Last season, Anthony Davis emerged as one of the NBA’s best players and led the New Orleans Pelicans to a 45-win season and their first playoff berth since the 2010-11 campaign. The Pelicans were swept by the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors, but New Orleans was surprisingly competitive in the series and Davis was outstanding (to nobody’s surprise).
Now, Davis has spent this offseason expanding his game and the Pelicans hired Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry as their new head coach. New Orleans is hoping this is the year that they can climb the Western Conference standings, but do they have what it takes to be an elite team?
Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season.
I can’t wait to watch Anthony Davis this season. He finished his third season with averages of 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.9 blocks, 1.5 steals (all of which were career-highs) and became one of the NBA’s best players. Then, this summer, he has added muscle and significantly improved his three-point shot. Not to mention, new head coach Alvin Gentry should really help Davis continue to improve, particularly on the offensive end. Davis is only 22 years old, so it’s very possible that he still has room to grow as a player. That seems crazy considering how dominant he was last year, but that’s why I’m excited to see what he does in the 2015-16 campaign (and beyond). Last year, injuries to Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon among others really limited the team, making their record and playoff berth even more impressive. If Davis continues his ascent and the team can stay healthy this year, I believe they’ll show improvement over last season’s 45 wins. I have them as a virtual lock to return to the postseason, but I do think they lack the talent in Davis’ supporting cast to be a legitimate contender.
4th Place — Southwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
There are plenty of players in the NBA today who would love to consider themselves stars, but only a handful of them are superstars good enough to lift their teams to new heights regardless of what other players are around them. Anthony Davis is one of those guys, and he’s starting to resemble someone who could win the league’s MVP award very soon – maybe even this year. The Pelicans made the playoffs six months ago and performed well once they were there. A lot of that had to do with Davis, but a healthy Jrue Holiday along with Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon should make for an interesting team this year. They play in the toughest division in basketball, but this is a playoff team again this year, and maybe even one that can win a series or two.
4th Place — Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The masses complain about the NBA season being too long and each individual game not necessarily counting, but the Pelicans proved that to be false last season by making the playoffs on the final day of the season. With Alvin Gentry taking over on the bench and Anthony Davis continuing to progress, I certainly expect the Pelicans to make their second consecutive trip to the postseason. The sad thing, to me, is the fact that Eric Gordon’s scoring average has decreased each of the last four seasons. If he and Jrue Holiday could actually be healthy for the entire year and play up to their full potential, then the Pelicans would truly be a scary team. Instead, I see them as being locked into the seventh seed or so for the foreseeable future, partially due to the tough conference and partially due to the fact that they simply do not have enough talent around Davis. That could change with time, obviously, but for now, I wouldn’t consider them anything more than a first-round team.
5th Place — Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
There are 145 million reasons to watch the Pelicans this season. The organization locked in Anthony Davis to a five-year mega deal this offseason. Now the question is, how much better will he get? Last season, he averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-high 2.9 blocks per game. Davis is only 22, and although he provides star power, the team can still benefit from veteran leadership. That’s where the experience of players such as Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday comes into play. The Pelicans also signed Kendrick Perkins, who has won a championship, to help mentor Davis. Last season, the Pelicans snagged the eighth seed in the Western Conference and fell to the Golden State Warriors. Their goal will be to establish themselves as a lock, not a question mark, for the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference. They should be right there this season.
4th Place — Southwest Division
– Jessica Camerato
Anthony Davis has officially arrived and now it’s time for general manager Dell Demps and company to surround the future perennial MVP candidate with a title-worthy supporting cast. New Orleans has talent up and down the rotation, but the franchise has been decimated by injuries the past two seasons. Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Davis have been unable to stay healthy long enough to truly maximize their potential as a unit. Despite the injuries, New Orleans still managed to flirt with 50 victories last season and now ushers in the head coaching era of Alvin Gentry. Another playoff run should be in the cards but the squad isn’t among the few in true title contention.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Lang Greene
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis
As previously mentioned, Davis averaged 24.4 points per game last season (which ranked fourth in the NBA) while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. He was also incredibly efficient, leading the NBA in player efficiency rating (30.8) by a huge margin and finishing fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares (9.9). Davis has become one of the most dominant offensive weapons in the NBA, so he’s obviously the top offensive player on his team. As if Davis’ regular season averages weren’t impressive enough, he was even better in the postseason. In the Pelicans’ first-round series against the Warriors, he averaged 31.5 points while shooting 54 percent from the field. This season, it’s very possible that Davis improves his numbers since the team hired offensive genius Alvin Gentry, who will look to increase Davis’ production and maximize the forward’s potential. Remember, Gentry played a big role in the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors becoming top offenses in recent years, serving as an assistant coach for those teams. Not to mention, Davis has spent this offseason improving his three-point shot and bulking up to 253 lbs. (while staying at 10 percent body fat) to better finish at the basket. In other words, Davis may be even more dominant in the 2015-16 season, which is a scary thought for the rest of the NBA.
Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis
We try to spread the love around in these previews and not focus too much on one particular player, but there’s simply no way someone else could be selected over Davis as the Pelicans’ best defender. Last season, the big man led all NBA players in blocks per game (2.9) and total blocks (200), while also averaging 1.5 steals per game. In addition to those excellent numbers, he grabbed 10.2 rebounds per game. And just like his offensive numbers, Davis improved his defensive stats in the postseason, averaging 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Warriors. Davis finished the season ranked seventh among all NBA players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (4.20) and 12th among all NBA players in Defensive Rating (100.2), showing he was one of the league’s better defenders. With his terrific offensive and defensive contributions, one could make the case that Davis is the best two-way player in the game today. New Orleans’ next best defenders were Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday (according to DRPM, but Davis was clearly the team’s most effective weapon on that end of the court).
Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday
Holiday is the Pelicans’ best playmaker, running the offense well and leading the team in assists with 6.9 per game. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Holiday missed 42 games last year. Over the last two years, the veteran point guard has started in a combined 71 games. He has been sidelined for far too many games and in order for New Orleans to play to their full potential, they’ll need Holiday to be completely healthy and playing his best basketball. The year before Holiday landed in New Orleans, he started 78 games and was an All-Star (averaging 17.7 points, eight assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals). If he can get back to that level and stay on the court, that would really help the Pelicans as they try to take the next step as a team. Also, keep in mind that Holiday just turned 25 years old in June, so it’s not out of the question that he’ll make some strides this season. Tyreke Evans definitely deserves a mention in this section since he averaged 6.6 assists over 79 games last year and did a really good job handling the ball and facilitating once Holiday went down.
Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis
When thinking of the Pelicans’ best clutch player, Davis’ double-clutch three-pointer that beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in early February immediately came to mind. If you aren’t familiar with the shot, you should watch it right now. But that wasn’t Davis’ only clutch play of the season. In fact, he finished last year as one of the best clutch players in the NBA. In clutch situations (defined as a game with under two minutes to go and a score differential of two points or fewer), Davis hit 13 of his 16 attempts from the field for a league-best clutch shooting percent of 81.3 percent. He also led the league in clutch blocks with four. Not to mention, he was 10 of 11 on clutch free throws (90.9 percent). As if it hasn’t been made clear, Davis is a beast who destroys teams on offense and defense, from the start of the game to the very finish. If this preview hasn’t sold you on the fact that Davis is a superstar, nothing will.
The Unheralded Player: Ryan Anderson
Since winning Most Improved Player with the Orlando Magic in 2012, Anderson has flown under the radar with the Pelicans. That’s mainly because he comes off of the bench for the team, but he’s still an extremely effective three-point shooter and a solid rebounder. Last season, he averaged 13.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in just 27.5 minutes off of New Orleans’ bench, and his spacing really helped the team. Not to mention, he’s capable of putting up a lot of points in a hurry and helped the Pelicans pull away in some games with his excellent shooting (he ranked 17th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, despite being a reserve). But Anderson, like Holiday, needs to stay healthy for the Pelicans to take the next step as a team this year. He has missed a combined 81 games over the last two seasons, but the hope is that he’s 100 percent this year and can stay on the floor in 2015-16. One more thing to keep in mind: Anderson is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Best New Addition: Alvin Gentry
Two years ago, Gentry was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers and was in charge of running their offense. They finished that year with the NBA’s No. 1 ranked offense, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. Last year, Gentry was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors and was in charge of running their offense. They finished with the NBA’s No. 2 ranked offense, scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions (just barely ranked behind the Clippers, who scored 109.8 points per 100 possessions and were still using Gentry’s concepts). In other words, Gentry helped the Clippers and Warriors turn into offensive juggernauts in recent years, and now he’s hoping to do the same thing with the Pelicans. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what Gentry can do with an offensive weapon like Anthony Davis, who many feel wasn’t utilized correctly under former head coach Monty Williams, as well as complementary pieces like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The Pelicans didn’t make any significant roster acquisitions this offseason, so Gentry is the clear-cut best addition of the summer. Gentry has said he’ll run an up-tempo offense with Davis as the focal point, and he has encouraged his superstar to shoot plenty of three-pointers this summer to prepare for the season. As a head coach, Gentry has a 335-370 regular-season record (which he should improve upon this season) and a 12-9 playoff record. The best year of his career was the 2009–10 season, when he coached the Phoenix Suns to 54 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals (where they lost to the L.A. Lakers).
Who We Like
Tyreke Evans: While I could go on and on about why I like Anthony Davis and think it’s inevitable that he’ll be the NBA’s best player in the near future, I’ve spent enough time talking about him. Let’s move on to some other Pelicans, starting with Tyreke Evans. The 26-year-old is another player I like quite a bit and his well-rounded game was very important for New Orleans last year. His versatility was huge for the Pelicans, especially since their backcourt of Holiday and Gordon has been so injury prone in recent years. Evans was able to move around the lineup throughout the season, playing three positions (starting 61 games at either point guard or shooting guard and 15 games at small forward). Evans finished the year with averages of 16.6 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals – which was quietly one of the better seasons of his six-year career. We’ll see if he can pick up where he left off and thrive in Coach Gentry’s up-tempo offense.
Eric Gordon: As previously mentioned, injuries have ravaged this Pelicans team in recent years and nobody has been sidelined more than Gordon. In his four years with the Pelicans, he appeared in nine games, 42 games, 64 games and, most recently, 61 games. He has missed a large chunk of time in every season since his rookie year, which has obviously held the Pelicans back. With that said, Gordon was effective this past season when he was on the court, averaging 13.4 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 44.8 percent from three-point range. Now, Gordon enters a very important season since he’s in the final year of his contract (worth $15,514,031) and is poised to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he has a big year, perhaps there will be a team willing to give him a decent pay day next offseason. After all, his career averages (16.8 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 38.3 percent from three) show that he can be a significant contributor when healthy. But staying on the court has always been the problem, and he’ll a risky signing for whichever team inks him next summer.
Quincy Pondexter: Pondexter has been a solid role player throughout his career, providing quality defense and three-point shooting. Last year, the Pelicans acquired Pondexter from the Memphis Grizzlies in January once New Orleans realized their bench needed reinforcements. The 27-year-old small forward was targeted since he’s a reliable two-way reserve who can defend multiple positions. In 45 games with the Pelicans last year, he averaged nine points and 3.1 rebounds while providing spacing by shooting 43.3 percent from three-point range. He even slid into the starting lineup for 28 games due to injuries, and improved his averages to 9.4 points and a 44.5 percent from three. He’ll likely play the same reserve role this season (unless injuries force him to start again) and the Pelicans know he’ll be around for a while since he’s under contract for the next three seasons.
Norris Cole: The Pelicans and Norris Cole couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal this summer (and, as a restricted free agent, Cole didn’t sign an offer sheet from another team), so he took the one-year qualifying offer worth $3,036,927 and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer when the salary cap will increase significantly. With that said, Cole is a key player for the Pelicans since they have very little depth. Much like Pondexter, Cole was acquired in a midseason trade when New Orleans was desperate to improve their bench. After coming over from the Miami HEAT in a trade deadline deal, the point guard was thrust into a significant role for the Pelicans. Aside from Ryan Anderson, he was the team’s top bench scorer, averaging 9.9 points in 24.4 minutes a night while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and (a career-high) 37.8 percent from three-point range. He also averaged 3.2 assists as a reserve. Expect Cole to play a similar role this year, and he could have some extra motivation with unrestricted free agency right around the corner.
Having arguably the best two-way player in the NBA is certainly the Pelicans’ biggest strength, and Davis is bound to win them a handful of games on his own each season. Their offense should be a big strength as well, especially with the addition of Coach Gentry. Last year, New Orleans ranked ninth in the NBA in offense, scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions, and you can expect that number to increase with Gentry’s up-tempo offense and (hopefully) less injuries to key players. The Pelicans weren’t bad shooting the ball, ranking 12th in True Shooting Percentage (53.7 percent) and, again, that number will likely go up thanks to Gentry. The team’s ball movement was also solid, as they ranked eighth in the league in assist ratio (with 17.2 percent of their possessions ending in an assist). They also finished seventh in the league in rebound rate (51.1 percent).
Despite having Davis – one of the game’s best defenders – the Pelicans have struggled on that end of the floor. Last year, New Orleans had the league’s 22nd-ranked defense, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions. That put them behind non-playoff teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons among others. Some people expected the Pelicans to go with a defensive-minded coach because of their struggles on that end last year, but they obviously went with Gentry instead. We’ll see how the team fares on that end under him. New Orleans’ bench is obviously a huge weakness as well, which is why they traded for Pondexter and Cole last year (as well as signing Dante Cunningham and various other players for brief stints). Even with the addition of those two players, New Orleans isn’t deep at all, which is very bad considering their injury history.
The Burning Question
New Orleans will only go as far as Anthony Davis takes them, and we’ll have to see what kind of impact the added muscle, expanded shot and addition of Coach Gentry has on Davis’ game. Still, even if Davis somehow finds a way to get better, health is a big concern with this Pelicans team. They rely on too many injury-prone players for me to trust them to stay at full strength for an entire season, so it’s hard to consider them a contender. Not to mention, they just don’t seem to have the talent (even when healthy) to stack up against the best teams in the Western Conference like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. I think the Pelicans are a lock to make the playoffs, but I think they’re still a year or two away (and perhaps some moves to improve the supporting cast) from being a legitimate contender.
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