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New Orleans Pelicans 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans, who are looking to prove the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins duo can be successful.

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Entering a pivotal year for the franchise, the Pelicans are a fascinating study in the true power of stardom in the NBA. Their biggest names are some of the most recognizable in the league: They have likely the game’s starriest frontcourt in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a near-max-level point guard in Jrue Holiday squarely in his prime.

At the same time, their depth after these three is almost startlingly weak, particularly on the wings. With Cousins able to walk for nothing at the end of the season and whispers about Davis’ future free agency starting to grow louder, GM Dell Demps needs the group he’s put together this season to gel and put forth a product that encourages the big stars about the future – and if not, the Pelicans may have to contemplate life without at least one.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

What we saw of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis a year ago wasn’t awesome, and it’s not like the Pelicans had the money to add a whole lot to their roster over the summer to make massive improvements. Still, arguably the two best big men in the league are on the same team, and it’s hard not to see some measure of promise in that. That’s not going to stop the Anthony Davis trade rumors, unfortunately, but the better they play the less likely it is they’ll have to deal with that particular drama this year. Bottom line: New Orleans needs to make the playoffs. It’s time for them to make that happen, and that means finishing at least third in Southwest to sneak into the bottom of the Western Conference’s postseason picture. Anything less and Davis’ time in the Big Easy really could be running out.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

While the rest of the NBA is zigging towards playing smaller and faster, the New Orleans Pelicans are zagging the opposite direction with a huge frontline featuring Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. These two talented big men form arguably the most interesting and unique frontcourt duo in the NBA, but last year’s results didn’t give us reason to believe it’s a match made in heaven. Finding out how to maximize the considerable skill sets of Davis and Cousins is an imperative task for Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry. If Gentry can find a way to maximize his talented frontcourt tandem, the Pelicans could exceed all reasonable expectations this upcoming season. However, wing depth and perimeter shooting are going to be issues that will likely plague this team unless they pull off some serious deals to bring in more talent on the wing.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

As far as top-end talent goes, the Pelicans can compete with just about anyone. They have the most talented frontcourt in the league with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a guy in Jrue Holiday whose talents complement the two big men very well. That trifecta can hold up to nearly any in the league outside Golden State and a couple other markets – but the question marks start immediately after that. With Solomon Hill’s recent injury that could keep him out for much of the year, the Pelicans are now dangerously thin on the wing – guys like Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark may have to play important roles there. The acquisition of Rajon Rondo after Holiday had already re-signed seemed curious, and still does. Depth in the frontcourt behind Davis and Cousins is a question mark. With some decent injury luck for their big three and some solid cohesion, this could absolutely be a playoff team. But the floor is also very low, especially if any of the three has to miss any time or Cousins becomes volatile like he has in the past. We’ll pencil them in for third in the Southwest for now, but they could easily be fourth or even fifth if things go badly.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

When you look at Anthony Davis’ numbers, one would figure it would only be a matter of time until the Pelicans take flight and find themselves out of the doldrums in the Western Conference—especially with a talent like DeMarcus Cousins added to the fold.

As he entered the final year of his contract, Cousins is the player to watch this season in New Orleans. It’s amazing to think that a player of his talent has yet to play in a single playoff game. If things break right in the Big Easy this season, though, a postseason berth may be possible. With Zach Randolph headed to Sacramento and Tony Allen not having re-signed with the Grizzlies, the door does seem to be a bit ajar for the Pelicans. That, however, will depend upon their ability to stay healthy, and Solomon Hill’s torn hamstring isn’t a positive omen.

Still, with Ian Clark and Rajon Rondo added to the fold, the Pelicans have brought in a few winners. A re-signed Jrue Holiday should also contribute positively to what these guys have going on this season, as well. They’ll be pulling up the rear out West, but if they manage to leapfrog the Grizzlies in the Southwest, they’ll be in the fight for the playoffs. I just wouldn’t bet on it at this point.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

After trading for DeMarcus Cousins halfway through last season, the New Orleans Pelicans are hoping a full offseason and training camp together can mesh arguably the top two bigs in the game enough to warrant their first trip to the playoffs in three years.

With a healthy Jrue Holiday and some chemistry between Cousins and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could be in a position to make some noise this season. However, if the two former Kentucky big men don’t produce what New Orleans is hoping they will on the court this season, it will be interesting to see how Cousins handles his free agency next summer.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins

This one is a dead heat between Cousins and Davis, but since the Brow gets the nod in our next section, Boogie gets his time in the spotlight now. Cousins was a pretty similar player last year after being traded to New Orleans, posting similar shooting numbers while seeing some of his midrange game move over to Davis, replaced by a few more looks near the hoop.

Logic would suggest some staggering of minutes between the two to leave at least one on the court as often as possible, but this might be tough – the Pellies were destroyed last year in the minutes Cousins played without Davis, and Boogie’s own numbers showed a huge gap. He was lethal from three with Davis out there, and was able to draw more fouls and average higher rates in nearly everything across the board. These two will look to improve their on-court partnership even more with a full offseason (they trained together at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas over the summer), but how they play separately, and particularly while Cousins is the lone star on the floor, is also cause for concern.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

There was a time when Davis’ defensive potential widely eclipsed his actual value there, but the last couple years have mostly put that to rest. Davis was one of the league’s 10 most valuable defensive players last season, per ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and he’s become far more than a freak athlete who blocks a lot of shots. His timing has really improved along with his ability to be that anchor a defense needs. A full season of Cousins in town should ostensibly remove just enough of his offensive burden for him to perhaps chase some defensive honors if things go well.

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

There’s a temptation to say newcomer Rajon Rondo here, and Rondo is likely still the better passer in a vacuum. But “playmaker” and “passer” aren’t the same thing, and especially for a team that looks likely to have spacing concerns all over the place, Rondo might not have the kind of success some expect while he’s on the floor. It will be very hard for him to generate consistently good looks for himself, and defenses know they can play his passing lanes and dare him to shoot the ball.

Holiday, on the other hand, has the chops as a scorer from multiple areas of the court to keep the defense honest. As nearly a 37 percent career three-point shooter, teams can’t simply sag away from him and clog things up when someone like Davis or Cousins has the ball. He’s posted solid passing figures for several years in a row, and seems to have put some of his worst health concerns behind him (fingers crossed). He’s also a far more consistent defender than Rondo at this point, which matters for his ability to stay on the floor.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

Especially for a big man, Davis’ 42 percent from the field in clutch time last year actually represents a very solid number, and one of the best on the team. He’s able to play both one-on-one and as part of the two-man game, and with another brute in Cousins around to soak up help defenders and provide a solid secondary option, look for much of the crunch-time offense to flow through the frontcourt (just like the rest of the offense).

The Unheralded Player: E’Twaun Moore

Moore is a limited player in certain areas, but as one of just a few guys on the roster who can credibly play at least one wing spot, he also fills an important role that the Pelicans badly need: Spacing. Moore has shot 37 percent and 45 percent from three over the last two years respectively, and he’ll be one of the few guys New Orleans can rely on to keep the defense honest while their primary cogs work.

Best New Addition: Tony Allen

On the flip side of that coin is Allen, whose signing for one year was reported Monday. Allen is nothing close to a spacing threat, but he’ll step in immediately as the team’s top wing stopper. He may not quite have the legs left in him to make the overall impact Davis does defensively, but his addition all but guarantees that the Pelicans will have an above-average defense, and likely a top-10 unit.

-Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. The Frontcourt

As we noted above, there are definitely some concerns when only Cousins is on the floor without Davis. When they play together, though, no team in the league truly has the personnel to effectively guard them. Cousins sees his three-point rate and efficiency skyrocket with another post behemoth sharing the court with him, and the Pelicans were a solid playoff team based on per-possession figures when they played together last year. The first month or two of this year will be huge for building their chemistry.

2. Healthy Jrue Holiday

After years of struggling with his health, Holiday finally was able to stay on the court last season. He missed a chunk to start the year, but that wasn’t an injury – he was caring for his wife. After that, Jrue would play in all but three games for the Pelicans, shooting a career-high from the field and showing off the kind of high-level defense that makes him such an attractive player. He’s the perfect complement to a Davis-Cousins frontcourt, and the Pelicans need another healthy year from him after signing him to a big contract this summer.

3. Darren Erman

After coming aboard as an assistant with head coach Alvin Gentry to start the 2015-16 season, it took Erman – a defensive whiz who is well-respected around the league – a full season to leave his mark. The Pelicans were bad defensively in his first year, but took a giant leap into the league’s top 10 last year after a year to digest his concepts. They did so with arguably only a few true plus defenders on the roster, and mostly through a solid scheme with smart tenets. Some have labeled Erman the next big thing as an NBA head coach, but while he’s in this role, expect the Pelicans to play smart, disciplined defense.

4. Tony Allen

He doesn’t necessarily solve some of their spacing issues, but Allen was the best of a relatively limited bunch late in free agency. He fills a need for bodies on the wing and should still check in as an elite-level perimeter defender, the kind of guy who will take the toughest matchups every night. He’ll also provide a bit of additional veteran know-how as a former member of the Grit n Grind Grizzlies.

-Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Pelicans invested heavily in Jrue Holiday this summer. Their other primary free agent acquisitions include Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller and Ian Clark, triggering a hard cap of $125.3 million in the process. Prior to trading Quincy Pondexter to the Chicago Bulls, the Pelicans were very close to that cap (including unlikely incentives the team may or may not owe to Holiday). The team still has a little bit of wiggle room to fill out a roster but they may not be able to use much of their remaining spending tools that include $2.2 million of their Room Exception, their full $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception and three trade exceptions ($3.9 million, $3.5 million and $2.1 million) at their disposal.

Next summer, the Pelicans will not be under the projected salary cap of $102 million, even if DeMarcus Cousins leaves as a free agent. That’s a loss the team won’t be able to replenish with a Mid-Level Exception. New Orleans may have to find a way to improve via trade, although they don’t have much to offer on that front outside of their star players in Anthony Davis, Cousins and Holiday. The franchise needs the Cousins/Davis pairing to work, enough to entice Cousins to re-sign long-term.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The frontcourt is a relatively obvious strength for this team, with Davis and Cousins backed up by Alexis Ajinca, a solid third big. Guard also at least has several capable bodies present – Holiday first, with guys like Rondo, Clark and Moore also in tow. The Pelicans will have some expected continuity on their side with Cousins able to spend the summer working with his teammates, and this could be valuable. There are also basically zero fit or role questions present in New Orleans: Everyone knows what’s expected of them, and there shouldn’t be any kind of an adjustment period in that respect.

-Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Beyond their top three players, this is a dangerously thin team depth-wise. They’ve got bodies in the guard rotation, as we noted above, but Holiday is the only truly reliable name on that list at this point – if the injury bug struck him again at any point, the Pelicans would be in huge trouble there. They’re even thinner on the wings, where guys like Moore and Allen will be asked to play major roles. Hill’s injury really hurt here. The Pelicans have the top-end talent to hang with just about anyone, but even a single significant injury to one of their primaries will make depth a major problem right away.

-Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is what the Pelicans have done over the last few years, and particularly this year, enough to keep their star-studded frontcourt interested in staying?

Cousins can go elsewhere after this season, and the Brow Free Agency Watch has already begun in earnest despite three years still left on his contract (plus a player option for a fourth, though he’s likely to decline this). Behind these two and Holiday, the Pelicans have very little going for them in a team-building sense. They didn’t send a huge amount to Sacramento for Cousins, but their only semi-blue chip youngster, Buddy Hield, was part of the package. Losing one of the two would be a big problem, and eventually losing both would be devastating for the franchise.

So while the results for this season obviously matter and clearly tie in with the overall theme, there’s an eye to the future as well. If the team underperforms to start the year and isn’t in the realistic playoff picture, they’ll have to consider what they might get in return for Cousins if he looks unlikely to re-sign. In a broader sense, the ticking clock will only get louder on Davis if the team isn’t able to take significant steps forward this season after giving up assets for Cousins at the deadline last year. It’s a huge year in New Orleans.

-Ben Dowsett

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