This time last year the Pelicans were still the Hornets, a year removed from trading away the best player in Hornets/Pelicans history (Chris Paul), and being sold to a new owner in Tom Benson. Eric Gordon missed all but nine games and they drafted franchise cornerstone, Anthony Davis.
Despite a terrible season, with lottery pick, Austin Rivers and Davis, there was certainly reasons for optimism. Fast forward one year later. The Hornets are officially the Pelicans, Tyreke Evans (via a four-year, $44 million sign-and-trade from Sacramento) and Jrue Holiday (via a draft day trade with Philadelphia), join a "rejuvenated" Eric Gordon, and the ever growing game of Anthony Davis.
Another year, another drastic roster change, another supposed season for optimism. There are questions floating around. Is this a playoff team? Has the short-term push for playoff success sabotaged the Pelicans long-term aspirations? Will any one of their stars be healthy? Should New Orleans have kept Nerlens Noel and maybe signed Brandon Jennings?
On paper, this team has a two-way All-Star point guard (Holiday) that can space the floor and dish at a level just below the best in the league. They have two dynamic wings in Gordon and Evans. One wing (Gordon) that has All-Star ability on both ends of the floor, the other (Evans) that is one of the league’s best drivers. In the middle is a franchise pillar (Davis) that is birthed from the DNA of Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh. Finally, a developing star in Austin Rivers, the most accurate stretch four in the NBA in Ryan Anderson, and a solid 6 through 10 crew in Brian Roberts, Jason Smith, Morrow, and Stiemsma.
Key Player(s): Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon
In reality, the Pelicans have some glaring holes on their resume. Holiday still suffers from "Combo Guard" syndrome where he can struggle with a high turnover rate when attempting to do too much. He’s also opposed to driving to the hoop when he’s stronger than almost any point guard and quick enough to be a real problem in the paint.
Holiday has struggled getting comfortable in the preseason, which should be expected. One would think, due to his ability to shoot the ball and play better defense than his fellow swingmen, he would have an easier transition.
Tyreke is in a weird position. He’s probably a surer thing than Gordon at the shooting guard spot, but because he’s more ball dominant than both Holiday and Gordon, he fits better in a sixth man role. Evans has said on more than one occasion that he’s comfortable with the role.
You do have to wonder, is Tyreke fodder for an Eric Gordon trade? Will he ever be anything more than a ball-dominate guard lacking a jump shot? What does his development look like? Answering any one of those questions with a positive answer may protect New Orleans from having to face the difficult decisions surrounding the last member of this trio.
Gordon is the most talented and was the most dynamic, but not anymore. Knee injuries have robbed him of any explosiveness, and at this point you have to wonder if his contract will be an albatross in the next year.
He may be better off as a Chauncey Billups-type player, using his strength to bully smaller guards on defense and working the low post and set shots on offense. That type of off-the-ball play would open up possibilities to play the non-traditional Holiday-Gordon-Evans group with a scheme to maximize each of their strengths without compromise.
The key to this team working to its maximum potential means adjusting to not only each player’s skillset, but mindset ala the Miami Heat.
X-Factor(s): Anthony Davis
Beyond the dream of the aforementioned trio becoming a cohesive unit, Davis’s growth is the most realistic development that can change the Pelicans trajectory. He’s already shown in this preseason (take it with a grain of salt if you want to), that his face-up game, and defensive adjustments have taken a step forward. He’s learning how to use his quickness and ball handling skills to get past bigger, slower forwards, and though his mid-range jumper hasn’t been falling, the form and confidence is there.
This year you could see an 18 point, 11 rebound, 2 blocks per game or 20 points, 8 rebound, 3 blocks per game player, depending on how he’s deployed. What you’ll probably see is an average in the mid-teens, but a much more assertive and comfortable Davis. The Pelicans will fly as high as he can take them, especially defensively.
Worst Case Scenario: This dynamic roster on paper ends up being paper-thin. Injuries knock out Gordon and Davis for parts of this season, Evans struggles in the same manner as when he was in Sacramento, Holiday becomes a turnover machine attempting to do too much in the offense, and New Orleans ends up in the lottery. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Nerlens Noel returns to health in a promising rookie year, further exasperating a questionable trade.
Best Case Scenario: Cohesiveness on defense lends itself to a slow, but eventually solid, offense, pushing the surprising Pelicans into a 7th seed out west. Davis is named as an All-Star alternate after a breakthrough year. They lose in the first round, but with a healthy Gordon, a developing Evans, and good bench pieces, the Pelicans finally have a real reason for optimism.
Curveball (Possible event that could alter the course of the season): Can someone, anyone please convince Houston to part with Omer Asik for Ryan Anderson. I mean Davis at the power forward spot, next to a young defensive big in Asik would catapult this team. Make it happen.
Prediction: 35-47, 11th in the Western Conference
Ultimately, having not enough time to jell, combined with the ceilings of the acquired players, is going to put New Orleans in a hole that will take longer than this season to get out of. Gordon may not ever play 70 games again, Evans doesn’t seem to be able to fix the hitches in his jumper, and Holiday is pretty close to what he will be in this league.
Davis is going to be a stud starting this year, but that may not be enough. I’m not sure if the Nerlens/Holiday trade was a good idea, but with ownerships pressure to win now, drastic situations call for drastic measures. Time will tell, but when you aim for the second round, you get what you pay for.
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