The New Orleans Pelicans are on a mission.
In a league where it's still in vogue to bottom out after losing a superstar player, the Pelicans have made a decided commitment to forgo the long road and leap headfirst into the mad scramble for the Western Conference's 2013-2014 playoff race.
But unless last season's 57-25 Denver Nuggets enter into inexplicable free fall (possible with the departure of George Karl, Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer, and a delayed return by Danilo Gallinari), seven of the conference's previous eight playoff teams seem poised to stay firmly in postseason contention.
Which means the 'Cans will most likely be fighting tooth and nail for the No. 8 seed against the Dallas Mavericks (hadn't missed the playoffs in 12 seasons until last year), the Minnesota Timberwolves (sporting a finally-healthy 'Big Three' of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic) and the Portland Trailblazers (whose new-found depth will spell Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge from having to finish among the league's top-10 leaders in minutes per game).
Not that the Pelicans are worried, nor should they be, as long as the following five developments fall neatly into their favor.
While the issue of Eric Gordon's sustained health is a tantalizing topic of discussion—the 24-year-old 2-guard has played in 247-of-394 games (62.7 percent) in five seasons—injury-related 'what ifs' are ultimately difficult to project. Just ask Greg Oden.
However, what the Pelicans can count on is improvement from their other combo guard and 2012 lottery pick, Austin Rivers, whose disappointing rookie season prompted ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton to suggest Doc Rivers' son was on track for a historic season:
Two months into the season, Rivers projects to rate nearly seven wins worse than a replacement-level player by my player metric, which would be the worst [Wins Above Replacement Player] score in the 34 seasons on record, starting with 1979-80, the first NBA season with the 3-point line.
Ouch. Rivers finished his season with a player efficiency rating of 5.9, a mark that stands alone among NBA rookies receiving playing time.
Still, to his credit, Rivers did rally himself in March prior to a season-ending right hand injury, submitting a three-game stretch in which he averaged 8.7 points on 70.6 percent shooting with a +19.3 plus/minus rating.
In addition, the rising sophomore seemingly broke through during the Pelicans' debut at the Las Vegas Summer League, leading his team with 18.2 points on much-improved 48.2 percent shooting. Through six games this preseason, Rivers is averaging 9.3 points on 35.8 percent shooting, but is leveraging his new found confidence for 4.5 free-throw attempts, over double the 1.77 trips he averaged last season.
Should the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft find his stroke and maximize his athleticism, his play could help energize an intriguing bench mob.
Though Pelicans' big man Anthony Davis lost Rookie of the Year honors, he won the hearts of stat geeks everywhere.
Despite being limited to 64 games, Davis led all rookies with 6.1 win shares, and was second only to Detroit rookie Andre Drummond in win shares per 48 minutes. His PER of 21.7 also led all rookies, ranking 15th overall in the league. And while he didn't put up the gaudy defensive numbers that headlined his college career, his block percentage of 5.1 ranked superior to such veteran big men as Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol and yes, even Dwight Howard.
The only knock on Davis was his bulk, or lack thereof, as head coach Monty Williams frequently reined the big man in to save him from being barreled over by traditional low-post players.
However, thanks to his well documented weight-gain regimen, Davis has returned to training camp stronger and sturdier than ever; something that has not gone unnoticed by Coach Williams. Per NOLA.com's Jimmy Smith:
"I don't want to take credit for it but I've been talking to him all summer about how, 'I'm not going to hold you back anymore,' " said Williams, who went out of way during Davis' rookie season to shield him from expectations and protected him from uncomfortable matchups. "Last year I spent a lot of time trying to teach him the game and teaching him about situations.
"Now, I feel like with the work he's put in, he should go out there and explore and take some calculated risks. We don't want to risk the integrity of our team, but he has worked so much on his game, he's got to go out there and do the things he's worked on."
Translation: Release the Kraken!
So far, Davis has been happy to oblige with his expanded role. Through six games and six victories this preseason, Davis is scoring at a clip of 22 points on 53.8 percent shooting—second only to Kevin Durant's 22.2—while contributing an additional 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 2 blocks, including Saturday's game-clincher over Washington.
Should Davis carry over his preseason momentum over the long haul—and there's no reason why he shouldn't—the light of the postseason looks to be shining bright on the Pelicans, at least given the next development.
Ask any content NBA big what his secret to on-court success is, and I guarantee the most common answer will be having a playmaker who can get you the ball.
Welcome to the team, Jrue Holiday.
With all due respect to the 2013 NBA Most Improved Player award candidate, Holiday should prove to be a definite upgrade over former point Greivis Vasquez. While both finished 2013 with comparable profiles on paper, Holiday broke through with his first All-Star Game appearance as the undisputed head of the 34-48 Philadelphia 76ers, finishing as the team's leader in points and assists. Moreover, his youth and nose for the ball will give the Pelicans at least a shot at defending against the league's burgeoning number of elite points.
However, for Holiday to justify his $41 million extension and the steep assets the Pelicans offered in their trade for the young guard—the rights to Nerlens Noel and a first-round pick in what figures to be the deepest draft in years—Holiday will have to prove that his production on the court wasn't just the by-product of benefiting from inflated stats on a mediocre team.
A big step forward for Holiday would arguably increasing his efficiency with the ball. Per HoopsWorld's Alex Kennedy:
Holiday says that he’s determined to “be more efficient” next year, which is a good goal for the young point guard, who last season averaged a career-high 3.7 turnovers and had an efficiency rating of just 16.74 (barely above the league average of 15.0). He believes that the change of scenery, another year of his experience and his work with Coach Williams should help him achieve that goal.
“He had Chris Paul,” Holiday said of Williams, who coached Paul in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season. “So from a coaching standpoint, he can help make me more efficient and better as a point guard. I’m just going to continue learning every day.”
While this doesn't mean he has to evolve into the next perennial All-Star (a tall task for playing in the same conference as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry), it does mean for a franchise that has handcuffed its long-term assets for immediate postseason payoff, he will need to contribute to more tangible victories through intangible greatness.
For that, he needs to quickly acclimate to an offense that is currently juggling more than its fair share of potential high usage players. Speaking of.
Regardless of who starts, the Pelicans are looking at a potential fourth-quarter lineup of Holiday, Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Davis.
In theory, a simple comparison of each players' shot charts reveals enough diversity in each players' skill sets to nearly perfectly complement one another.
Holiday, for example, struggles to finish in the paint outside the restricted area, but is a serviceable shooter from mid-range and beyond the arc in limited doses. Conversely, neither Gordon nor Evans can shoot with any consistency, but thrive off deep penetration into the restricted area, with Evans topping the trio at 60.1 percent next to the basket. Anderson, meanwhile, offers the smaller lineup stretch 4 shooting in virtually all zones of the court, allowing Davis to capitalize on dunks and putback opportunities as the Pelicans' small-ball 5. Considering last season's most effective five-man lineup (ranked by plus/minus, minimum 100 minutes) included Vasquez, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Anderson and Davis—and that both Holiday and Evans should represent more quality offensive options—the Pelicans should see impressive results from their crunch-time lineup.
In reality, all five of those players excel with the ball in their hands. While active, Gordon topped all rotation players with a 29.4 percent usage on the floor, with Anderson directly behind him at 24 percent. Similarly, Holiday topped the 76ers at 26.6 percent, and Evans' usage is deceptively low considering each player on his Kings teams consistently gunned for their own shots.
Add into the mix that Davis is quickly emerging as the team's most efficient No. 1 option, and suddenly there may not be enough touches to keep everyone happy. Virtually all of last year's most frequently seen five-man units utilized Aminu, and for good reason—the athletic 6'9", 215-pound Nigerian forward excelled off the ball as a rebounder and defender, leading all rotation players in total rebound percentage and making up for 5.3 points on defense while on the floor.
This doesn't mean that Aminu should be playing crunch-time—his offensive options are and were non-existent—but it does mean that one (or more) players will have to sublimate their scoring talents and find ways to contribute consistently and effectively for this highly-paid unit to coexist, whether it be rebounding or defense. Which segways nicely into this next development.
Davis aside, there are few players currently on the roster who project to be above-average defensively, let alone offer any rim protection.
On paper, the Pelicans' opponents scored 97.9 points per game last season—not terrible, as it was just enough to land them in the better half of the league's defenses in that category. Then you dig deeper and realize part of the Pelicans' lowered output was in part due to playing with nearly the slowest pace in the league at 88.5 possessions per 48 minutes, a figure that's bested only by the ground-and-pound Grizzlies.
However, while the Grizzlies' offense suffered as a result—93.4 points per game, about 0.7 worse than the Pelicans—their stalwart defense made for a net differential in their favor. The same cannot be said for the Pelicans, whose opponents also shot a sizzling 47.1 percent from the field and 37.4 percent from three, marks that ranked fifth- and fourth-worst in the league, respectively.
Head coach Monty Williams, as a former player and coaching intern with the San Antonio Spurs, understands and has emphasized the significance of an improved defense for the new season and for a prospective playoff run. Per NOLA.com's Nakia Hogan:
"I'm sure we are ready," Williams said. "That's not an issue. It's just playing against NBA teams, so even if you are ready sometimes it doesn't matter. We just have to make sure we are as prepared as we can be on the defensive end of the floor to stop teams from scoring easy buckets.
"Offensively guys are picking up the structure of what we want to do. They know the more we can get stops, the less we have to call plays. We are ready. It's just a matter of being prepared, a jacking yourself up everyday to play against the best."
The arrival of defensive specialist Greg Stiemsma—who once upon a time submitted eye-popping per-minute defensive stats—should serve as one of the summer's most underrated defensive-minded signings, although thus far he's made little noise in the preseason, and stands to see his spot in the rotation jumped by veteran Jason Smith.
On the other hand, should the Pelicans embrace their small-ball lineup, neither big may fit the bill. In which case, the final development may be their biggest key to the playoff race.
While general manager Dell Demps has kept himself busy to appease owner Tom Benson, his job will be far from over if the 'Cans are hovering around a suspect win-loss record by Christmas.
As it stands, the Pelicans' options are limited. Including veteran minimum signings, the Pelicans are essentially capped out through the 2015-2016 season, after which the only current contracts on hand will be those of Davis, Holiday, Evans and Rivers (assuming he receives a qualifying offer before then). In addition, the team already sacrificed its first-round pick as an asset during the Holiday trade.
Should the Pelicans make a move by the trade deadline—and it would be in their best interest to start putting out feelers—they will either have to sacrifice future assets or, more likely, sell high on one of their rotation players.
I'm looking at you two, Anderson and Gordon.
While it may seem preposterous to jettison either player, the return for either (assuming Gordon can remain healthy) could provide for an astounding fit. For example: Anderson straight up for Houston's Omer Asik.
Despite Houston's public reluctance to part ways with the unhappy Turk, Anderson's skill set would fit perfectly within the Rockets' frenetic pace and three-point shooting arsenal. In addition, the stretch 4 already has chemistry with Dwight Howard, following their successful coupling in the 2012 season—the same season which saw Anderson win the Most Improved Player Award.
For the Pelicans, Asik's size and ability to run would make for a substantial upgrade at the rim, while freeing Davis to explore the mid-range game and giving him space to blow by slower defenders. In other words, the trade would be one of the rare win-wins for both teams, barring the Pelicans' reluctance to swallow Asik's backloaded contract.
With Gordon, given his age and a potential bounce-back debut to the season, the Pelicans could trade for virtually any mid- to high-tier three-and-D wing to open the floor for Evans and co. in Anderson-less units.
Regardless of what moves, if any, the Pelicans make, they are still ultimately poised to contend. With the unusual number of teams in both conferences preparing for long rebuilds, and the very likely possibility of at least one member of the Pelicans' roster securing an All-Star bid as they host the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, the future seems bright in New Orleans.