Why New Orleans Pelicans Are Poised to Surprise Next Season

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Why New Orleans Pelicans Are Poised to Surprise Next Season
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The New Orleans Pelicans will be one of the NBA's biggest surprises this upcoming season.

It has become an offseason tradition to utter that sentence. In truth, the basketball world has been waiting for the Pelicans to take flight since the arrival of No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis in 2012. The team suffered through growing pains in Davis' rookie season and finished 27-55.

Last season, after bringing in the likes of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, New Orleans found itself at the bottom of the NBA ladder again with a record of 34-48.

Granted, it was an improvement from the year before, but not quite as big as the team and its fans had hoped for.

This season, things will be different. Things will be better—hopefully.

This summer hasn't been as action-packed as last year's, but the Pelicans did take a huge step in shoring up one of their biggest needs. The team traded a 2015 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for center Omer Asik, per Zach Lowe of Grantland (h/t CBS Sports' James Herbert), which will become official once New Orleans finds a way to fit in the big man's salary.

The Pelicans also added forward Alonzo Gee from the Cleveland Cavaliers, but according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, he might be headed to Houston as the final piece to the Asik trade.

New Orleans found a way to sneak into this past June's draft and acquire the rights to No. 47 overall pick Russ Smith out of Louisville. To add Smith, the Pelicans had to send last year's second-round gem, Pierre Jackson, back to the Philadelphia 76ers.

With the 2014-15 roster starting to take shape, here are a few reasons why the New Orleans Pelicans will open some eyes this season.

 

1. The Tag Team of Omer Asik and Anthony Davis

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Once Omer Asik is finally a New Orleans Pelican, he will team with All-Star forward Anthony Davis to form one of the league's best defensive frontcourt duos. The team had been desperate to add a bona fide center and shield Davis from the pounding of banging bodies in the post on a nightly basis.

Last season was a coming-out party for the former Kentucky Wildcat phenom. Before even turning 21 years old, Davis was making his first of potentially many All-Star appearances. He also led the league with an average of 2.8 blocks per game.

Davis finished his sophomore season averaging 20.8 points, 10 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.3 steals in 67 games. He shot 51.9 percent from the field and 79.1 percent from the free-throw line. The scary part is he's only going to get better.

Now, you add Asik to the mix. While the 7-footer out of Turkey has his limitations on offense, he brings a lot to the table when it comes to crashing the boards and protecting the rim. Despite dealing with injuries and trade demands, Asik still played in 48 games last season and grabbed 7.9 boards per contest.

In his lone full season as a starter, the 27-year-old averaged a double-double in 2012-13 with a nightly clip of 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds. He also contributed 1.1 blocks per game for good measure.

The Asik-Davis tandem will work out well for a couple of reasons. First, Davis' emerging mid-range game allows him to stay out of Asik's way down low (unlike with Dwight Howard last year). Davis shot 40.9 percent from between three and 10 feet last year and 43.1 percent from 10 to 16 feet, per Basketball-Reference.com.

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Second, Davis has the speed, athleticism and long arms to defend opponents outside of the paint. He has even shown a knack for blocking shots on the perimeter. The relief of not having to guard much bigger opponents will help Davis down the stretch.

The harsh truth of last season was the team missed center Robin Lopez (shipped to Portland in the Tyreke Evans trade) more than it anticipated. Once starter Jason Smith went down for the season with a knee injury, the Pelicans tried to patch things together with veteran journeymen and untested rookies.

Despite Asik's presence, Davis still went to great lengths to add some much-needed bulk to his lanky frame. He's noticeably bigger this summer, and according to NOLA.com's Nakia Hogan, he's up to 237 pounds.

"Right now, it's just physical appearance," Davis said in June. "I haven't put it to use yet."

Pelicans head coach Monty Williams has noticed the change as well:

"When you see him it's like 'Wow, this kid is growing as we speak.' His shoulders, back, chest (are bigger), and it's all proportioned. It's not like any fake. He is not going to be 245 or anything like that. But he has put on some good poundage. It looks pretty good."

The improvement up front will be the biggest difference in this year's Pelicans. With Asik and Davis, teams now have to think twice about attacking the basket. New Orleans still needs help with its perimeter defense, but adding Asik still helps in a number of ways.

 

2. Improved Health

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It will be tough for New Orleans to repeat the kind of bad luck it had with health last year. Before the All-Star break, the team lost Jason Smith (knee), Ryan Anderson (neck) and Jrue Holiday (foot) for the season.

Oft-injured guard Eric Gordon missed time throughout the season, including the final 14 games with knee tendinitis. He did manage to play in 64 games, which was his highest total since playing in 78 games as a rookie in 2008-09 with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Anthony Davis also missed some games here and there due to myriad ailments. He has yet to play at least 70 games in a season during his brief career. The remaining list of injured Pelicans could go on for days.

This season, everyone gets a fresh start. Head coach Monty Williams recently said in an interview with Pelicans broadcaster Jen Hale that everyone is "on target" to be ready for training camp.

"We feel like with a healthy group, even though it's a new group because we've been trying to put all this stuff together, it's a group that we feel like is pretty dangerous on both ends of the floor," Williams said.

The keyword is obviously "healthy." However, if New Orleans' key players can stay out of the infirmary, this team won't lack for versatile weapons. Davis is a 6'10" forward with the speed of a smaller man and the ball-handling skills of a guard.

Anderson is one of the NBA's best shooting big men with a career mark of 38.6 percent from downtown. Holiday has the skills to be a solid two-way point guard. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game before going down for the year in January.

Tyreke Evans is a threat to score whenever he has his hands on the basketball. He's dangerous when he gains a head of steam in transition. He can also create offense for himself in the half court. Gordon, when he's healthy and his mind is right, can be a dynamic scorer as well.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

That's an impressive core in itself. Then, when you include the contributions of Omer Asik as well as the continued development of Austin Rivers, you get a young team that can make some noise.

That brings us to our final point.

 

3. Depth

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Naturally, New Orleans' depth only becomes an advantage if everyone stays healthy. For the sake of this article, let's assume the Pelicans' luck won't be as bad as last year's. First, let's talk about the starting rotation.

As mentioned earlier, Asik and Davis will be patrolling the paint up front. In the backcourt, Holiday will be paired with either Gordon or Evans. Both shooting guards are coming off knee surgeries and will be fighting it out for the starting spot at the 2.

Gordon was retained two years ago to be one of the faces of the franchise. Injuries and bad attitude have derailed that fantasy from becoming reality. Evans butted heads with Williams as well in his first season with New Orleans, but he excelled enough as a starter to deserve consideration over Gordon in the lineup.

In 22 starts, Evans averaged 19.9 points, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game. He also shot 49.6 percent from the field and had five consecutive games of scoring at least 20 points.

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By comparison, Gordon made 64 starts, averaging 15.4 points, 3.3 assists and 2.6 rebounds. He shot 43.6 percent from the field, including 39.1 percent from behind the arc.

Regardless of who gets the nod, there will be a very talented guard left to lead the attack off the bench. Evans or Gordon will also be joined on the second unit by Anderson. The talented stretch 4 could see some minutes at small forward playing alongside Davis and Asik, but his main role will be as a key reserve.

The "B" team will be rounded out by center Alexis Ajinca (if he isn't traded to make room for Asik), Rivers and Russ Smith. Undrafted rookie Patric Young could play his way on to the roster as well. Young and Smith turned a few heads in New Orleans' recent Las Vegas Summer League win over the NBA D-League Select team.

Smith went 8-of-17 from the field, finishing with a team-high 20 points and three steals. As for Young, the former Florida star dropped a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds.

When you put it all together, you get a surprisingly deep team with only one player over the age of 30 (Melvin Ely). The Pelicans have two players who could be dark-horse contenders for Sixth Man of the Year (Anderson and whoever doesn't start between Evans and Gordon) as well as two young All-Stars (Davis and Holiday).

The team also has a new starting center who was beginning to come into his own before the Rockets replaced him in the lineup with Dwight Howard. The only question mark left is the hole at small forward, which New Orleans has a couple of months to address.

In a deep Western Conference, a playoff spot for the Pelicans isn't a guarantee. However, if they manage to stay in one piece, the Pelicans surprise party that has been talked about for years may finally come to fruition this season.

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