The case for the New Orleans Pelicans reaching the 2014-15 postseason isn't all that hard to make.
In Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could have one of the league's elite two-way players and a real MVP candidate.
Jrue Holiday, consistently one of the most underrated point guards in the league, is healthy again.
Omer Asik, one of the better overall defensive centers in basketball, was acquired from the Houston Rockets without having to give up any current talent.
Ryan Anderson, maybe the league's very best stretch 4, is healthy. As are two potentially explosive wings in Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans.
Put all those pieces together, and hope for some much better injury luck, and yes, the Pelicans can absolutely contend for the No. 8 seed in a difficult Western Conference and maybe even more.
The question, however, isn't whether or not the Pelicans are capable of reaching the playoffs. They are. It's more about who the weak link is and who might keep the Pelicans from reaching their high ceiling this upcoming year.
Whom to count on
While it's easy to dream on the potential of the Pelicans roster, it's prudent to look at whom you can count on for reliable production.
You can safely pencil in Davis to be one of the best frontcourt players in the league next season, so long as he can stay on the floor. Even if Davis plateaus completely, which won't happen, his 20 points, 10 rebounds and nearly three blocks a contest are the building blocks for a great offense and defense. He had a player efficiency rating of 26.5, as a 20-year-old, for goodness' sake.
We could explore the merits of Davis for much longer, but essentially what I'm saying is he's not the weak link here or on any basketball team he'll ever play for.
During Davis' first two years, however, the center next to him has routinely been a weak link, especially last season. With Omer Asik added this offseason, though, the Pelicans should be getting bankable production.
The variance of Asik's play and stats in his four seasons in the league has been minimal. Aside from blocking more shots with the Chicago Bulls and rebounding at a higher rate with the Houston Rockets, Asik is a relatively well-known entity. He'll use his size and mobility to defend pick-and-roll action and protect the rim while cleaning the glass.
Here's what Monty Williams told Jim Eichenhofer at NBA.com about the combo of Asik and Davis:
I think Omer is going to be able to take some pressure off AD as far as guarding other bigs.
AD can go challenge shots and not worry about the backside of the defense, as much as we have in the past. Both of those guys are great rebounders. They both can challenge shots and they can play off of each other, as far as getting rebounds and not allowing offensive rebounds, especially late in the shot clock, which is something we struggled with last season.
It would be a surprise if Asik were anything but the solid defensive center he's shown in the past that he definitely is.
Having a reliable frontcourt defensively will be huge for the Pelicans, and the return of Jrue Holiday should help tremendously on that front as well.
Holiday is a really strong on-ball defender, and he should limit some of the penetration that's gashed New Orleans over the years. Perhaps more importantly, Holiday is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter, so he should help space the floor for Davis when he's not running pick-and-roll action with him.
Regarding what Davis needs, Monty Williams told Zach Lowe of Grantland: “What hurts him now 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.”
Although he may not be considered elite, Holiday doesn't really have too many weak spots in his game, aside from his inability to draw fouls at the rim and lack of an efficient scoring weapon in the paint. He can do a little bit of everything for you, and he should be dynamic with Davis so long as he's healthy.
In Davis, Asik and Holiday, the Pelicans have a dependable trio on both ends to lead them.
Potential weak links
All of the major questions for New Orleans come on the wing.
Ryan Anderson has proved to be an effective stretch 4 over the course of his career, and in a reduced role as a bench scorer and third big man who can take advantage of matchups, he can be a really nice piece. You just have to hope he's fully recovered from his spinal injury that caused him to miss most of last year.
Out of the major players, that leaves Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans as the players who could throw the balance all off. Everyone else seems to have established roles and a decent mesh, but Evans and Gordon are much tougher to peg.
It's a little scary, but New Orleans' playoff hopes may rest upon which Evans shows up for the 2014-15 season.
Evans looked like two different players over the course of last year, and that's because he was.
As a starter (22 games): 35.3 minutes, 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 56.4 true shooting percentage.
As a reserve (50 games): 25.0 minutes, 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 46.8 true shooting percentage.
Evans came on strong over the course of last year as he got healthier, but here's Bleacher Report's Ian Levy explaining what's important to take from that:
Ultimately, which position Evans plays is much less important than the players he's on the floor with and what offensive responsibilities he's given.
We can see that in the splits between those two obvious roles that appeared open when Evans was first acquired. As the offensive focal point for the second unit, he has struggled mightily.
Basically, Evans works best next to other great players, as he struggles to find efficient opportunities for himself when the spacing is poor and defenses are locked in on him. He hasn't been the sixth man New Orleans envisioned, so he may need a more substantial and consistent role.
Of course, that might leave Gordon in a tough spot.
Here's Bleacher Report's Dave Leonardis with more on that:
The idea of a $15 million sixth man is a tough pill to swallow. You then factor in Gordon's inability to stay healthy. After that, there's New Orleans' glaring hole at small forward and the need for quality depth behind a promising starting rotation.
When you add all of that together, you get a clear understanding that Gordon needs to go.
Trading Gordon and his large salary is going to be awfully difficult, but Evans and Gordon may need to find a way to coexist for the Pelicans to reach their potential.
New Orleans just doesn't have a great three-and-D option at small forward who would be ideal next to the other starters, so playing Evans and Gordon together might be viewed as the best option.
That wing combination wasn't very effective last season, though. According to NBA.com's media stats site, in the 752 minutes Gordon and Evans shared the floor last season, the Pelicans had a net efficiency rating of minus-8.1.
The pairing posted a defensive rating of 115.2, by far the worst of any two-man pairing that played a minimum of 500 minutes together last year for New Orleans.
Will the Pelicans make the playoffs with their current roster?
Ultimately, if the Pelicans do stick with this group and see if it can work, Gordon may have to make the most concessions, even if he does remain as the starting shooting guard with Evans playing the 3.
He'll have to settle into a role as more of a spot-up threat than he's been in his first three seasons, and he'll have to defend with much more intensity on the other end. Gordon is certainly capable of doing both of those things, but he'll have to ramp it up in order to justify his minutes, salary and role on a potential playoff team.
Aside from health, the success of the Pelicans will likely depend on which versions of Gordon and Evans show up on a nightly basis. There's just too much being invested, both in terms of playing time and salary, for New Orleans not to get consistent production from its wings, but that hasn't happened quite yet.
If you're looking for the weak link of this team, it's the wings.
All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.