New Orleans Pelicans Complete 2016-17 Preview

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 2, 2016

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Tyreke Evans #1, Anthony Davis #23, Buddy Hield #24 and Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans pose for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Media Day on September 23, 2016 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/NBAE via Getty Images)
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Nearly a month before the 2015-16 NBA season ended, New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry decided he'd seen enough. His big-league coaching career, which began in 1988, had twisted and turned more times than he could count. But it had never caused more headaches than his first 82-game marathon with the Pellies did.

"This is the most frustrating season I've ever been through," Gentry said in March, per ESPN.com's Justin Verrier. "When I left Golden State to come here, I thought it was the best job available."

In one season, Gentry had gone from being the offensive mastermind of the world champion Warriors to the hamstrung skipper of the reeling Pelicans. New Orleans couldn't build off its 2015 playoff breakthrough and instead limped to a 30-52 finish—losing 15 more games than the previous year; the biggest decrease in the league last season, per Bleacher Report Insightslowlighted by a rash of injuries that limited all but two Pelicans to fewer than 70 games.

Health alone won't right the ship, but New Orleans used the offseason for more than rest and recovery. A concerted effort was made to strengthen the ranks around franchise anchor Anthony Davis: The Pelicans kept their first-round pick for the first time since snagging Davis in 2012, then prioritized up-and-coming prospects over flashy signings in free agency.

This newfound patience may help eventually construct a contender, but does the Big Easy have reasons to hope for more immediate relief?

      

Biggest Offseason Move

Jun 23, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Buddy Hield (Oklahoma) gestures to the crowd while standing with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number six overall pick to the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at Barc
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Buddy Hield is by no means a risk-free addition. He'll turn 23 in December, so his ceiling could sit lower than most lottery picks. Plus, he needs to prove he's more than a three-point specialist by sharpening his offensive creativity and extending his influence to the defensive end.

But the sixth overall pick brings hope and quick-strike scoring potential to an organization in need of both. If he's anything like the Buddy Buckets that Oklahoma Sooners fans saw last year—averaging 25 points on 50.1 percent shooting and 45.7 percent from three—New Orleans could have its key to unlocking Gentry's offense and unleashing an even more dominant Davis.

"I'm a scorer. I can shoot the ball a lot—love to shoot," Hield told reporters. "And I feel like when I go there, I can open up the floor for Anthony Davis and other guys to be able to penetrate."

The Pelicans need Hield's shooting to hold up. They only had a mediocre perimeter attack last season—15th in total makes, ninth in percentage—and lost their top two snipers to free agency (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson).

But those subtractions were part of a calculated plan to improve a 28th-ranked defense. The free-agent money given to Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Terrence Jones was all directed at strengthening their stopping power. Ditto the draft-night deal to acquire Cheick Diallo.

      

Rotation Breakdown

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 23: Tyreke Evans #1 and Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 23, 2015 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

New Orleans will start the 2016-17 season with a rotation in flux. The Pelicans are already missing three key pieces: Jrue Holiday, who's on an indefinite leave to care for his wife; and Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter, both of whom are recovering from knee injuries.

It's not a stretch to think Davis is the only player penciled into the opening-night lineup, and even he could have some flexibility. Now standing 6'11" and 250 pounds, the single-browed superstar would give this offense more spacing and a modern feel by handling full-time duty at center.

"Teams that play smaller and more mobile big men tend to struggle with rim protection and rebounding. ... There is no such trade-off with Davis," Jonathan Tjarks wrote for the Ringer. "... He gives the Pelicans a player who can match up with the biggest players in the league on defense, and then take them out on the perimeter on offense."

Playing Davis at the 5 would lessen the damage done by immobile space-killer Omer Asik, who's not at all built for this offense. It would also open up minutes at power forward for the likes of Hill, Pondexter and Jones, all of whom are capable long-distance shooters. 

But Gentry seems to view that as doable only in certain matchups. Given Davis' injury history, the Pellies may rather Asik and Alexis Ajinca absorb the interior wear-and-tear.

And New Orleans could keep Evans—or Moore for now—ahead of Hield while the rookie makes his big-league transition. If he proves his readiness, the Pelicans won't keep him out of the starting lineup, especially if they fall out of the playoff race. And even though Davis is the starting 4, he'll see ample time at center to give Gentry's system its best shot at success.

New Orleans Pelicans Projected 2016-17 Rotation
PGSGSFPFC
Jrue HolidayTyreke EvansSolomon HillAnthony DavisOmer Asik
Langston GallowayBuddy HieldQuincy PondexterTerrence JonesAlexis Ajinca
Tim FrazierE'Twaun MooreAlonzo GeeDante Cunningham
Cheick Diallo
Source: Basketball Insiders

But the question is how often (or if) Gentry will have all these players at his disposal. Not to mention, if Lance Stephenson turns his non-guaranteed pact into something permanent, he should see significant minutes as a second-team playmaker and defensive agitator.

      

Reasons for Confidence

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans poses for a portrait during the 2016-2017 NBA Media Day on September 23, 2016 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Davis is a monster—he's averaged at least 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in each of the last two seasons. No one else did it once. He has the fourth-highest player efficiency rating over his four-year career (min. 100 games) and was the overwhelming choice of NBA general managers last season as their preferred franchise building block.

If New Orleans can right the ship around Davis, the franchise can spring up the standings. Prior to last season, the Pelicans had played each season with the Brow better than the last one, climbing from 21 wins before his arrival to 45 in 2014-15.

"Davis doesn't need a ton," Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote. "Give him even the slightest bit of creative help and his production will pop. Bring him along in the right kind of defensive ecosystem and he'll cover ground as effectively as any big in the league while swatting away anything within his incredible wingspan."

To wit: Lacking proper support last season, Davis still produced the league's first 50-point, 20-rebound outing in over a decade.

The Pellies will feel the absence of Gordon and Anderson, but the right amount of player development could make this a better, more balanced roster. Both Hill and Moore posted personal-best PERs and flashed positional versatility last season. Jones and Stephenson have shown skill sets several levels above their clearance-priced pay grades.

      

Reasons for Concern

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 08:  Omer Asik #3 watches as Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans leaves the court with a back injury during the first half of a game against the Indiana Pacers at the Smoothie King Center on January 8, 2016 in New Orlea
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Pelicans enter this campaign with fewer proven commodities than their last go-round, and several of the ones they have aren't available. Unless Davis is even more superhuman than before, New Orleans could be taking one step back for several forward moves down the line.

It's probably a better strategy than the win-now mantra New Orleans adopted upon Davis' arrival, and it isn't akin to punting this season. Hield's perceived readiness earned him bonus points with the Pels, while expectations are high for Hill and Moore to contribute right away.

Still, the injury issues from last season haven't gone away, but some of the top skill sets have. That makes it hard to see how New Orleans can reverse its downward trend.

As NBC Sports' Dan Feldman observed, the Pellies' new roster pieces don't all fit the same puzzle:

This influx of young talent could help, but it's far from a given.

New Orleans has invested too heavily in Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, centers who don't really fit Alvin Gentry’s offense. Compounding the problem, those bigswho shift Davis to more power forwardmean Hill will primarily play small forward. Hill's ball-handling and outside shooting are much bigger assets at power forward.

Remember, this defense is starting from the cellar, so it needs a substantial jump just to reach mediocrity. And if the defensive gains carry offensive costs, New Orleans could be no better off or in even worse shape.

      

Predictions

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

It's hard to bet against Davis, especially with a mind as sharp as Gentry's calling the shots. But this franchise wouldn't feel more snake-bitten if a cobra had its fangs in King Cake Baby.

Unless Hield is an opening-night star, New Orleans won't have a double-browed self-sufficient scorer until Holiday and Evans return. The paint-clogging combo of Asik and Ajinca will keep this offense from reaching its potential. And despite a heavy defensive slant to their summer moves, the Pelicans don't have anyone who finished among the top 50 in defensive real plus-minus last season, per ESPN.com.

They'll be relevant as long as Davis is healthy and pesky once Holiday comes back. Hield is a longterm keeper, and Diallo appears to be too. Hill and Moore could both find themselves retroactively added to the 2016 summer's best-buy lists.

But New Orleans isn't ready for the Western Conference playoff party. This offseason should help the Pels eventually reach that point, but they're not there yet. 

      

  • Final Record: 36-46
  • Division Standing: Fifth in Southwest
  • Playoff Berth: No
  • B/R League-wide Power Rankings Prediction: 25th

      

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

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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