Who could blame them for wanting to get things started?
The Pelicans made a couple of the biggest moves of the offseason, shuffling players and draft picks in transactions whose repercussions will be felt for years to come. It's only natural that the players and staff want to see the fruits of their labor.
Will it be enough to push them to relevance in a loaded Western Conference?
Pelicans 2012-13 Season Summary
- Record: 27-55
- Fifth place, Southwest Division
- 14th place, Western Conference
Biggest Success, 2013: Drafting Anthony Davis
Having the talent to match up with the league's elite teams is 75 percent of the battle in the NBA. In that sense, drafting Anthony Davis No. 1 overall was the team's biggest success last season.
Davis was heralded as a franchise-changing talent and the clear-cut choice as the top player in his draft class. He lost some time due to nagging injuries last season, but he is back ready to ramp up his role during his sophomore campaign.
Biggest Failure, 2013: The Injury Woes of Eric Gordon
When the franchise unloaded Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers during the winter of 2011, the package of young players it received in return looked promising. Two years removed from the trade, the crown jewel of the Clippers package has left a lot to be desired.
Eric Gordon played in just 42 games last season, bringing his tally to 51 in two seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans. To get so little out of a player whom many had high hopes for is a crushing disappointment.
The dominating conversations of the offseason centered around the talent boost the Pelicans were getting from trades and free agency. General manager Dell Demps was operating based on a clear mandate from ownership: Win now.
It's only natural, then, that the biggest questions entering the season concern the meshing of the new cast in New Orleans and the progression of a number of young players.
How Will the Guard Rotation Shake Out?
If you were building a fantasy guard rotation, you could do a heck of a lot worse than the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans as your foundation.
Unfortunately, these three men have to share minutes for the New Orleans Pelicans, and managing their workloads will be a test of Monty Williams' coaching chops.
The one player whose role is solidified is Holiday. Coming off of an All-Star campaign for an undermanned Philadelphia 76ers team, Holiday is the unquestioned starter at point guard. As the only player in the NBA to average at least 17 points and eight assists last season, the 23-year-old is in a class of his own with room to grow into an elite floor general.
Aside from Holiday, the options are a mix of unproven, unhealthy and inconsistent guards.
Eric Gordon, referred to as a "prolific young shooting guard" in ESPN's original report of the Chris Paul trade, has been unable to stay on the court long enough to live up to that expectation for the Pelicans. There was a time when Gordon was seen as a rising star at a position with a severe lack of depth.
The highlights make it clear why that was conventional wisdom. Coupled with his three-point efficiency—38.9 percent during his rookie year—plays like this make his on-court absence all the more painful.
Gordon has been penciled in as the starter at shooting guard, but that designation relies on him remaining healthy. Competing for minutes at the off-guard spot is Tyreke Evans, brought in via a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings.
Evans is an extremely talented player who has flashed moments of brilliance at times. At 6'6", he stands a full three inches taller than Gordon and thus offers more lineup flexibility on both ends of the court.
He's also significantly more balanced on offense than Gordon. Evans' game is predicated on getting to the rim, and he takes advantage of collapsing defenses by hitting open teammates. There's a reason he averages 1.5 assists more than Gordon per game: He's more willing to look for his guys.
But Evans is not exactly riding a wave of momentum into New Orleans. After a prolific rookie season in which he became just the fourth player to average 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in his first year, Evans has seen his per-game figures drop with each passing season. He saw his playing time cut last season, resulting in career lows across the board.
And it doesn't stop there!
Last year's 10th overall pick, Austin Rivers, figures to see increased opportunities after a tumultuous rookie season. Rivers is only 21 years old and seemed to find his way down the stretch last year. Based on the word out of Pelicans HQ, he has impressed the organization with his work ethic. Coach Williams spoke to Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune about his second-year guard:
He works his tail off. He's probably one of the most competitive guys in the league. He's hungry. He does some things you like from a young guy. He works hard. He's coachable. He's not afraid. To me, you can't ask for more than that.
Even he is being pushed by another player on the roster. Brian Roberts is banging on the door with a strong preseason.
Roberts is the odd man in a young backcourt, a 27-year-old sophomore who took the road less traveled to the NBA, but he has been a steadying force on the second unit. His fourth-quarter outburst against the Dallas Mavericks paced the Pelicans to their second preseason victory, and it's hard to argue that a man who has played well at almost every given opportunity doesn't deserve minutes once the real season starts.
Have your head wrapped around all that? Ultimately, this will boil down to what Williams and the higher-ups think is top priority.
Developing a lottery selection in Rivers would normally be just that, but the impetus has clearly changed in New Orleans. If Rivers gets off to a slow start, don't be surprised if his role is diminished as the season rolls along.
The battle for crunch-time minutes between Gordon and Evans will be interesting, and it's very possible that the loser in the power struggle could be moved for pieces with different skills. Having too much firepower is a good problem, however, so don't expect any panic trades from Demps.
Is Anthony Davis Ready for Prime Time?
Anthony Davis came into last season with limitless expectations. He spent just one year at Kentucky, where he was the focal point of a team that tied the NCAA's single-season wins record. The Rookie of the Year award was all but his.
But a funny thing happened along the way: Small-school star Damian Lillard grabbed the early headlines and ran away with the prize. Davis flashed brilliance in spurts but was unable to match the overall production of the Portland Trail Blazer's rookie point guard.
In a way, this was the best possible scenario for Davis. The hype that he had to live up to last season is gone, and a stronger supporting cast is in place.
But even aside from his new teammates, all signs are pointing to a breakout season from Anthony Davis. The 6'10" beanpole bulked up during the offseason and looks ready to step into a bigger role for the Pelicans.
That additional strength has manifested itself into a strong preseason for Davis, who looks more assertive in looking for his shot. Coach Williams and his staff have empowered Davis, expecting one of the league's youngest players to be a leader for the franchise:
My thing is, it's no different than putting him in positions on the court... I want him to do that from a leadership role. If he wasn't putting the work in, I would not ask him to do it. He was at almost every summer league practice and he closed every practice. I didn't tell him to do that, that's just who he is... he's only going to get better at that.
Leading by example is probably the most effective way for Davis to rally the troops. Part of his transition from promising rookie to star player will just be getting more minutes.
In a more subdued role last season, Davis scored 16.9 points and snatched 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, stout numbers for a 19-year-old kid adjusting to the pro game. His minutes were limited last season due to both injuries and a patient approach from the franchise, but that trend seems to be over.
Davis has been extremely impressive during the preseason, and his offensive output is already well-ahead of where many pundits expected it to be at this point. Henry Abbott of ESPN was encouraged by his 21-point performance against Dwight Howard's Houston Rockets:
Davis didn't hit all night with his jumper, but on the drive he barely missed, hitting a couple of floaters, a memorable reverse and an old-fashioned running layup. Those made floaters -- high-skill shots -- can serve as the latest in a series of hints that Davis has a soft touch worth developing.
The ability to create his own offense raises the ceiling on what we can expect from Davis this season. He's already an impactful defender and a huge target for his guards on pick-and-rolls.
His strong preseason has led many to change their outlook on the Pelicans this season, including Grantland's Zach Lowe, who believes Davis will make the All-Star team in his second year:
The league is bracing for a breakout year — a potential 20-and-10 campaign filled with joyful highlights, improving defense, and a ton of Brow buzz.
New Orleans is hosting the game. I'm betting on the Brow being in it.
If Davis is able to make that leap, it'll go a long way toward answering this season's biggest question.
Will the Pelicans Make the Playoffs?
Overreacting to a single season is usually misguided, but the answer to this question is monumentally important to the Pelicans in the short and long term.
Looking at the immediate impact, missing the playoffs would be a huge disappointment for a team that made two of the biggest moves of the summer. When you add two supremely talented guards to a roster that already has last year's No. 1 pick and an array of other pieces, failing to get to the postseason is inexcusable.
But it's especially so with next year's draft looming. The class of 2014 has been hyped as one of the best since the fabled 2003 group that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. The Pelicans sacrificed a chance at another young impact player next year for an immediate boost from Holiday.
That boost has significantly upped the odds that the Pelicans will make the playoffs, but New Orleans now has little flexibility in regard to the salary cap. The Pelicans are up against the cap through 2015-16 with the core of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Ryan Anderson and Davis, limiting the moves they can make to push them over the edge.
Of course, the cheapest way to acquire talent is through the draft. With their next first-round pick not coming till 2015 (barring their selection falling in this year's top five), it leaves the Pelicans in a precarious scenario. If they don't have enough to make the playoffs, how will they add enough to push them over the top?
The answer they'll give you is continued growth from their young guns. It's a fair response, with Davis still a long way from hitting his peak and the members of the Holiday-Gordon-Evans trio all younger than 25 years old.
But this is an organization with new ownership that clearly isn't satisfied with building slow. The looming shadow of the salary cap is a very real threat to this group, and Demps' ability to improve the team with the restrictions he's facing will become apparent.
This is all without taking into account the loaded conference the Pelicans will be facing. The Western Conference is an absolute nightmare this year, with fringe playoff teams like the Rockets receiving big boosts from free agency, and returns from players such as Kevin Love giving boosts to other teams that were left out of the 2013 postseason.
The Pelicans have aced their early test, sitting atop the preseason standings, but whether they have enough to get into the postseason remains unknown.
Depth Chart Breakdown
|New Orleans Pelicans 2013-14 Depth Chart|
|PG||Jrue Holiday||Austin Rivers||Brian Roberts|
|SG||Eric Gordon||Tyreke Evans||Anthony Morrow|
|SF||Al-Farouq Aminu||Darius Miller|
|PF||Anthony Davis||Ryan Anderson||Lance Thomas||Arinze Onuaku|
|C||Greg Stiemsma||Jason Smith||Jeff Withey|
Point Guard: A-
Jrue Holiday's talent goes a long way toward making this a strength for the Pelicans, but ball-handling depth is what pushes the grade within striking distance of perfect.
Holiday is an excellent two-way player who is gearing up to play with the best group of teammates he's had since he entered the league in 2009. Having a safety valve in Anthony Davis will eliminate some of the ugly blemishes in his game and supplement his improving pick-and-roll game.
His stature around the league has been slightly exaggerated, however, and he's not quite the top-level player some think he can be. Point guard is the deepest position in the league, and Holiday, despite being named an All-Star last year, is still trying to fight his way to the top.
There are established names (Chris Paul, Tony Parker), rising stars (Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry) and more accomplished young guns (Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose) ahead of him in the hierarchy, and that's without the inclusion of names like Rajon Rondo, John Wall and others. Realistically, the Pelicans starter is at a B+ level in comparison to his peers.
There are several capable backups behind him, including Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts. The major X-factor is Tyreke Evans, who has played point in years past and will likely be used to spell both guard spots for the Pelicans this year.
Shooting Guard: B
The shooting guard position features two explosive guards, both of whom have struggled to stay on the court for a full season.
In one corner stands Gordon, a man whose injury history with the Pelicans has been well-documented. He's gotten off to a good start during the preseason and looks to be in peak condition, but he acknowledged to John Reid of The Times-Picayune that maintaining his health is of the utmost importance:
"It's just a good start from the previous years," Gordon said. "The good thing for me is to stay healthy throughout the rest of the season and I'm doing that now."
Opposite Gordon stands offseason signing Tyreke Evans, who has missed most of the preseason after injuring his ankle in his debut against the Houston Rockets.
Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com has maintained that Evans is close to returning, but his injury has done little to quell concerns that he will miss long stretches of games at some point. Evans has played about 82 percent of his team's games over his career, but with the margin for error so small in the Western Conference, having him play as close to 82 games as possible is key to the team's success.
If Gordon and Evans can maintain their health, this grade could easily rise, but that's a big "if." Look for Anthony Morrow to contribute here as well, as his floor-spacing ability will open up opportunities for drive-and-kicks on offense.
Small Forward: C
Al-Farouq Aminu will get the lion's share of minutes on the wing, filling in holes for the less defensively oriented players next to him.
Aminu is not on the court for his offensive ability, but he does everything other than shoot at an acceptable level. His rebounding at the forward position was exceptional last season, evidenced by his 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes.
His length and athleticism help him cut off passing lanes and soar for rebounds, and he'll need to do so when playing alongside a smallish backcourt of Holiday and Gordon. He's just about the only option the Pelicans have to guard elite wings like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, and his ability to slow these players down will have a big impact on the team's fortunes.
Another player to keep an eye on: Evans, who will likely play minutes here in small-ball lineups.
Power Forward: A
If having one of the league's most promising players in Davis isn't enough, he's got one of the best backups in the league.
Ryan Anderson is one of the league's most prolific three-point shooters. He hoisted 557 last season, good for second in the league and 19th all time, and did so at an efficient 38 percent clip. He's been tabbed as one of the primary members of the bench unit, but it's more than likely he'll play major crunch-time minutes.
The pairing of Davis and Anderson has the possibility to raise the ceiling of what the Pelicans can achieve. If Davis can cover up enough mistakes defensively, they are a devastating combination on the offensive end. Having a floor-spacing big like Anderson is a gift from the basketball gods for someone like Davis, who can use the extra real estate to take slower forwards off the dribble.
The pivot position has looked ugly for the Pelicans in the preseason, and it's the most likely candidate to receive an upgrade via trade.
Greg Stiemsma has been the starter at center, but you would hardly notice he's been in the game if you combed through the box scores. That experiment might not last much longer if he continues to put up ghastly numbers such as his one-point, two-rebound performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder on October 17.
Jason Smith is a reliable pick-and-pop threat and provides a lot more versatility than Stiemsma, so it's puzzling that he isn't in the starting five. Stiemsma would be better served playing against weaker second units, so swapping him out to the bench might be the move.
Rookie Jeff Withey has gotten very little playing time, but he's an active defender and a superior athlete to Stiemsma. Keep an eye on him as the season rolls along.
What to Watch For
Breakout Player Prediction: Anthony Davis
The obvious choice here, Davis was fantastic in a more limited role last season, and the kid gloves are now off. Take an athletic freak, add 18 pounds and a full offseason to polish his game, and you have a recipe for success. This kid is going to challenge for a spot in the All-Star Game.
Team MVP Prediction: Anthony Davis
There's no player on the Pelicans who offers as much as Davis does on both ends of the court. At worst, he's an impactful defender and a work-in-progress offensively; at best, he has the chance to be a transformative defender and a pick-and-roll nightmare. He doesn't yet have the credentials of someone like Holiday, but you can't go wrong betting on talent.
Most Disappointing Player Prediction: Jrue Holiday
Before you get out the pitchforks and torches, this isn't a proclamation that Holiday will have a bad season. But the tail end of 2013 saw Holiday crashing back to earth, and it's fair to wonder whether his true value lies somewhere between that and his All-Star first half. The numbers will be solid, but efficiency and turnover rate are still major issues for the young point guard.
Player Most Likely to Be Traded: Ryan Anderson
The Pelicans should be pressing their division rival Houston Rockets in trade talks to acquire Omer Asik. Dwight Howard's signing has made him a redundant part and a prime candidate to get moved. Ryan Anderson would be an ideal one-to-one swap, with the Rockets getting Howard's former partner from the Orlando Magic and the Pelicans getting an infusion of defense on the back end.
Biggest Rivalry: Houston Rockets
The San Antonio Spurs are the cream of the crop in the division, but the Rockets are the up-and-comers who will be battling the young Pelicans for years to come. Bad blood is built over years, and the first chapter begins this season. Harden vs. Holiday and Davis v. Dwight will be fun to watch.
Best-Case Scenario: 48-34, Sixth Seed in Western Conference
Now that we've seen a new-look Anthony Davis, the immediate outlook for the Pelicans is a bit rosier than it was prior to training camp.
Powered by Davis' All-Star campaign and a jolt from newcomer Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans ride a pick-and-roll-heavy attack all the way to the playoffs.
Tighter defense and more weapons on offense give the Pelicans the balanced unit they need, and they go 48-34 on their way to grabbing the sixth seed in the West.
Worst-Case Scenario: 35-47, 11th Seed in Western Conference
The concerns around the Pelicans are still in play, and the preseason success that has fans excited proves to be little more than an aberration.
Davis' impressive preseason turns out to be a mirage, and the sophomore struggles to produce on a consistent basis. He remains too skinny to bang with the brutes, and his jumper is too unreliable to rely on from 15 feet.
Gordon and Evans clash, and when given the opportunity to play together, they are too much of a defensive nightmare to coexist. Coach Williams struggles to figure out a working rotation, and the guards become frustrated with inconsistent playing time.
Holiday proves that the beginning of last season was a fluke, and his turnover issues continue to haunt the team.
The Pelicans go 35-47, finishing out of the playoffs by a considerable margin.
Prediction: 45-37, Eighth Seed in Western Conference
It's the year of the Unibrow.
Anthony Davis has run amok during the exhibition slate, and while the results of these games are meaningless, the skills showed by the franchise centerpiece are an indication of what is to come. He's still not quite at his ceiling, but that's ultimately a positive. Can you imagine how good this guy will be in a few years?
Jrue Holiday, though maybe not an elite-level point, will add a few dimensions that Greivis Vasquez did not possess. His speed and length are a devastating combo on both ends of the floor, and his partnership with Davis will become more impressive as the season rolls along.
The difference between last year's team and the eighth-seeded Rockets was a staggering 18 wins. The question you have to ask yourself is this: Is the combination of Holiday, Evans and a leap from Davis enough to close that gap?
The answer is probably no, but incremental boosts from Rivers, Morrow, Roberts and Aminu could be enough to swing the tide when partnered with their starry counterparts. With regression looming for the Los Angeles Lakers and perhaps the Denver Nuggets, playoff spots are up for grabs.
Moves still need to be made for this to be a complete team. The logjam at guard should probably be alleviated in favor of help on the wings and in the post. But this will be one of the most exciting teams in the West and a League Pass favorite regardless.
This is an official notice that the Pelicans are ready to compete. Western Conference teams would do well to pay attention to the upstarts from New Orleans.