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Fixing the New Orleans Pelicans

Where do the New Orleans Pelicans go from here? Here’s what needs to happen for the Pelicans to turn things around next season.

John Zitzler

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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.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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