Early Predictions for New Orleans Pelicans' Starting Lineup Next Season
After a 2013-14 season that was decimated by injuries, the New Orleans Pelicans head into this year with high hopes and one of the brightest young stars in the game in Anthony Davis.
Even after going just 34-48 last season, there’s reason for optimism in New Orleans. A trade to acquire Omer Asik should give New Orleans a defensive anchor, and the improved play of Tyreke Evans late last year could be a great sign moving forward. With Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson expected to be healthy, and with even more improvement from Davis, the Pelicans could certainly contend for a playoff spot.
There are still a few details left to be worked out in New Orleans, though, especially when it comes to the starting lineup. Finding the right mix between Holiday, Evans, Eric Gordon, Anderson, Davis and Asik to form a productive five-man unit may be tougher than it sounds, as there still appears to be a hole at small forward.
With limited assets this offseason, New Orleans couldn’t do much to find a reliable starter at that spot. John Salmons was brought in, but he’s washed-up at this point in his career.
So what will the Pelicans look like come opening day? Let’s take a crack at predicting what their starting rotation will look like.
PG: Jrue Holiday
It’s hard to overstate just how important getting Jrue Holiday back full time will be for New Orleans. Although Brian Roberts, now with the Charlotte Hornets, was solid as a stand-in, Holiday’s on-ball defense and three-point shooting are desperately needed in this starting unit.
Although it was in just 34 games, Holiday shot 39 percent from behind the arc last year in his first season with New Orleans after coming over via trade from the Philadelphia 76ers.
The floor spacing he brings off the ball will be huge, and giving Anthony Davis a pick-and-roll partner who is a versatile offensive threat could make the Pelicans explosive on that end.
People tend to forget just how good Holiday is, as he can shoot, rebound, distribute and defend. There aren’t many holes in his game, and that’s a big deal since Davis will likely be the only other “non-specialist” in the starting lineup.
If the Pelicans do make a run for the playoffs, Holiday starting again at point guard will have a big part in it.
Backing up Holiday will be Austin Rivers and Russ Smith, which could turn into an interesting battle throughout the preseason.
SG: Eric Gordon
Playing in 64 games was a bit of an accomplishment for Gordon, as he had played in just 51 games combined over the previous two seasons with New Orleans.
While it’s clear that Gordon has lost some athleticism and is a little more sheepish to fully attack at the rim, his shooting is what can make him a viable part of this starting unit.
Last year, Gordon shot 39.1 percent from behind the arc, a career-best number that made him more than worthy of starting every game last year. Nothing should change on that front this year, even if Austin Rivers makes improvements. The only real competition New Orleans brought in was Jimmer Fredette, who should be more of a bench specialist than anything else.
Even though Gordon is primarily a shooter at this stage in his career, defensively he can still get after it a bit. You’d like to see him pinch down and help on the glass more, but Gordon can play in the pick-and-roll a bit and score at a decent clip.
Shooting guard is one of the league’s weakest positions, so the Pelicans aren’t likely to be outmatched with Gordon starting at this spot very often. He should be helped tremendously by the return of Holiday and the continued development of Davis.
SF: Tyreke Evans
Here’s the only real spot that’s up for debate, but it’s hard to see New Orleans going in any different direction due to the lack of any viable replacement.
Still, it may be hard for some to picture this three-headed guard backcourt co-existing together, especially since all three have generally been very high-usage players.
Here’s Zach Lowe at Grantland:
We still haven’t really seen if Holiday, Evans, and Gordon can work together, though Evans’s killer play of late as the undisputed lead dog suggests he needs the ball and good spacing to live up to his contract.
While in theory replacing Evans with a three-and-D guy makes plenty of sense, the Pelicans just don’t have that guy. It’s also worth noting that Evans was significantly better as a starter last year. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Evans averaged 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 22 games as a starter, but only 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 50 games as a reserve.
Some of that may have had to do with Evans’ health, but it’s hard to send a guy who was on such a roll to end the year back to a role he struggled to produce in.
Evans can fit as a starting 3, as he’s strong and quick enough to handle his own on both ends, and he gives Davis yet another pick-and-roll partner to play with. Although you wish he shot it better from deep, Gordon and Holiday should compensate enough to provide proper spacing for the offense to breathe.
Ryan Anderson would be an interesting play here if he were more mobile, but defensively this would likely cause too many issues to justify. Evans and his athleticism is the way New Orleans will almost certainly go, barring a miracle free-agent signing like Shawn Marion.
PF: Anthony Davis
And here’s the easy one. New Orleans fans are certainly hoping that Davis will be penciled in at the starting power forward spot for many years to come. Although there may be some that question what position Davis should play, especially given Miami’s success with Chris Bosh at the 5, he works just fine as a 4 given the personnel and his strengths.
The degree of difficulty in building around Davis is insanely low, really, primarily because he can block shots, spread the floor with his jumper and play traditional pick-and-roll basketball. He’s a monster for just about every defender to handle, as only a few players in the league can match his level of skill, size and athleticism.
The goal for New Orleans when building a starting unit is to surround Davis with the right talent. Here’s what Monty Williams told Zach Lowe at Grantland during last season:
What hurts him now,” Williams says, “is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.
In that sense, New Orleans has to hope that Holiday and Gordon provide that kind of shooting and that Evans can at least hit the wide-open ones from the corners. Davis himself probably isn’t far removed from expanding his range beyond the three-point line, which would be a terror for opponents and a nice boost over the long twos he shot with a decent frequency last year.
One of the big keys in New Orleans becoming better offensively will be how Davis works with Omer Asik up front. Defenses will obviously be overcompensating for Davis wherever he goes on the floor, so his ability to play high-low basketball and find Asik around the rim with passes will be critical.
Realistically, though, this is the one position New Orleans doesn’t have to worry about. Anderson will back up Davis at this spot, and we should see Davis slide to the 5 so they can play together in decent chunks this year as well. The nice part about Davis and his flexibility is that Monty Williams can really play the matchups.
C: Omer Asik
You wouldn’t trade for Omer Asik if the intention was to sit him on the bench. He’ll start next to Davis at the 5, giving the young star the best frontcourt partner he’s had in his short career thus far.
The thought of Asik and Davis defending pick-and-rolls and protecting the rim should be mostly terrifying for opposing teams, especially since Holiday can provide good on-ball pressure. Out of all the below-average defenses last season, New Orleans (27th in defensive efficiency according to Basketball-Reference.com) has the chance to make the biggest leap by far.
The returns on Asik might not be as great offensively, but he can help on that end as well.
Assistant coach Dave Hanners told Jim Eichenhofer at NBA.com:
I think it’s going to help Anthony tremendously, because in the past he’s had to defend guys that we wish maybe someone else could’ve guarded,” Hanners said. “On the offensive end, the other team’s best (frontcourt) defender was always on AD. I think Omer’s good enough offensively that you can’t do that. He’s big, strong and has a decent touch around the basket. If you leave him alone, he can really hurt you, especially if you have a four trying to box him out. That will take some pressure off of AD, to (not) have to be the guy on both ends of the floor. It’s going to make it a little freer for AD.
With Asik solidifying a center spot that has seen a variety of different players, the Pelicans should have their starting five all set going into the season.
Now it will be all about staying healthy, which may be a challenge for a team with a lot of injury-prone players. At least on paper, though, New Orleans looks like a real threat to enter the playoff picture, even in a tough Western Conference.