The New Orleans Pelicans caught the nation’s eye in the first round of last year’s playoffs by putting up a strong effort against the soon-to-be-champion Golden State Warriors. Since then, the spotlight on rising star Anthony Davis has grown brighter by the day. Now, as the season looms, all eyes are on New Orleans, watching to see if the Pellies can pull clear of the chaotic hunt for the Western Conference’s eighth seed and take their place among the best teams in the league.
What Happened Last Year
The 2014-15 season felt like the beginning of something in New Orleans, with the players and franchise both reaching new heights. Davis was voted into the All-Star Game as a starter for the first time, and capped the season by being selected as First Team All-NBA. The franchise posted their first-ever winning record as the Pelicans and reached the postseason for the first time since Chris Paul’s final trip with the then-Hornets in 2011. In their series against the Warriors they started three players – Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Davis – who were playing in the postseason for the first time in their careers, and a fourth, Quincy Pondexter, who was making his first career playoff starts.
The building sense of anticipation for the coming season doesn’t just come from the achievements themselves; the team earned their laurels in spectacular ways. The Pellies fought for their playoff spot until the final seconds of their season’s last game, holding off the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to preserve their tiebreaker over the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth seed. That tiebreaker, by the way, was earned when Davis made his only three-pointer of the season in the final seconds of a tied game, off the inbounds and over two defenders. It was the very definition of a superstar play, one of those single moments, like Achilles joining the battle against the Trojans on the very edge of the Achaean encampment, which comes to define the whole story.
With the singular greatness of The Brow acting as their gravitational center, the rest of the team began to fall into their proper orbits around him. Even with starting point guard Jrue Holiday once again missing more than 40 games, the Pellies’ chemistry continued to develop. Gordon shot 44.8 percent from three for the season, good for second-best in the NBA behind Hawks sniper Kyle Korver. Evans averaged nearly seven assists filling in at the point for the injured Holiday, and backup center Alexis Ajinça put up a PER of 19.9 while shooting 55 percent from the field. It was clear that the team was beginning to come together, and while no player managed to suit up for all 82 games, it seems clear that there could be another level for them if everyone stays on the floor.
What Happened This Summer
The Pelicans didn’t do much this offseason, but the few moves they made could be enough to change everything for them. Barely two weeks after their loss to the Warriors, they fired coach Monty Williams and began to interview replacement candidates. They found their man before the Finals even started, tapping Golden State assistant coach Alvin Gentry to take the reins.
The hiring gave the world video of Gentry, drenched in champagne, promising Davis they were “coming right back here” as the Warriors title celebration raged around him. It gave the Pelicans a highly-regarded head coach who was instrumental in designing the offense that carried the Dubs to the championship. And it gave the fans a summer spent on the edges of their seats, fantasizing about how beautiful it would be to watch Anthony Davis and the rest of the Pelicans’ exciting young players in Gentry’s free-flowing, fast-paced system.
The team’s management must have had the same visions, because they they re-signed free agents Ajinça, Ömer Asik and Dante Cunningham, and also locked up Davis with a max extension. They also added Kendrick Perkins for his patented brand of veteran leadership, brought back Luke Babbitt at the minimum and kept restricted free agent Norris Cole with the qualifying offer.
The Pelicans’ final roster is still in flux, as six players vie for the final two roster spots. Preseason injuries to Cole, Ajinça and Asik have left point guard and center looking thinner than a Looney Tune that got run over with a steam roller, giving the Pellies clear needs for the remaining openings. While there’s a lot of preseason left to play, this was heartbreaking news for those of us hoping fan-favorite forward and Twitter legend Chris Douglas-Roberts would stick in New Orleans.
If you’re taking a strict constructionist approach to the term, a team’s key player will always be their best player. This is also, by far, the most boring approach one could take, so as much fun as it would be to just rant about how watching Anthony Davis play warps your understanding of movement and spatial relativity like an M.C. Escher drawing, it’s probably better to pick someone else. It makes the choice difficult however, as the Pelicans’ injury history means they have a surprising wealth of potential X-factors on the roster.
To simplify things, lets just call the entire Holiday/Gordon backcourt the biggest key to this season for New Orleans. Both players have been limited by injuries over the course of their careers; Holiday to such an extent that the Sixers were forced to pay $3 million in damages to the Pellies for not disclosing his full medical records before the trade. However, when healthy, both have played at or near an All-Star level.
Holiday has a reputation as one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and the numbers tend to back it up. The Pelicans played the Thunder four times last season, but Holiday only suited up to guard Russell Westbrook in two of them. According to The Bird Writes, Westbrook’s combined stats in those two games: 50 points, 15 assists, 11 rebounds and 13 turnovers, at an eFG% of 35.1 percent. In the two games where Holiday was injured, those numbers skyrocketed to 93/17/15, with only nine turnovers and an eFG% of 56.8 percent. Four games is the definition of a small sample size, but any sample against the best point guard in the NBA should count for something. Holiday’s +3.5 net rating from last season, which was second on the team after Davis, counts for something too.
Eric Gordon’s 2014-15 wasn’t as impressive as Holiday’s, although he did play in substantially more games. To make the case for his potential as a transformative player for this New Orleans team, you have to look back to 2010-11, his final year with the Clippers. Back then, Gordon, the prize of the Chris Paul trade, was a rising star averaging 22 points, four assists, and 2.9 rebounds with an eFG% of 50.6 percent. He was traded to New Orleans before the following season and has played in only 176 of a possible 312 games since.
Gordon will probably never return to being the player who Slam Magazine thought was the third-best shooting guard in the league, but there’s still reason to hope for big things from him this season. He’s only 26 years old, just entering his prime and still younger than Ty Lawson, Mike Conley and Russell Westbrook. He’s also avoided surgery since April 16th 2014, meaning he’s had a full, healthy offseason to work on his conditioning, strength and game.
He’s already shown traces of the court vision he showed in LA, averaging 4.2 assists after his return to the floor in January of last year. If he can continue to hit a Korver-esque percentage of his threes and reclaim even some of the dribble penetration that used to define his game, he and Holiday will be one of the most dangerous backcourt duos in the Association.
In his third season, Kevin Durant made a huge leap, leading his team out of the lottery and into the first round of the playoffs, where they lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. That offseason, Oklahoma City signed Durant to a max extension; the team eventually reached the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
In his third season, Anthony Davis made a huge leap, leading his team out of the lottery and into the first round of the playoffs, where they lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. This offseason, New Orleans signed Davis to a max extension, and if everything goes right, the team will eventually reach the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
There are a lot of differences between the two situations, first and foremost the Pelicans lack of Westbrook and Serge Ibaka types who are developing alongside Davis. But even though the Pellies failed to take two games from the future champs like the Thunder did, the Western Conference Finals are absolutely within reach for this team. New Orleans was better than its record last year, but they were unable to play to their potential due to the rash of injuries that’s plagued them for the last few seasons.
While it’s hard to be optimistic with so many key players already out, it’s also hard to ignore the fact that the Pelicans are eighth in pace this preseason among NBA teams, up from 27th last year. It’s hard to ignore how bad the whole team wants this, how careful they’re being with Jrue Holiday and how hard he is working to stay on the floor. But more than anything else, it’s hard to ignore Anthony Davis. By the end of this season, he could very well be the best player in the world. It seems foolish to underestimate his team.
Prediction: 55-27, Loss in the Western Conference Finals