Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.
Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis
No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.
Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday
Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.
Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton
My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.
Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.
Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis
The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.
Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson
Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.
Best New Addition: Julius Randle
Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.
Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Jahlil Okafor
The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.
2. E’Twaun Moore
Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.
3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo
Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?
4. The Front Office
The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.
The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.
– James Blancarte
The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.
Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.
Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.
– James Blancarte
Point guard and small forward.
As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.
While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?
Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.
– James Blancarte
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