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2015-16 Season Preview: The Pelicans look to build off their late-season playoff surge

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New Orleans changed coaches but little else in the off-season. Can new strategies and a little help in the health department make for a dramatic change?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: Basketball is back! Today's preview is part of an SB Nation-wide series. You can find similar previews from every NBA blog at this link. Stay tuned for additional player previews and team analysis which will continue all October long.

New Orleans Pelicans

  • Last Year's Record: 45-37 (8th in Western Conference)
  • Key Losses: Monty Williams, Jimmer Fredette (?), Jeff Withey
  • Key Additions: Anthony Davis contract extension, Alvin Gentry, Darren Erman, Alonzo Gee, Kendrick Perkins

What significant moves were made during the off-season?

At 12:01 am, Anthony Davis agreed to a five year contract extension that could wind up being worth up to $145 million. With that, phase one of the Pelican rebuild concluded as a resounding success.

Phase two, moving into contention, begins this season. Re-upping players to new contracts was the next order of business starting with Omer Asik, AD's personal protector at starting center. He was signed for five years and $44 million in guaranteed money, but many have made references to a neighborhood in the vicinity of $60 million. It pays to read the fine print because as The Bird Writes has mentioned multiple times, his contract is filled with a lot of incentives. Combining that knowledge with the fact the salary cap is set to explode, Asik will not become the burden many believe.

Dell Demps stated at the conclusion of last season that the current roster appealed to him so he was interested in running it back as much as possible. That is exactly what happened as Alexis Ajinca (4 years, $19.5 million guaranteed), Dante Cunningham (3 years, $9 million), and Luke Babbitt (2 years, $1.1 million guaranteed) re-upped with the Pelicans in July. With Norris Cole signing his qualifying offer in September, the Pelicans will have their best continuity since arriving in the Crescent City.

The most significant move occurred on the sidelines as Monty Williams was fired in early May and Alvin Gentry was brought on later that month. Some of the old staff remains, namely player development coaches Fred Vinson and Kevin Hanson, but make no mistake, Gentry had a say in everything. Asides Phil Weber and Robert Pack, two excellent choices in their own right, hiring Darren Erman away from the Boston Celtics to function as associate head coach and de facto defensive coordinator was the key. His primary task is an enormous one -- improving a unit that finished 22nd in defensive rating last year -- but he's got the track record to do it. ~ David

What are the team's biggest strengths?

Continuity, age and Anthony Davis. Teams that stay together, win together. Back in August, Peyton Fine did a fantastic job of breaking down the numbers associated with teams who pursue continuity. He concluded that the data believes a record of 56-26 is not out of the realm of possibility. So fans, please don't get hung up on so many voices decrying a lack of personnel moves. By sitting pat, the Pelicans' odds of improvement are no worse than had they signed a flashy new free agent or two.

With the Pelicans looking to run under their new head coach, youth and athleticism are musts; thankfully the Pelicans have that in droves. Asik will be the oldest player of the regular rotation at age 29, but the majority of the key cogs will be in their athletic prime. We could boast further and mention that Davis will be only 22 but that would be like rubbing salt into a deep, painful wound of an opponent, wouldn't it?

Speaking of the Unibrow -- it should by now go without saying -- he is and will remain the team's biggest strength for years to come. Regardless of when he is awarded his first Most Valuable Player Award (because that is significantly tied to overall team success), he will be MVP-caliber, producing numbers befitting of some of the best superstars to ever play in the league. This fact cannot be overstated: having such a difference maker on both ends of the floor will automatically keep the Pelicans relevant, even within the Western Conference, for as long as Davis calls New Orleans home. ~ Oleh

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Health, nearly team-wide. Anthony Davis missed 14 games and left three others before halftime due to injury. Somehow, the Pelicans scratched together a record of 8-9 in those 17 games. Eric Gordon (torn labrum) and Ryan Anderson (MCL sprain) each missed 21 games a piece. Jrue Holiday missed 42 games thanks to a stress reaction in his right tibia.

In addition to last year's injuries, Omer Asik (back spasms) and Alexis Ajinca (achilles soreness) were both held out of the 2015 Eurobasket tournament. Fortunately, Asik has been cleared fully in training camp, but Ajinca is still dealing with some soreness that might limit him in preseason.

Beyond the state of the health, last year's defense needs serious reworking. Throughout media day, the Pelicans mentioned repeatedly that the defense is the primary focus, and that theme continued into the first full day of training camp.

New Orleans allowed opponents to get all the way to the basket far too often last season and it showed through their 104.7 defensive rating, relegating the Pels' ranking in the lower third of the league. There were signs after the All-Star Break, though, as the defensive rating dropped to 102.8, that this group has hope!

Erman is going to simplify the scheme and it should do wonders. Landing the Pelicans in the top ten defensively? Call me a skeptic. ~ David

What are the goals for this team?

Besides improvements in the defense, building off the momentum of last year's improbable postseason run and implementing an uptempo offense without destroying efficiency.

Both management and players have recently referred to the notion of playing with a sense of urgency. For Demps, he likens it to having a blue-collar approach. For Evans, he wants to treat every regular season game as though it's a playoff battle. Individuals may have a lot of interpretations but it's all the same meaning: play as hard and intelligently as you can for as long as you can.

Fast-paced teams are known for having issues with turnovers. Early into the 2014-15 season, the Warriors were plagued by too many self-induced mistakes. As the world knows, they corrected those issues and went on to have the league's second most efficient offense.

For the Pelicans to avoid the same pitfalls, the team needs to learn the right amount of ball movement without making too many passes. According to Holiday during Media Day, Gentry wants the first open Pelican to shoot the ball. Taking steps like this should help the squad achieve a sounder high octane offense. ~ David

Will Jrue Holiday be a valuable contributor?

Absolutely. When it comes to serious injuries in any sport, management and maintenance are the most important facets. At the start of the 2014-15 season, Holiday was thrown into the fire as evidenced by his starter-like minutes. A month earlier, Holiday had proclaimed he was just 75% entering training camp.

That bad math caught up with the Pelicans a year ago, but this time around, management has said all the right things including Holiday's significant minutes restriction. This, in combination with an off-season training program that sought to not only improve the strength around the troublesome tibia but significantly increase Holiday's range of motion, will be his golden ticket to a healthier and productive season.

As evidenced by the number of injuries last season, the Pelicans can field enough firepower to be able to withstand the losses of important minutes by members of the rotation. Once the time to make another postseason push rolls around, Gentry will be privileged with something close to a full strength Holiday, a first in his three seasons in the Crescent City. ~ Oleh

Can the Pelicans take that proverbial next step?

We've already mentioned continuity as a positive, but in case the mathematical argument above didn't grab you, here's the reasoning behind it. When a team's players are under-utilized, they will fail to achieve anything close to their level of potential. Simply put, Monty Williams' strategies did not fit his personnel; thus, the schemes deserve the majority of the blame, not the existing roster.

The offense, while remarkably efficient on paper, never looked to take advantage of situations earlier in shot clocks, the squad's age and athleticism, and in general, getting opposing defenses to work a lot harder. Too many possessions ended poorly because a Pelicans ball handler wasted precious seconds pounding the ball into the court without seizing any advantage. Good teams always keep defenses on their toes, but New Orleans managed to give opponents a rest break and then allow them to send reinforcements to stop an obvious point of attack.

The defense was a mess throughout the season for a host of reasons, and one major deficiency was players found themselves consistently out of position. Rotations were late, or sometimes they failed to come altogether. Remember how many times we were left scratching our heads as to why Anthony Davis was late to help at the rim, or worse, would refuse to leave his man, even if his assignment was a pitiful excuse for an offensive option?

In the first game of the playoff series against Golden State, the Warriors burned the Pelicans for a number of easy scores, mainly on a number of backdoor cuts. Blame a lack of communication, awareness by the players or anything else you see fit, but after an 82 game season, that was an unacceptable showing. This is specifically why so many members of the team are now excited by Erman's simpler concepts, and another example why more followers should be excited by the team running it back. Round pegs like round holes. ~ Oleh