the success of the team.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
There's only one thing on the minds of Pelicans fans: Will the team's offseason additions be enough to get back in the playoff picture?
The franchise certainly hopes so.
After trading what will amount to two first-round picks for Jrue Holiday and committing $11 million per season to Tyreke Evans, Dell Demps has indicated that the future is now. Rather than build slowly through the draft, the Pelicans jump-started the process to surround Anthony Davis with better complementary players.
Whether that's enough to push the Pelicans from the Western Conference basement to the playoffs is tough to say. There are a number of smaller questions that will eventually reveal the answer to that big-picture question.
Anthony Davis will be expected to handle an increase in workload this season after having a full season and offseason to adjust to the rigors of NBA life. With more help around him, excuses are off the table for Davis.
Another point of interest is Eric Gordon's ability to stay healthy. If the 24-year-old can avoid injuries for the first time in a few years, the Pelicans will have a guard rotation that will be among the league's best.
Key Additions and Losses
Biggest Addition: Jrue Holiday
After finishing dead last in the Southwest Division last season, the Pelicans would have been forgiven if 2013-14 was another down year. Dell Demps proved that was not enough for management when he pulled the trigger on a draft-night trade that brought 23-year-old Jrue Holiday to New Orleans.
Demps paid a hefty price for Holiday by surrendering the rights to Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected draft pick in next year's star-studded class. It's a ransom the Pelicans will be more than happy to have paid if Holiday can replicate, or perhaps improve on, last year's All-Star season.
Holiday represents a significant upgrade over Greivis Vasquez on both ends of the court.
Offensively, Holiday's repertoire is much more diverse. Though smaller than Vasquez (6'4" vs. 6'6"), Holiday makes up for the size discrepancy between the two with quickness and overall athleticism. In spots where Vasquez was forced to take pull-up jumpers and floaters, Holiday can turn the corner and get to the rim.
This creates a multitude of problems for defenses. Holiday is a proficient enough three-point shooter (37.4 percent career) that defenses can't sag off him and beg him to shoot.
More importantly, Holiday's lane penetration draws defenders and opens up opportunities for teammates. On a 76ers team bereft of talent, Holiday still managed to dish eight assists per game last season. Flanked with talented players like Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and more? Forget about it.
It's arguable that Holiday will have an even bigger impact defensively.
The same speed that makes him devastating offensively is used to his advantage on defense. Holiday's ability to corral his man is massively important considering how deep the point guard position is league-wide. He and Davis will be a formidable duo defending the pick-and-roll with their considerable length and athleticism.
Aside from his on-court contributions, the acquisition of Holiday also set the wheels in motion for the other big Pelicans pickup, Tyreke Evans. Having a reigning All-Star and former AAU teammate in the fold surely made New Orleans a more desirable destination for Evans.
As the catalyst for change and a franchise linchpin, Holiday is a no-brainer choice.
Biggest Loss: Robin Lopez
Both literally and figuratively, Robin Lopez represents the Pelicans' biggest offseason loss.
After struggling to stay healthy over four seasons in Phoenix, Lopez put together his best campaign as a pro in New Orleans. Lopez became just the ninth player in franchise history to play all 82 games in a single season, with respectable averages of 11.3 points and 1.6 blocks.
Those numbers might not be flashy, but they undersell his significance from a per-minute standpoint. Let's blindly compare two players based on their per-36 averages from last season.
Player A: 15.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks on 53% shooting. 18.9 PER
Player B: 14.5 points, eight rebounds, 1.8 blocks on 49% shooting. 19.5 PER
That's not to say that Lopez is in Gasol's echelon as a player, but his peripherals show that he was an effective player during his time on the court. Finding big men on reasonable deals who can match that type of production is next to impossible.
More important than his production, Lopez's presence allowed Coach Williams to bring Anthony Davis along slowly, rather than baptize the rookie by fire. This was important for a skinny 19-year-old still growing into his body and adjusting to the rigors of the NBA schedule.
The kid gloves will be off of Davis this year. The phenom should be able to handle it, but it'll be clear whom the Pelicans miss if Davis begins to wear down later in the season.
Depth Chart Breakdown
*Depth chart includes players with non-guaranteed contracts and/or training camp invites
Training Camp Battle To Watch: Eric Gordon vs. Tyreke Evans
One of the storylines to watch this year will be Monty Williams' use of oft-injured Eric Gordon and recent signing Tyreke Evans.
Can the two players coexist? Their head coach certainly thinks so. Williams is a big believer in Evans' ability to play multiple positions:
I like the fact that we have the versatility with the size defensively. He can guard one, two and three. I think once he learns the way we play defense and the level that we play with every day — offensively a lot of it is just going to be up to him.
He can play the point, the two or the three. I think it will take a good training camp to see how he's going to fit into our system.
On paper, the two players would seem to be a fit. Evans is at his best driving to the hoop, using his speed and strength to cut through holes like an NFL running back.
Though his shooting has tailed off in recent years, Gordon has been known as a long-range threat since his college days.
Profiling his exploits at Indiana, Draft Express claimed that, "Shooting is probably Gordon’s biggest strength at the moment, [he shows] a beautiful stroke, with a quick release, NBA range and a terrific follow through." That ability to shoot from all over the court figures to pair nicely with the slashing Evans.
There could be trouble in paradise, however, as the defensive toxicity of the pairing has the potential to trump their impact on offense.
Evans has the size to defend both guard positions at 6'6", but he has been inconsistent at best on that end in the NBA, with a career defensive rating of 110, per Basketball-Reference. Moving him to the small forward position would put him in a lot of low-leverage scenarios.
While he's a good enough athlete to keep pace with the league's elite wings, Evans will be giving up inches to the majority of people he'd have to guard at the 3. That's before accounting for switches. Evans would likely be asked to switch into the post on rotations, a daunting task for players much larger in size.
Since playing the 6'3" Gordon there isn't an option, the pair will be competing for minutes. Situations calling for buckets will no doubt have the two playing together, while defensive lineups may see Evans sliding to the 2 (and Gordon to the bench) in favor of the lengthier Al-Farouq Aminu on the wing.
This assumes that Gordon will stay healthy enough to play. Struggling with knee and ankle ailments, Gordon has played in just 51 of a possible 148 games over the last two seasons.
From a flexibility standpoint, Evans brings more to the table than his counterpart.
He's improved his three-point stroke (34 percent last season) to the point of respectability, closing the gap in the area considered Gordon's strength. Evans also grabs more rebounds (4.8 vs. 2.5) and dishes more assists (4.8 vs. 3.3).
All things considered, look for Evans to supplant Gordon in the Pelicans hierarchy. Don't be surprised if the sometimes petulant Gordon is floated in trade rumors as the season progresses.
Biggest X-Factor: Eric Gordon
Gordon's ceiling and floor are so drastically different that it'd be an insult to consider anyone else the team's potential X-factor.
When New Orleans acquired Gordon in the Chris Paul trade, he came with hope and promise of a brighter tomorrow. Fresh off a season in which he averaged 22.3 points and 4.4 assists on 45 percent shooting, the Pelicans believed they were getting an up-and-coming star in exchange for their departing franchise player.
Two seasons later, the jury is out on Gordon.
Injuries have limited the amount of time he's had on the court, and his production has only gone backward since his final season in Los Angeles. In fact, his 40 percent shooting mark last season was almost five percentage points below his previous season low.
There are still flashes of the old Gordon, who used a sweet stroke and above-average athleticism to get buckets in a variety of ways, but whether he can sustain them over a full season is a total unknown.
Best-case Scenario: Surrounded with more talent, Gordon doesn't have to force his offense as much. As a result, he shoots more efficiently and regains his touch from downtown. Gordon scores 20 a night and stretches the floor for the team's slashers by shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.
Worst-case Scenario: Gordon struggles to coexist with the new pieces in the Pelicans backcourt and reacts poorly when Coach Williams brings him off the bench as a result. He struggles to adjust to a reduced role and replicates last season's woeful performance from the field.
Pelicans' Best-Case Scenario in 2013-14
The Pelicans' new cast jells immediately, and Monty Williams finds a way to maximize the impact that each of his players has. Positional concerns are rendered moot by hot shooting and unselfish team play.
Jrue Holiday provides a major defensive boost in defending pick-and-rolls, and Anthony Davis uses his pterodactyl-like wingspan to erase shots in the paint.
The Pelicans make the playoffs as the seventh seed, where they challenge their opponents but ultimately fall short.
Pelicans' Worst Case-Scenario in 2013-14
The new faces provide little more than name recognition, and the same defensive issues that plagued last year's team rear their ugly head.
Monty Williams insists on playing Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon together despite their incompatibility defensively, and the team suffers as a result. Gordon, who has expressed a desire to leave New Orleans in the past, seeks an exit and creates a negative atmosphere around the team.
Jrue Holiday proves to be a fluke of an All-Star, and his poor second half last season is revealed to be the rule, not the exception.
New Orleans misses the playoffs but falls just outside of the top five of next year's draft, surrendering its pick to Philadelphia and getting nothing to show for a lost season.
The Pelicans will compete for and miss the playoffs this season, but they'll be scratching and clawing for positioning until the very end.
The Western Conference is loaded once again this season, and playing in a division featuring the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies will do this young team no favors. The moves the Pelicans made this season were strong, but they were necessary just to compete.
Anthony Davis is going to take a step forward this season, but he's not quite the A-list superstar he has the potential to be. Davis has a lot of maturing still to go before he becomes the player many think he can become, and that's okay. He'll still be an impact player who will negate many of his teammates' deficiencies on defense.
The most important thing is that the Pelicans can only go up from here. With a core of Davis-Holiday-Evans-Gordon all under 25, the best they can be individually and collectively is still on the horizon. The process of becoming a great team is more important than this season's immediate results.
Projected Finish: 42-40, ninth seed in Western Conference
The phrase, "It's a marathon, not a sprint" applies to the Pelicans' outlook.
There will be stretches of the season where they look like world-beaters, using the young legs of their core to run more veteran-laden teams into the ground. But that same youth will show at inconvenient times, leading to losses and overall frustration.
It would be wise not to get too wrapped up in the ups and downs and instead focus on the positive takeaways. Whether that's Anthony Davis continuing to solidify his jumper or Jrue Holiday cutting down on his turnovers, there's plenty to look forward to even if the team falls short of its goals.
Pelicans fans are about to witness a new dawn, and that alone is reason to tune in this fall.
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