12 months is a long time in NBA circles. Just ask a Cleveland Cavaliers fan if they could have possibly imagined the last four months (winning the lottery, drafting Andrew Wiggins, re-signing Kyrie Irving to a five year extension, signing LeBron James, trading for Kevin Love) last summer. That entire scenario sounds preposterous, except that it is actually happening.
For the Pelicans, last summer was full of high hopes and expectations. The ESPN Summer Forecast of 2013 projected the Pelicans to finish 11th in the Western Conference but improve their record by 10 full games. Instead injuries happened. Tyreke Evans was injured in the first preseason game. Ryan Anderson was injured at practice before the regular season opener. Anthony Davis broke his finger on a dunk attempt. Ryan Anderson suffered a frightening herniated disk. Jason Smith's shoulder refused to hold up. Jrue Holiday suffered a stress fracture that ultimately sidelined him for the entire season as well.
With that long (and incomplete) list of injuries the Pelicans finished 12th in the Western Conference and improved by "just" seven games. As I have noted previously, the season was largely in line with expectations and if anything (considering injuries) the Pelicans exceeded expectations. So let's take two swings at predicting the next twelve months.
Note: I am not calling this the "best case" scenario.
This season the ESPN Forecast projects the Pelicans to finish 10th in the Western Conference and improve by five games to 39-43. A good scenario would line up much like who ESPN projected in 10th last summer with a record of 38-44, the Portland Trailblazers.
Like New Orleans the Blazers' one big addition was a largely defensive minded center, former Hornet Robin Lopez. Also like New Orleans the Blazers were projected to improve by just five games in the win column, from 33-49 to 38-44. Portland actually improved to 54-28 last year, finishing 5th in the Western Conference; a massive 21 win increase over their 2012-2013 campaign.
What changed? Health. In 2012-2013 the Blazers top four players (Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews) played in 298 of 328 possible games. In 2013-2014 it ballooned to 315. New addition Robin Lopez also started and played every single game. Their best five players were available 96.8% of the time!
For New Orleans to make a similar jump in the standings a similar string of health luck is a necessity. The Pelicans top six players of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, and Ryan Anderson played in just 307 games last year, 62.4%.
The bulk of those missed games (142 of 185) were missed by Ryan Anderson (60), Jrue Holiday (48), and Omer Asik (34). Reaching back just one season (to 2012-2013) those three players combined missed only 5 games! Good health with this roster is possible, and it is a matter of luck and quality work by the training staff and players to be prepared for the grind of a long NBA season.
In a good scenario the Pelicans will have excellent health with all six key players playing in at least 70 games. Omer Asik will fix much of the defensive issues in rebounding, fouling, and protecting the basket. Anthony Davis will take the next step and build upon his 20-10 sophomore campaign to a second All-Star selection and earn a spot on the All-NBA Team. Monty Williams will find the right mix of rotations and scheme and guide this franchise to 48 or more wins and their first playoff berth since 2011.
While their stay in the playoffs is a brief six game series with San Antonio or Oklahoma City (which is not as close as a 4-2 series indicates) the seeds of future success are firmly planted. The Pelicans retain the 21st pick in the 2015 NBA Draft (and national writers fail to regrade that horrendous trade Houston made in 2014); only to package the player drafted in a sign-and-trade for [insert competent NBA small forward].
Eric Gordon, who's value has never been higher coming off a season where he played all 82 games and averaged a solid 17 PPG while shooting 40% from behind the arc, opts out of his player option becoming a free agent. He is not re-signed in New Orleans. Meanwhile the Pelicans do sign defensive bulwark Omer Asik to a long term contract.
In the most important news of all, Anthony Davis agrees to a maximum five year extension just after 12:01am on July 1st. The contract does not have a player option or early termination option and if he qualifies for the Rose Rule extension, it will only bump up from 25% to 28.5%; not the full 30% allowed.
Note: This is not a worst case scenario. I'm not going down the road of projecting injuries.
Dell Demps has been fired as General Manager. After another lackluster season where the Pelicans missed the playoffs going 37-45 (note, they would have been the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference) and forking over another lottery pick owner Tom Benson has determined that a new direction is needed. However, as noted by Zack Lowe, the New Orleans ownership team still believes in Monty Williams and will keep him around.
As NBA expert Jimmy Smith has long pined, the franchise is turning to Joe Dumars as the new General Manager. Dumars intends to move the team forward and elects not to offer a contract to Omer Asik. Instead he hopes to convince New Orleans native Greg Monroe to sign with the Pelicans. Unfortunately, due largely to an extremely unsuccessful partnership in Detroit, the presence of Dumars in the Crescent City deters Monroe from even consider coming back home.
After striking out with other center prospects Dumars is left staring at an enormous hole in the middle. Over po-boys he and retained head coach Monty Williams discuss possibly bringing Greg Stiemsma back. Monty has heard that Stiemsma had a great season in Russia, fouling out of only 75% of the games he played in. While Stiemsma is apprehensive about coming back to a franchise that waived him with just two games left on the schedule he is eventually convinced by Dumars and Monty to come back.
Where do you think the Pelicans will be next summer? What is your best and worst case scenario? Let's hear it in the comments.