Heightened expectations follow the New Orleans Pelicans into the 2014-15 NBA season for the first time since Chris Paul was traded away from the franchise just prior to 2011-12. That should be expected anytime you have one of the league’s better, young players, but these Pelicans also finally have the healthy pieces to place around power forward Anthony Davis as he heads into his third season. Coach Monty Williams and his staff must be excited at the potential of finally having healthy bodies in Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans to go along with Davis and newly acquired center Omer Asik.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 New Orleans Pelicans.
Five Guys Think
Momentum is building down in New Orleans. There is a genuine belief that the team can make a run at their first Western Conference playoff berth since All-Stars Chris Paul and David West left town a few years back. The excitement is primarily driven by emerging forward Anthony Davis, who began putting the world on notice last season. Davis is the real deal. But for the Pelicans to truly reach the land of the playoffs, royally paid veterans Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon must stay healthy and produce at a high level. There’s talent on the roster in New Orleans capable of making noise, but their margin for error doesn’t allow much room for slippage.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Lang Greene
To say that Anthony Davis is already one of the league’s most talked about youngsters would be an understatement-and-a-half. After acquiring Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans last summer, many thought that the New Orleans Pelicans would have had an opportunity to make the playoffs, but they were obviously mistaken. This coming season, though, that prediction would be more appropriate. With Davis’ progression, the Pelicans have added some much-needed girth up front by acquiring Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets and the signings of John Salmons and Jimmer Fredette should pay positive dividends for them this season. Whether or not the Pelicans actually have a chance at making the playoffs, however, will depend on how their three highest paid players—Eric Gordon, Holiday and Evans—mesh together. From the moment these three became teammates, the major question was whether two of the three could learn to be more effective without the basketball. For Gordon and Evans specifically, each has been trying to reach the level of productivity they achieved earlier in their respective careers. To this point, neither have proven that they can. Despite those questions, with Asik and Davis up front, the Pelicans should be much-improved so long as Holiday can revert to being the player he was when we last saw him with the Philadelphia 76ers. After just playing 34 games last season due to a stress fracture in his right tibia, Holiday may be the biggest wildcard for the Pelicans this season. Last but not least: Ryan Anderson. After being limited to just 22 games last season due to a neck injury, Anderson, like Holiday, has returned to the court. If all breaks right in New Orleans, and if they have their collective health, it would not be a shock to see them seriously challenge for a playoff spot in this year’s Western Conference. The unfortunate thing for the Pelicans, though, is that they are in the NBA’s most competitive division. And despite all of these pros, it is difficult imagining them finishing higher than fourth, at best.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
Anthony Davis looked amazing toward the end of last season and I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes the leap to superstar this year. He’s the kind of guy who should be in the conversation for best player in the league very soon (barring something catastrophic) because he’s a terror on both ends of the floor. Last season, New Orleans was killed by injuries, as Davis, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Jason Smith missed a combined 202 games. The team was never able to reach their full potential after making some strong moves last offseason. Their division is very tough, but if they can stay healthy this year and Davis makes the expected jump, New Orleans could really surprise some people.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
Despite a few injuries, last season was a coming out party for Anthony Davis in New Orleans, but the really crazy thing is that even at his best in 2013-14, he wasn’t anywhere near as good as he’s going to be. Davis, if he continues on the trajectory he’s been on since coming into the league a couple years ago, is likely to get a generous handful of MVP votes this year, and that’s a good thing for a Pelicans team absolutely dying to get back into the postseason. Plucking away Omer Asik from Houston for a pittance gives them another defensive stalwart in the backcourt, giving New Orleans what it likely to be the most unforgiving, most impenetrable wall anybody has ever seen this side of Westeros. The Western Conference isn’t any easier than it was last season, but the Pelicans have gotten better and should have an easier time contending for a spot in that tangle of great teams competing for the five-through-eight seeds in the West.
4th Place – Southwest Division
There are a lot of nice pieces in New Orleans. The best of them all, Anthony Davis, looks like he has the potential to be an All-NBA player this upcoming season. The potential is there for them to be a tough match up night in and night out. However, you can be a good team in the Western Conference and still come up short of making the playoffs. As currently constructed, they’re far too reliant on their top six – all of whom missed significant time due to injuries last year. The only way that they’re going to be able to hold up over the course of an 82-game season and keep up with the playoff pack is if they have a couple of players on their second unit step up in a major way. Based on the group Dell Demps has assembled, I can’t say I see that happening.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Having already increased his average to 20.8 PPG last season, Davis is likely to be the team’s first option more often than not. Evans and Gordon can each score – as can Holiday – but Davis is a player that should at least touch the ball on most possessions due to his ability to do so many things with the ball. He continues to improve as a face-up option, but has also gone to great lengths to further develop his post game and footwork. It was clear Davis had been in the weight room from the moment he arrived at Team USA’s training camp earlier this summer as the 21-year-old is noticeably bigger and stronger across his shoulders. The added post reps and size should definitely help as he will be expected to lead this group of talented players alongside Holiday, of course.
Top Defender: With a player as versatile and as dominant on the defensive end as Davis is, you’d think he would easily be the most important defender. While Davis is clearly the team’s top defender and is going to be pivotal to much of the Pelicans’ ultimate success on both ends of the court, Holiday and Evans will play incredibly vital roles as well if New Orleans is to be successful. In a league where just about every team has either a top-notch offensive point guard or high caliber scoring swingman (or both), Holiday and Evans will have to remain healthy and available enough to compete on a nightly basis. Having the aforementioned Davis and Asik as rim-protectors and primary rebounders certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Top Playmaker: Holiday may not be a “superstar” at his position, but he is definitely among the top players of the next tier. He’s not only great in transition, Holiday is also very good at operating within, and manipulating, the halfcourt offense as well. He’ll have plenty of weapons at his disposal as his wings (Evans and Gordon) have each been 20+ PPG players in the past. It will be interesting to see how much Coach Williams plays Holiday with some of his second unit, as Ryan Anderson and Jimmer Fredette can each be deadly from deep. More than anything, Holiday will be charged with the responsibility of keeping everyone engaged and content while making certain Davis is featured and fully permitted to continue developing his game.
Top Clutch Player: This is a bit tougher to determine due to not knowing how all of the pieces will fit together and which exact roles Williams and crew have in mind for everyone. Odds are, it will end up being Holiday seeing as though he’ll be the main guy with the ball in his hands both throughout the game and down the stretch of games. That isn’t necessarily to say Holiday will always look to score in crucial situations. Holiday is great at penetrating and creating scoring opportunities for others, and shouldn’t have a problem finding a willing and capable scoring threat at multiple positions. Whether he is directly responsible for the points or assisting another, Holiday should have plenty of “clutch” opportunities this season for the Pelicans.
Top Unheralded Player: Ryan Anderson has endured his fair share of injuries as well as some pretty tough times in his personal life, but he finally appears ready and healthy enough to return to the steady and productive player he was when New Orleans acquired him via a sign-and-trade with Orlando just prior to the 2012-13 season. As the prototypical stretch-four, Anderson is someone that can serve in both a reserve role as well as alongside Davis in the frontcourt when Williams decides to go a bit smaller with the lineup. Anderson rebounds relatively well for a guy that spends much of his time around the perimeter, but isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess. What he is known for is being an absolutely deadly three-point shooter when he gets going and even shot a career-high 40.9 percent on 7.5 attempts from beyond the arc last year. As is the key with all members of the Pelicans, health will absolutely be key for Anderson. If he’s able to return to form and remain available, expect big things for 26-year-old power forward this year.
Top New Addition: We can’t ‘technically’ nominate a (finally) healthy starting lineup, but that will certainly be a welcomed addition for this fan base. In all seriousness, Asik’s presence in the middle likely makes him the best new addition. Not only does he provide size and bulk to the frontcourt, he also comes with plenty of veteran experience from both the NBA and international play. He should definitely take some of the pressure off Davis to serve as the team’s lone shot-blocker and rim-protector and actually permit the budding young star to offer even more defensive support in pick-and-roll and weakside opportunities.
– Jabari Davis
Who We Like
1. Anthony Davis: We’re pretty sure we’ve been clear about this guy, but just in case, allow us to erase all doubts. Davis is going to be an absolute superstar in this league, and is well on his way toward establishing himself already. Barely legal to even enjoy an alcoholic beverage, Davis’ game is one that you might expect from someone much older and more experienced than he is at this point. The scary thing is that he is only getting better and he is nowhere near his prime.
2. Jrue Holiday: It may have shocked some of us when the Sixers decided to move Holiday on draft night last year, but it will definitely be to this young core’s benefit as they continue to develop and grow together. They were just a few games beneath .500 prior to his injury last season, but were highly competitive on most nights with him in the lineup. If Holiday can find a way to stay on the court, these Pelicans could be knocking at the door of the playoffs this season.
3. Tyreke Evans: Evans entered the league with tons of promise and expectations following a very impressive rookie season that saw him join a rare group of players to average 20/5/5 (actually 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists), but injuries and poor circumstances have led to him falling out of the spotlight. Regardless, Evans remains a talented player that could be due for a bit of a resurgence now that all of the pieces around him are in place.
4. Ryan Anderson: The versatility he brings is key, but Anderson really is a guy who you simply want to root for to do well. He’s generally viewed as a good influence in the locker room and in the huddle, and it will really be interesting to see how the coaching staff decides to divide the frontcourt minutes now that they have so much depth. As productive as Anderson can be, it shouldn’t be anticipated that his minutes would suffer as a result, but it will be fun to watch them work out the rotation nonetheless.
– Jabari Davis
Even though they were ranked just 18th overall in terms of scoring last season, the offensive side of the ball should definitely be considered a strength as we move forward. The front office should really be commended for putting together a well-rounded roster complete with shooters and guys who can score from the low post, in transition and in the halfcourt set. They should also be a better defensive team this season with the addition of Asik. Davis and Asik form a pretty formidable front line, and it isn’t like they have any glaring weaknesses around the perimeter defensively.
– Jabari Davis
They have to be a better rebounding team in 2014-15. Asik should help, but it will be everyone’s responsibility to rebound as a team and limit opponents to fewer attempts per possession. They could also stand to work through the offense a bit more and limit their one-on-one scoring attempts. With as many weapons as they have and a very willing playmaker in Holiday, they really have no excuse to be in the bottom-third in assists per game as they were last season (19th overall).
– Jabari Davis
The Salary Cap
The Pelicans briefly dipped under the salary cap this summer to acquire center Omer Asik in a trade from the Houston Rockets. John Salmons received $2 million of New Orleans’ $2.7 million Room Exception, leaving little left in spending power. Luke Babbitt, Darius Miller and Patric Young all have partial contract guarantees, likely fleshing out the team’s roster to the maximum of 15. While Asik will earn $14.9 million this season, the Pelicans will only be charged $8.4 million on their salary cap by virtue of how the Turkish center left the Chicago Bulls to join the Rockets.
– Eric Pincus
We have talked extensively in this space about the value of coaching on defense, and the Pelicans are yet another interesting case. With the addition of Omer Asik and Anthony Davis’ emergence at the FIBA World Cup, the Pelicans should have the best starting defensive bigs in the league. Jrue Holiday is also one of the league’s best defensive point guards when healthy, so one would imagine this squad has the makings of a top unit on that end.
Yet New Orleans has ranked very poorly defensively the last two years under head coach Monty Williams, though the squad has struggled with significant injuries in those years. Williams did help the then-Hornets to a qualify defensive finish in 2012 given the personnel, but he will be squarely on the hot seat to craft a great defense this year with the talent on hand. If he can do so, this team could make enormous strides for a squad that still managed to win 34 games (and admirably did not tank to keep its top-five protected pick owed to Philadelphia) amidst the injuries last year.
Yes, really. Davis has struggled to transform his raw tools into helping his team’s on-court performance defensively in his first two years, but it would be impossible to overstate how good he has been defensively for Team USA. He continues to improve on both ends. Asik continues as one of the best rim-protectors in the league, and Ryan Anderson is healthy enough to create an unstoppable offensive lineup with Davis, who is now strong enough to play center in a lot of lineups. Holiday returns to form, Eric Gordon loses weight and focuses on shooting threes and defending, and Tyreke Evans uses the shooting provided by Davis and Anderson to facilitate his drives. The offense reaches the top 10, and the defense rockets into the top five as Williams figures out how to use Davis and Asik to lock down the paint.
Anderson is not ready to play big minutes, and really struggles on defense. The injury bug also bites again on the perimeter, and the lack of a real small forward continues to haunt the team. Asik clogs up the middle for Davis, who devolves into a jump-shooter (although a good one). Williams cannot obtain adequate effort and discipline on defense and is fired after 35 games, and people forget how good Davis is because the team around him is so bad. The Pelicans again fail to impact the crowded West playoff race, and a bleak future resulting from the lack of first-rounders in 2013 through 2015 comes into view, putting GM Dell Demps’ job in jeopardy despite the fact he has been pressured into these moves by ownership.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Can the Pelicans remain healthy and cohesive enough to compete for a playoff spot?
Only time will tell for this group. They have enough depth to endure some bruises along the way, but probably are not at a place to lose the likes of Davis or Holiday for any extended period of time. As far-fetched as it may sound to some, these Pelicans absolutely have the talent to make a serious run at a playoff spot. That should definitely be the overall goal as they head into the year.
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