The New Orleans Pelicans can get there.
This season was a step in the right direction—they made it. For the first time since Chris Paul was rocking those sweet Hornet stripes, New Orleans had a say in the postseason conversation.
But this team should want more: Winning in the playoffs looks pretty fun, doesn’t it?
Whether it’s blowing out an inferior opponent in the opening round, hitting buzzer-beaters in the conference semifinals or dethroning a dynasty, the Pelicans are capable of becoming the next playoff story as soon as next year.
Getting Anthony Davis to sign on long-term is the most important and obvious aspect of building a winner. The All-Star is slated to hit the market in the summer of 2017, but according to ESPN's Marc Stein, the team is prepared to offer AD a five-year, $140 million max-extension this offseason.
That kind of goes without saying, though. What else does NOLA have to do in order to push their playoff streak to a deuce?
Step 1: Keep Putting Fans in the Seats
Davis is well on his way to becoming recognized as the world’s premier basketball player. He provides at least two or three SportsCenter Top 10 nominees every single night, and it’s usually more than that. AD is approaching the LeBron James level of must-see entertainment.
And yet, especially early in the year, it seemed like the the Pels had very little support at the Smoothie King Center. Even during their rare nationally televised games, fan turnout was low. Alarmingly low. According to ESPN, the Pelicans averaged the 24th-fewest fans on a nightly basis.
But then came the playoffs, and out of the woodwork came the fans.
Here's more from my recent slideshow on the team’s top moments of 2014-15:
New Orleans sold out its final regular-season showdown with the San Antonio Spurs—which was essentially a playoff game—as well as Game 3 against Golden State. The home crowd had a “red-out” that night, and it seemed like everyone except for Mr. Uni-Bra took part.
Local icon and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was in attendance. The building was rocking. It was kind of a “we have arrived” moment for the Pels.
It didn’t matter the Golden State Warriors broke out the brooms. The fans didn’t just show up, they showed out.
It was the absolute loudest and liveliest that building has been since Davis was drafted. Next season, fans need to support from Day 1, though.
Back in February, after the Pels snapped the Atlanta Hawks’ 19-game winning streak in front of a lively crowd on national TV, AD urged the fanbase for continued support:
But for the most part, he didn’t get it until the playoffs.
“They better be there,” Quincy Pondexter said of the fans before that Spurs game, per Scott Kushner of The Advocate (Baton Rouge). “They better show up early. I can wake them all up if they want me to. We need our fans to be there, be loud and be proud and believe in us.”
That’s what the Pelicans needed down the stretch, and that's part of what they’ll need to remain one of the top eight teams in the Western Conference next season.
Step 2: Continue Building Around Davis
Instead of the phrase "build around" just being an example of media-talk, general manager Dell Demps has made it reality. He’s surrounded his 23-year-old future legend with players who complement him.
Take Austin Rivers, for example. The shooting guard, who never could find his footing with NOLA, has been thriving under his father with the Los Angeles Clippers this postseason. But his isolation-heavy game never meshed with Davis.
Pondexter, the key piece in the deal that sent Rivers out of New Orleans, looks like a tremendous long-term piece next to AD. The forward can drill three-pointers (43.3 percent since the trade) and slash, but doesn’t dominate the ball or cry about touches. Q-Pon is total pit bull on the defensive end, too.
Similarly, point guard Norris Cole—who was acquired in the Goran Dragic deal for the low price of John Salmons—looks extremely comfortable with Davis.
Eight of NOLA’s 14 players are bound to hit free agency this summer, as noted by John Reid of The Times Picayune, and the front office needs to be careful with its approach. Demps must stay active over the summer and even during the regular season.
But there’s a difference between being proactive and trigger-happy.
Making moves for the sake of making them will set this team back to the conference’s bottom seven. All it will take is a few missteps and a squad like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz will slide right in past the Pels.
First and foremost is Omer Asik, the bruising big fella who formed a formidable front with Davis in the paint.
“Omer certainly added great value to our team,” coach Monty Williams said after losing to the Warriors, per Reid. ”So he's highly valued by this organization.”
Asik and fellow 7-footer Alexis Ajinca need to be New Orleans’ top priorities. Asik is a viable option next to Davis, while Ajinca is a nice fill-in. Outside of those two, the Pels could use a three-and-D wing and some added depth at shooting guard.
The draft will provide an opportunity to fill one of those holes. The free-agent and trade markets are the other avenues to explore.
As long as the Pels keep doing what they’ve been doing—actively fitting pieces around Davis—the roster shouldn't be a problem.
Step 3: Figure Out the Coaching Situation
Williams deserves to coach the Pelicans next season.
He trudged through a rebuild, helped mold a superstar, stopped the ship from flipping on a rocky sea of injuries, kept a wounded team from giving up and, most of all, led the Pels to the postseason.
But according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the last bullet was the only one that held any weight:
In what would’ve been a painfully short-sighted decision, Williams reportedly nearly lost his job based on the outcome of a single game (against the Spurs).
Throughout the season, like the front office (if Woj's report is true), Pelicans fans were extremely disrespectful to Williams. Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports reported that the coach asked his family members to stay home so they didn’t hear him booed in introductions.
It’s weird because I’ve never seen that done in a rebuild. I always try to focus on the people that come every day, the people that support us. I hear that stuff. My biggest worry is my family sits behind me. I don’t want my wife and kids hearing that.
There have been times where I told her to stay home. And that bothered me that I had to tell my wife and kids to stay home because our fans were booing me and we were winning games. That’s the only time that bothered me.
Rumors have swirled about Williams’ future with the team. Is he the franchise guy, or just some lame duck in the final year of his contract?
As a sign of trust, coaches and GMs are often extended prior to the final year of their deal in order to make the focus on organizational success rather than saving their job.
But on March 31, Williams said "no [contract extension] talks have occurred before declining further comment,” per Reid.
This is something that needs to get hashed out before the 2015-16 campaign begins. If the Pels want to fire Williams, (1) they’d be wrong and (2) they should do it soon. If he's their guy, he deserves an extension.
Canning a coach midseason never works. It just doesn’t. And on a roster where every player is under 29 years old, stability is a crucial component of success.
Point guard Jrue Holiday said he hopes there won’t be “too many changes,” per Darrell Williams of The Advocate. Ryan Anderson sang his coach’s praises, too: “(Williams) didn’t have an easy job, and he hasn’t since he’s been here…(Williams) did everything he could to make this team successful.”
AD had the strongest—and most meaningful—endorsement:
He has meant so much on the court, helping me read defenses and get better offensively, working with me doing drills, pushing me to be great. He’s a great coach. He takes so much heat, but he doesn’t let it bother him. He focuses on his goal, which is the team and making the organization better, and that’s what he’s done since he’s been here.
The Pelicans can’t let Williams’ future become a distraction during the season. This team needs to focus on competing in one of the hardest conferences in sports, not worry about the job status of their leader.
All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.