Picked by myriad pundits to finish at the bottom of the NBA standings one year ago, the Phoenix Suns instead authored one of the more pleasantly surprising seasons in recent memory, owing to a delicate combination of savvy offseason moves, actualized upside and—most crucially—infectious chemistry.
From doldrums-dwellers to darlings, the Suns’ unexpected ascent is one many a franchise would kill to replicate.
The New Orleans Pelicans might have the best chance of pulling it off.
Mere months removed from finishing 15 games out of eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race, the Pelicans aren’t exactly registering on the 2015 playoff radar—not yet, anyway.
To be sure, there’s plenty for New Orleans to be excited about, beginning with a potential year-three leap from 21-year-old basketball beast Anthony Davis. Selected No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft, Davis followed up a stellar rookie campaign by registering the fourth-best player efficiency rating in the NBA (26.5), behind only Kevin Durant (29.9), LeBron James (29.4) and Kevin Love (30.0).
Add that to Davis’ already scary stat line—20.8 points, 10 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals with a superb 58 percent true-shooting percentage—you have all of the makings of a hardwood monster in waiting.
Did we mention he’s just 21 years old? Because it bears repeating: Anthony Davis is 21 years old!
That New Orleans plans to build around Davis is, at this point, practically a truism; when you dig up this kind of draft-day diamond, there simply is no alternative.
There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to do it. Unfortunately, as Bleacher Report’s D.J. Foster underscored back in April, the Pelicans’ imprudence on this front could, in time, come back to haunt them:
It's far too soon to worry about Davis jumping ship, as no player in league history has ever turned down a max extension coming off a rookie deal, but there is certainly an incentive to add talent now before Davis' deal occupies so much of the available cap space. Once Davis becomes a max player, building a championship quality team around him will become all the more difficult.
What makes the situation in New Orleans unique is that the Pelicans really already pushed all-in and sacrificed nearly all flexibility for this current roster. If that sounds hasty, it's because it was. How can you properly build around a star when you're unsure of what he's going to be and therefore what he needs to be successful?
Foster is referring primarily to the backcourt troika of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. To call it a logjam might be putting it politely.
Still, not all is lost on this front. Despite missing more than half of the season with a stress fracture in his right leg, the then-23-year-old Holiday managed to register career highs in assist rate (38.8 percent) and player efficiency (17.1), while falling just shy of his 2012-13 assist average of 8.0.
Evans, meanwhile, proved to be most productive at shooting guard, where his PER (20.4), points per-48 minutes (26.4) and—oddly enough—assists per-48 (10.5) were all higher than at any other position, according to 82games.com.
Which brings us to Gordon, who, at close to $15 million per year, hasn’t exactly lived up to the near-max billing. At the same time, with Anthony Morrow bolting for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Gordon might be the Pelicans’ best three-point threat.
Might New Orleans be willing to live with Gordon’s onerous cap hold in exchange for making him the team’s No. 1 bench option? Its certainly possible, especially considering Davis would be in the just the second year of his inevitable max extension.
Like Holiday, Ryan Anderson—who underwent season-ending spine injury after playing in just 22 games last season—should, if healthy, give New Orleans a much-needed dose of offensive firepower.
Rounding out the rotational vanguard is rim-protecting prodigy Omer Asik, acquired for little more than a draft pick in a three-way trade involving the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards, per ESPN’s Marc Stein.
From 1 through 6, the Pelicans boast a formidable force indeed. Now comes the difficult part: figuring out how to dole out the minutes, both positionally and personnel-wise.
Should Monty Williams bring Asik off the bench, thereby allowing the Pelicans to go small with Anderson at the 4 and Davis at the 5? Does he start all three of Holiday, Evans and Gordon, with Davis at the 4 and Asik at the 5? Small ball or ground-and-pound? Run-and-gun or slow-it-down?
Strategic questions abound. The most important thing, for Williams, is that he has the full arsenal at his disposal. Once he figures out the right mix, these Pelicans—at once flawed and loaded with upside—are certain to be a League Pass staple for many.
It begins, of course, with Davis himself, the once-in-a-generation basketball savant around which any coach or general manager would gladly give up limbs to build. For Davis, the crucial crossroads may well lie in where New Orleans sees his ultimate destiny, be it as a small-ball 5, a five-tool 4 or—scarier still—a new breed of insanely talented small forward.
If you’re New Orleans, it’s a pretty good problem to have. Indeed, the fact that Anthony’s position is even a question only goes to show how big of a game-changer the former Kentucky standout truly is.
“He is going to be his own player,” said Williams in an interview with Grantland’s Zach Lowe. “People try and think back to re-create another A.D., but he’s not like anyone we’ve ever seen.”
From backcourt balance to depth and overall health, New Orleans faces plenty of challenges heading into the 2014-15 campaign. All it takes is one or two ill-timed injuries or a beef over minutes to throw a team’s chemistry into chaos. On a team with as much talent as these Pelicans, that possibility is a real one.
If last year’s Suns taught us anything, it’s that, as long as the system and plan are solidly in place and the personalities jive, the positions—fabricated concepts that they are—will take care of themselves.
Anthony Davis will take care of the rest.