The New Orleans Pelicans entered the 2015-16 season with a lot of excitement and optimism. The Pelicans won 45 games in the 2014-15 season, made the postseason, were riding the back of Anthony Davis, their young superstar, and had just hired head coach Alvin Gentry to take the team to the next level. On the night the Golden State Warriors won the 2014-15 NBA championship, a celebrating Gentry – then the associate head coach of the Warriors – sent a message to his young superstar: “[Anthony Davis], we’re coming right back here!”
Unfortunately, the 2015-16 season didn’t result in a trip to the NBA Finals, or a trip to the postseason at all. The Pelicans were decimated by injuries (only Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee played in more than 70 regular season games) and were unable to fully implement Gentry’s pass-happy, movement-based offensive system. The hope for this team is that an offseason of rehab and training and will lead to a healthier 2016-17 season, and that Davis will finally be able to shake the injury bug he has struggled with throughout his young NBA career.
The Pelicans also hope that their offseason additions will offset the losses of contributors like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Anderson and Gordon struggled with injuries as well, but when healthy they were two of the Pelicans’ main pieces.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 New Orleans Pelicans.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Pelicans have unfortunately been decimated by injuries in recent seasons, so hopefully this will be the year that trend ends. The Pelicans will only go as far as superstar Anthony Davis will take them, but that means he too will need to overcome the string of injuries he has endured over the past few seasons. I like the additions of players like Buddy Hield, Cheick Diallo, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill, but I’m not sure that their offseason moves will be enough to make them competitive enough for any sort of postseason run. While this is a team with young, developing players, it also features several veteran players who are there to make this team competitive now. While I am hopeful that this team can shake the injury bug and that Davis can take the next step in his development, I am not very optimistic about this team’s chances of making the postseason or any sort of deep playoff run.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Buddy Hield should immediately pay dividends for the Pelicans, but the biggest concern for the franchise should be the fact that Anthony Davis hasn’t exactly earned the reputation of being an iron man. After four years in the NBA, Davis has yet to play in as many as 70 games in a single season. Last season, everyone expected the Pelicans to take a step forward but injuries to some of their key contributors undercut what looked to be a promising year. With Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon gone and Jrue Holiday out indefinitely pending his wife’s upcoming brain surgery, the Pelicans will likely need some major contributions from Langston Galloway. After working his way through the D-League and emerging as a plus-contributor for the Knicks, Galloway secured a two-year contract from his hometown Pelicans and it’s quite easy to be happy for him. That said, without Holiday, the Pelicans are likely to be playing catch up all season long and unless something similarly catastrophic happens to one of the other teams in the Southwest Division, the Pelicans are likely to be finishing last again this season.
5th Place — Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
What a difference a year makes. Heading into training camp last season, fresh off of a playoff berth, most were preparing for an absolute monster (and possibly MVP-level) campaign from All-Star forward Anthony Davis. But Davis limped to just 61 appearances and the club staggered its way to only 30 victories the entire season. Now, the heightened expectations have leveled off and the 2016-17 campaign is shaping up to be one of redemption for Davis and head coach Alvin Gentry. The team lost established veterans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson in free agency, but invested over $70 million in role players E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill in early July. The gamble may pay off, as both guys have showed flashes of potential in limited roles. The key to the Pelicans’ success, however, starts and ends with the play of Davis. For New Orleans gets back into the playoffs, Davis would have to hear his name in the nightly MVP discussion.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Lang Greene
If we could count on Anthony Davis to stay healthy long enough to reach his full potential as a legitimate MVP candidate, it would be much harder to keep putting the Pelicans in the basement of the Southwest Division. However, he’s played between 61-68 games every year of his professional career, and that isn’t enough to guarantee much movement in an incredibly tough division. Frankly, this team didn’t do much to improve its chances this past offseason. Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo look like strong rookie additions, but they don’t suddenly change this New Orleans squad into a contender. Plain and simple, there’s a dearth of talent here. Davis will have to be transcendent for them to make any real progress this year.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Buddy Hield is one of my favorite prospects in this draft class and I think he can make an impact right away for New Orleans. His game is perfect for today’s NBA since he’s such an efficient scoring and excellent shooter. Outside of Hield, I wasn’t crazy about the Pelicans’ offseason moves though. New Orleans paid a lot of money to role players who are nice complementary pieces, but their core still leaves a lot to be desired. I believe the Pelicans will top last year’s win total, but I have them missing the playoffs once again.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis
Davis is an all-around threat offensively. He has a smooth jumper that he continues to extend to the three-point line, he’s an effective pick-and-roll partner and is tough to keep off the boards for easy put-backs. There aren’t many limitations in Davis’ current offensive arsenal and he will surely continue to refine and sharpen the skills he already has.
A past criticism of Davis’ game was his thin frame and inability to back down bigger opponents in the post. However, as the league continues to move away from posting up big men in isolation situations, this concern becomes increasingly less of an issue. Additionally, Davis has filled out his frame considerably since entering the league, has improved his ability to leverage opposing bigs to clear space when necessary and is generally able to turn and shoot over most opponents because of his length and athleticism.
One area that Davis could improve is in his ability to make plays for his teammates. Davis is a better ball handler than most bigs and has pretty good court vision. The more Davis can facilitate the offense from the power forward or center position, the more Gentry can offset the fact that his lead guards are either sidelined indefinitely or not pure point guards, like Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson. Despite this, Davis is already one of the most dynamic talents in the entire NBA and is the best all-around offensive player on the Pelicans.
Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis
There are reasons to question just how much of a defensive impact Davis has made throughout his career. He blocks a lot of shots, but this has become less of a measuring stick for all-around defensive impact with newer advanced statistics regularly being developed. However, while Davis doesn’t generally rank at the top of the defensive charts (e.g., Davis ranked 16th among all qualified power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive RPM statistic last season), he is the ideal defensive big man for today’s NBA. He has the length and mobility to protect the rim, the awareness to make weak side blocks, the footwork to attack ball handlers on the perimeter, the vision to play passing lanes and the intelligence to execute defensive schemes that require timely rotations and continuous communication.
The trick for Davis will be developing defensive chemistry with his teammates and taking care of his body to offset the impact of competing against opposing bigs each night. Davis has the tools to be one of the best all-around defenders in the NBA, but he needs to improve his consistency and effort on that side of the court and needs to get as many reps as possible with his teammates, which could be an issue if injuries continue to plague this team.
Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday
Holiday is out indefinitely to be with his wife, Lauren Holiday, who was diagnosed with an operable brain tumor on the right side of her brain in June. There is obviously no timetable for Holiday’s return since his wife’s health and recovery take precedence over basketball.
Without Holiday, the Pelicans enter the season minus their starting point guard and best playmaker. Tim Frazier came on strong for the Pelicans in 16 games last season and even tallied more assists per-36 minutes than Holiday, but this was a small sample size and Holiday’s combination of size, skill and experience make him the team’s best playmaker.
The Pelicans also have Tyreke Evans, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Lance Stephenson to turn to for playmaking, but Evans is hurt, Stephenson has been a shell of his former self and the other options haven’t proven they are the answer for any team as the full-time starting point guard. As previously mentioned, Davis should be used in a heightened playmaking capacity to expand his already considerable impact and to at least partially offset the loss of Holiday.
Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis
The Pelicans took Buddy Hield with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. Hield has become a knockdown shooter and has a ton of confidence in his game, so he may eventually become the Pelicans’ best clutch player. For the time being, though, Davis is the team’s best option in high-pressure situations.
“At the end of the game, I think we need to get the ball to Anthony more,” Alvin Gentry said about Davis. “We need to start training him to be the guy down the stretch. If you’ve got a great player, that’s what you do. He is gonna be our closer. And that doesn’t necessarily mean making the shot. But I think he’s gonna be the guy more times than not that we’re gonna depend on to make the play at the end of the game. That means maybe finding the open guy, or when a double team comes being able to swing the basketball and put guys in the position where they can make the shot.
“I think we’re gonna have to start trying to go through him — and it may be a screen-and-roll situation, where he screens and rolls to the basket. But we’ve got to have him involved in a lot of the plays at the end of the game.”
Davis can knock down a set jumper, a floater off the dribble, be the roll man on a pick-and-roll and can either finish a play or dish the ball to an open teammate after drawing in multiple defenders. Being able to either score or open looks for teammates down the stretch makes Davis a strong option at the end of close games and makes him the team’s top clutch player.
The Unheralded Player: Quincy Pondexter
It’s been a while since we’ve seen the sort of impact Pondexter can have on a game, so it’s easy to forget how valuable he can be when healthy. Pondexter missed all of last season with a knee injury and has had two surgeries within the span of eight months to address the issue. Pondexter just went through his first full workout earlier this week and will reportedly be ready for the start of the upcoming season.
Pondexter’s ability to knock down three-pointers and lock down opponents makes him a very valuable piece for the Pelicans. Defense has been a struggle for this team, so any help on that end of the court will be a big boost moving forward. Knee injuries like Pondexter’s can be complicated and tough to fully recover from, so new addition Solomon Hill will have to help Pondexter hold down this role for the Pelicans.
Top New Addition: Buddy Hield
Hield put together a fantastic senior season at Oklahoma and, as a 22-year-old, is one of the most NBA-ready rookies in this year’s draft class. Hield may not have a huge role early in the season considering how many more experienced guard the Pelicans have, but he should be one of the team’s most important rotation players sooner rather than later.
While his game may ultimately expand, Hield’s best attribute right now is his shooting. In his fourth and final season at Oklahoma, Hield averaged 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range.
– Jesse Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
- Alvin Gentry
Despite putting together a disappointing first season in New Orleans, Gentry is still a coach capable of pushing this team — especially Davis — to the next level. Gentry has done his best work as the lead assistant coach on teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, but he has the knowledge, experience and philosophy to be a successful head coach in today’s NBA. Hopefully enough of his roster will stay healthy this season for him to successfully institute his offensive and defensive systems.
- Anthony Davis
He’s the foundation of the Pelicans and one of the best overall players in the league. Injuries have somewhat tarnished Davis’ glowing reputation around the league, but if he can play in 70-plus games this season and push his team into the playoffs, durability concerns will be quickly forgotten.
- Langston Galloway
When Galloway has received consistent minutes in his short career, he has produced. Galloway isn’t likely to ever be an All-Star caliber player or one of the top guards in the NBA, but he is a solid rotation player and a nice player to have on hand if a starter goes down with an injury. Galloway joins the Pelicans along with some other nice depth pieces like E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill, who will likely have to take on bigger roles than they had with their former teams.
- Buddy Hield
Hield joins the Pelicans just as the incumbent sharpshooting guard, Eric Gordon, departs. Hield shares many of the same characteristics that Gordon boasted entering the league, so the hope is he can be the answer at the two-guard position in the way that Gordon never was because of injuries. Hield has the unshakable confidence that we see in the best shooting guards, but can suffer from inefficient gunning at times. Nevertheless, if Hield can lock in a manageable role, he has a chance to be one of the biggest impact rookies this upcoming season.
- Jrue Holiday
Like most current Pelicans, Holiday has suffered from injuries in recent seasons and is now out indefinitely as he helps to care for his wife. While Holiday has struggled to stay on the court, his experience and skill are key elements to this current Pelicans team. He will be sorely missed until his return, which hopefully comes sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t, the Pelicans are going to have a tough time keeping pace in the Western Conference.
– Jesse Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Pelicans went under the salary cap this summer, signing players like Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and rookie Cheick Diallo. New Orleans also used most of the team’s Room Exception on Tim Frazier, leaving just $808,000 in spending power. With 15 players under guaranteed contracts (and Lance Stephenson possibly becoming No. 16), camp invites Robert Sacre, Chris Copeland and Shawn Dawson have long odds on making the regular-season roster.
Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, who are in the final year of their contracts, are both eligible to have their deals restructured, but the Pelicans no longer have the cap space to accommodate them. Looking ahead, New Orleans projects to have roughly $28 million in spending power under next year’s salary cap, assuming Dante Cunningham and Galloway opt out of their final seasons.
– Eric Pincus
The Pelicans’ greatest strength is obviously Anthony Davis, one of the best all-around players in the NBA. The Pelicans were a mediocre offensive team last season, finishing just 16th in offensive efficiency. Gentry knows how to run an efficient offense, so hopefully with another year of experience and better luck with health he will get more out of Davis and his other players on offense. But not having Holiday at least for the early part of the season may make this difficult, though, Gentry does have a committee of playmakers that he can turn to.
Offense wasn’t a particular strength for the Pelicans last season, but if Gentry can successfully turn Davis into more of a facilitator and get him easier buckets through his pass-happy offense, then the Pelicans could see a nice bump in their offensive efficiency this season.
– Jesse Blancarte
Defense. The Pelicans were the third-worst defensive team in the league last season, giving up 107.3 points per 100 possessions. Of course injuries had a lot to do with this, but even when their key guys were healthy, the Pelicans simply struggled to lock down their opponents. As with most things, Davis is the driving force for the Pelicans and will need to continue improving his ability to anchor the team’s defense.
Gentry doesn’t have a reputation for being a defensive guru, so it’s not clear how much his coaching can push the needle forward in terms of the team’s defensive competence. Having a player like Pondexter should help, but it’s not clear that the Pelicans’ other offseason additions help shore up the team’s collective defense. The offense should improve this upcoming season, but it’s not clear that the same can be said for the team’s defense.
– Jesse Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Pelicans overcome the injury bug?
Injuries are the great equalizer in sports and the Pelicans are no exception. Gentry can put together a masterful season of coaching, but it won’t make much of a difference if guys like Davis, Holiday and Evans are on the sideline for a significant portion of the season. Some injuries are unavoidable, and circumstances like Holiday’s obviously can’t be prevented either. But if the Pelicans can keep their guys on the court this season, they have the talent and the superstar to make things interesting in the West. They are unlikely to be competing for a championship, but they could push a team in the postseason if everyone is healthy and they buy into Gentry’s system.
– Jesse Blancarte
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.