The New Orleans Pelicans were very aggressive last offseason in an attempt to upgrade their talent and make their squad more competitive immediately. The team traded the sixth overall draft pick in the 2013 draft, which became Nerlens Noel, and a top-five protected 2014 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holiday and the 42nd pick in the 2013 draft, which became Pierre Jackson. Next, the Pelicans acquired former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans along with the rights to Jeff Withey in a three-team sign-and-trade deal that Greivis Vasquez to the Sacramento Kings and Robin Lopez and Terrel Harris to the Portland Trail Blazers.
The two trades would be the Pelicans’ most noteworthy moves of the summer, but wouldn’t be their last. The team stayed active in free agency, bringing in a number of under the radar players such as Greg Stiemsma, Anthony Morrow and Alexis Ajinca as well as re-signing Al-Farouq Aminu to fill out the team’s roster.
The Pelicans’ flurry of activity during the offseason showed their immediate desire to be more competitive. Holiday and Evans were considerable investments and considerable returns were expected. The additions paired with Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and a rising superstar in Anthony Davis had Pelicans fans yearning for a playoff berth. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, the injury bug hit the team pretty hard, significantly depleting their roster. The team fought hard throughout season, but failed to ever climb into playoff contention in the tough Western Conference. However, with a little bit better luck and continued growth, this team could find itself in the playoffs very soon. Here’s what needs to happen for the Pelicans to turn things around next season:
Key Pieces Need to Get Healthy
For the Pelicans, the biggest reason for their lack of success this season may have been their inability to stay healthy. Injuries made it impossible to know how the team would look at full strength. Davis was knocked out for a stretch in December with a broken hand, causing his to miss seven games. Anderson has been out since early January with a back injury, and recently it was decided that he will need to have surgery before returning next season. Holiday missed a good portion of the year with a right tibia fracture in early January that, like Anderson, would keep him out for the remainder of the season. The team also lost big man Jason Smith in mid-January to a knee injury that required surgery. Gordon, the most likely candidate to miss time due to injury given his history, has recently had some issues with knee tendinitis that caused him to miss games over the last couple weeks.
Now, it could be said about almost any team in the league that you need good health to win, but for the Pelicans they need good health just to see what they have. They have assembled some interesting pieces, but they have yet to play everyone together for a significant stretch and see how their players will mesh. With each key piece sustaining injuries throughout the campaign, the chance for the group to jell and develop chemistry was very limited. If these players can come back in good health next year, the team should show improvement just by being fully healthy.
Continue to Develop (and Feature) Anthony Davis
The Pelicans have done what many NBA teams spend years trying to do: find their superstar. In his second season in the NBA, Davis has been outstanding. Davis has managed to improve on his strong rookie campaign, leading the team in scoring (20.8 points per game) and rebounding (10 boards per game). Even more impressive has been his impact on the defensive end, where Davis is leading the league in shot blocking (2.8 per game) and his presence in the paint alone deters opposing players from attacking the rim. Davis a game changer on defense, with his gigantic wingspan and excellent instincts. This, couple with his improved offensive game, has allowed the 21-year-old to become one of the league’s most valuable players.
Davis is the best player on the Pelicans’ roster and presumably will be for the next decade. He, more than any other player, will determine just how far this team will go. Even though he has already proven that he can produce at an elite level, there is still some room for growth. His post game still could use a little polish and while he has improved his body since his rookie year, it still wouldn’t hurt to add some more weight and muscle to his frame. He has worked on his range and his jumper is coming along nicely; his ability to hit outside shots consistently in the future will really make him a difficult matchup. With his quickness, Davis will be able to blow past opposing big men if they do not close out under control and if he can continue to hit from the outside, that will often be the case.
The Pelicans have to treat Davis as their most prized possession. He is the franchise. The team did the hard part, finding a big-time player in the draft. Now, they need continue to groom him and surround him with as much talent as possible to fully take advantage of his abilities.
Decide What to Do with Eric Gordon
As previously mentioned, Gordon has recently been injured – a phrase that has been said far too many times over the last few years. The shooting guard has struggled to stay on the floor, having only played over 70 games in a season once in his career (back in 2008-09). The team was rumored to be gauging interest in Gordon at the trade deadline, in search of a trade partner to take the 25-year-old off their hands.
It will be very difficult for team to rid themselves of Gordon, who was signed to a four-year deal worth over $58 million in July 2012. That comes out to over $14 million per season and makes him the highest paid player on the roster. His high salary and injury history make him a huge risk, one that frankly is just not worth it for most teams.
If the team is unable to move Gordon, they will go forward with him as a starting guard playing off the ball. When Gordon can manage to stay healthy, he does provide a nice punch from outside. Even after missing time the last couple weeks, Gordon still remains the team leader in three-pointers made with 102 at 39.1 percent. It will be tough for Gordon to ever play up to his huge contract, but if he can manage to stay healthy and continue to make shots from the outside it will certainly help in getting the Pelicans closer to a playoff berth.
Figure Out How to Use Tyreke Evans
The Pelicans brought in Evans last offseason with the intent to bring him off the bench, using him in a similar capacity as the San Antonio Spurs have long used Manu Ginobili. The idea being that the team could really utilize his playmaking ability off the bench and it would allow Evans more opportunities to have the ball in his hands. Lately, however, Evans has been starting and playing very well. In March, Evans averaged 20.4 points per game, 6.7 assists per game and four rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field, by far his best month as a Pelican. Yes, some of his increased production can be attributed to the fact that there just weren’t many other options around him, but it’s still a noticeable (and impressive) jump since moving into the starting lineup.
When fully healthy, the Pelicans must decide where Evans fits best. He loves to play with the ball in his hands and penetrate the defense; the problem arises when he is not the primary ballhandler and becomes complacent. Ideally, the Pelicans would like to have their second-highest paid player on the floor as often as possible. If Monty Williams can find a way for Evans and Holiday to coexist productively on the court together, it could make for a potent attack. At the same time, Anderson and Gordon should benefit greatly from playing with Evans, since his ability to attack the rim and force help to come should create a number of three-point chances for the team’s two best shooters.
The team’s most talented lineup would be Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Davis; if they can manage to get that group playing well together, they should be able to score the ball at a pretty good clip. It would be asking a lot of Davis on the defensive end considering outside of Holiday the three other players are not exactly lock-down defenders. But this could be a very formidable group if they can learn to play together.