If New Orleans stays the course and makes the right moves, they’ll be around for a long time to come…
Although the New Orleans Pelicans were just swept by the Golden State Warriors, there’s reason for hope in the future. With a rapidly changing landscape in the NBA, with teams positioning themselves for trades, tanking for the draft, auctioning off large quantities of assets in desperate attempts to compete at a high level, the Pelicans have as good a chance as anyone to take the next step from a team that barely made the postseason to a serious contender.
- The Brow. The most obvious, Anthony Davis, followed up a monumental regular season—averaging a double-double, posting the highest player efficiency rating in the league, the only one above 30—with a stellar postseason debut, scoring 31.5 points per game while shooting 54 percent from the field. It was clear that even Golden State, one of the league’s best defensive teams, had no idea what to do with Davis. It has been obvious for some time that Davis will succeed James for the best player in the league. What’s most frightening is that this 22-year-old might, given the Kevin Durant injuries, be the second-best player in the league already. Obviously the key for long-term success in New Orleans is to secure Davis with a max deal. It’s no easy task, but it’s what the Pelicans must go all-in for.
- Relative financial freedom. New Orleans lets go of a bunch of small contracts this year and one biggish one—Omer Asik at $8.4 million on the books but $14.9 million in actual salary—but unfortunately they don’t have the immediate room to pursue some of the best free agents in basketball. Still, next year they’ve only got $56 million committed, and once they decide whether or not they’re going to offer Asik an extension, and for how much, then they can begin to build this roster more and more around Davis. One of the biggest surprises, especially for me, who questioned this skill before the season began, was the three-point shooting of New Orleans; they finished in the top five in percentage. The presence of Davis certainly helps with that, and perhaps he learns how to shoot threes at some point. But with this flexibility in the next few years, beginning now and running through 2016-2017, when they only have $3 million committed, the Pelicans must make the right choices.
- The state of the Western Conference. Things out West will remain scary, but there are some successful teams whose postseason longevity will be under duress next year: the Portland Trail Blazers, for instance, might lose LaMarcus Aldridge. What if the aging Spurs say goodbye to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili only to whiff completely on free agents? What’s happening to the Mavericks? When do the Grizzlies reload? And how? Yet the Pelicans, if they can secure Davis, will be around as long as the Brow is.
- The Monty Williams question. There seem to be some similarities between Monty Williams and Scott Brooks and their respective teams. Both coaches are respected by their players, but both coaches have some serious flaws, especially offensively. As happy as the Pelicans were to be in the postseason, the only reason it happened in the first place was because of seriously crippling injuries to the Thunder. Had OKC been anywhere near full health, New Orleans wouldn’t have finished near the playoffs. So, they must be wondering whether Williams is the right guy for the job. It certainly is a question, and although the Pelicans have had no recent success it would—once again because of Davis—be a terribly enticing coaching job.
- Procuring Davis a sidekick. Look at the Pelicans’ roster: The closest thing they have to a superstar, besides Davis, is Tyreke Evans. When Evans is your second-best player, you’re not in a position to compete for a ring. Not in a league that pairs LeBron James with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, or Kevin Durant with Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul with Blake Griffin, and on and on. This is a league of teams modeled in two ways: a core of stars surrounded by veterans (in the fashion of the Miami Heat the last few years), or a roster of depth and supreme coaching. (A la San Antonio and imitated by the Atlanta Hawks this year.) The only team, in my mind, to do both has been the Golden State Warriors. But right now New Orleans is doing neither, as its depth (and certainly the coaching) doesn’t approach Atlanta or San Antonio, and, clearly, there’s no secondary or tertiary star on the roster. They need to fix this. ASAP.
Whether or not the Pelicans remain successful, whether or not they’ll take the next step, depends on two things: If they can re-sign Davis to a max deal, and if they can significantly improve the roster around him. The two will probably go hand in hand.