Defending the New Orleans Pelicans' Win-Now Approach

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Defending the New Orleans Pelicans' Win-Now Approach
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are something, but the basketball world can't quite put a finger on it.

Courageous or careless. Sharp or shortsighted. Wise or wasteful.

No one really knows for sure. Certainties are scarce in the Crescent City, where Anthony Davis' fast track to superstardom has spawned more questions than answers.

Clearly, the Pelicans have something special in the single-browed baller. Last season, Davis' second in the league, he held top-20 rankings in points (20.8, 15th), rebounds (10.0, 10th), blocks (2.8, first), player efficiency (26.5, fourth) and win shares (10.4, 14th), via Basketball-Reference.com.

He has played 131 NBA games. He was an unheralded point guard just a few years back—he's dominating a position he's still learning how to play.

"We haven’t seen a big man with this kind of defensive potential enter the league since [Dwight] Howard," wrote Grantland's Zach Lowe. "Throw in efficient scoring from all over the floor, and you’ve got a league-altering monster."

The most ridiculous part about that statement is that it's true. Davis is elite right now, and this is only the beginning.

The question for the Pelicans, and any other small-market franchise fortunate enough to snag a transcendent talent on draft night, is how to proceed from that point.

Drafting Davis was the easy part. Building something substantial around him is the real challenge.

New Orleans has tried to hasten that process, placing a major premium on the present at the future's expense. The Pelicans netted Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans last offseason and Omer Asik this summer, exchanges that cost the franchise three first-round picks (two for Holiday, one for Asik) along with veterans Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez.

The price is certainly steep, and not everyone is convinced that the potential reward will be worth the risk.

"Are the Pelicans positioning themselves as the place for Davis to thrive or throwing their lottery ticket in the washing machine?" wrote SportsOnEarth.com's Michael Pina.

The concerns are certainly valid. For all of New Orleans' maneuvers, Davis still stands as the roster's lone star.

With that said, the Pelicans' logic isn't hard to follow. They can sense the opportunity that having a talent like Davis affords them, and they're trying to take advantage of it.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

It's hard to say what exactly the Pelicans have constructed, because it hasn't been seen in action yet.

Davis, Holiday, Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson missed a combined 151 games last season. The Pelicans' most talented five-man lineup shared the floor for all of 91 minutes, via NBA.com.

The sample size is probably too small to yield any truths, but the limited look we had showed the potential for an offensive machine. During those 91 minutes, the Pelicans averaged 123.5 points per 100 possessions. To put that figure into perspective, the Los Angeles Clippers had the league's most efficient offense, scoring at a rate of 109.4 points per 100 trips.

Gordon (career 36.8 three-point percentage), Holiday (37.6) and Anderson (38.6) are all above-average perimeter shooters. All three wings are capable of creating for themselves or for others off the dribble, and Davis is one of the most dangerous screen-setters in the business.

Whether one likes New Orleans' approach or not, the talent that has been put in place is undeniable.

Had they stayed healthy, the Pelicans could have been a good team last season. Their offense ranked inside the top half (104.7 offensive rating, 13th overall), but their defense was far too generous (107.3 defensive rating, tied for 25th). They were especially vulnerable on the interior, allowing opponents to shoot 62.8 percent inside the restricted area, which tied for the sixth-highest rate in the league, per NBA.com.

That's what made Asik so attractive. The Turkish center held opponents to 47.7 percent shooting at the rim in 2013-14, a lower rate than his old teammate Dwight Howard (47.8) and his new teammate Davis (48.9), via NBA.com's player-tracking data.

There are different schools of thought regarding what type of frontcourt mate Davis needs: a stretch big with three-point range or a burly brute to withstand the physical punishment on the low block. The Pelicans have given him both options, and he was quick to welcome the new help:

"This is going to help my game a lot," Davis said of Asik's addition, via Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "I like playing the 4. Now I get a chance to work on more stuff, knowing that I’ll be playing the 4 a lot more than I have in the past couple of years."

If Asik makes Davis' life easier—and it's hard to see how he wouldn't—then this was worth the investment. Every move needs to be made with the 21-year-old in mind, and it looks like they have been.

The Pelicans, when healthy, have the gazelles to complement Davis' freakish physical tools. They have frontcourt combinations to lighten his load on either end of the floor.

Most importantly, they have the pieces to contend for a postseason spot. Some might cry foul at the thought of sacrificing assets to chase a low-level playoff berth, but, as Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune noted, the front office could be attempting to send Davis a message "that the Pelicans fully intend to upgrade the roster and become playoff-relevant."

Whether you or I agree with the thought process is moot. What's important for the Pelicans is that Davis sounds absolutely receptive to that message.

"Everybody wants to make the playoffs, and we are going to be there. We are pushing for next year," he said, via Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune. "Everybody is coming back stronger and better. I really think next year could be our year."

In case you're wondering, yes, that stronger and better comment includes Davis himself. He looks massive at Team USA practice, even by his standards:

What that means for the Pelicans' playoff hopes remains to be seen. The Western Conference is a minefield once again, and New Orleans will need a special kind of season from Davis to have a special one of its own.

Of course, even if the Pelicans had practiced patience with their rebuild, that would still have likely been the case. If they had fumbled a few of those picks they traded away, they might not have ever had a shot at competing with Davis.

This roster gives the Pelicans a puncher's chance, and Davis sure looks like he's packing knockout power.

Hogan noted that the rising star is attempting to add "the corner [three]-point shot, more post moves and a pull-up jumper off the dribble" to his arsenal. Assistant coach Kevin Hanson told Pelicans.com they're trying to get Davis "more comfortable putting the ball down multiple times...kind of similar to what Chris Bosh is doing now."

In other words, Davis' best is yet to come.

"I know how good he is now, but I know how good he's going to be," Kevin Durant said after a recent USA Basketball practice, per Eichenhofer. "He's an MVP-caliber player. So he's next. He's next in line."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If Davis is ready to ascend, why shouldn't the Pelicans be trying to rise the ranks with him? Isn't the lack of team success one of the main forces driving Kevin Love away from the Minnesota Timberwolves? Is anyone remotely certain that Davis would prefer waiting things out and hoping the franchise connects on multiple first-round picks as opposed to contending for a playoff spot right now?

For that matter, who even knows where the Pelicans' ceiling sits for next season?

Anderson just turned 26 in May, and he's the senior member of New Orleans' talented, returning quintet. All of these players have room to grow, as does the 28-year-old Asik. He was a double-double machine in his only season as a full-time starter, and this time around he has the added motivation of playing for his next contract.

The Pelicans are trying. That might not mean much to everyone, but if Davis appreciates the effort, that could be invaluable when his rookie contract is up.

There is no right way to handle a budding superstar. Surrounding him with a playoff-caliber supporting cast might prove to be the best possible path.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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