The Western Conference is extraordinarily deep this season. At the top, the defending champion Golden State Warriors return their entire rotation. Nipping at their heels the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs all enter a new season with realistic title aspirations. Both the Memphis Grizzlies (2013) and Oklahoma City Thunder (2014) have reached the conference Finals with similar rosters to their 2015-16 versions.
Six teams in the West expect to win 55 or more games. Five of them did last season! 55 wins is, at minimum, home court in the first round in the Eastern Conference over the last decade. 55 wins earns the number two seed in the East in each of the last three seasons.
Into these shark infested waters enter the New Orleans Pelicans under new head coach Alvin Gentry. General Manager Dell Demps elected to bring back the entire core of that finished the season 18-11 after the All-Star Break. (That's nearly a 51 win pace for those wondering.) Alonzo Gee and Kendrick Perkins add into the mix.
Four or more of the top six projected teams in the Western Conference will consider the 2015-16 season a failure. Dwell on that for a moment.
The Spurs had an excellent off season locking in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green while adding LaMarcus Aldridge. The Warriors brought back a championship core while flipping David Lee for Jason Thompson. The Rockets got Ty Lawson at a bargain basement price. Memphis re-signed Marc Gasol for five years. Doc Rivers has a bench in Los Angeles finally. Oklahoma City hired Billy Donovan and hope for the return of a healthy Kevin Durant. At least two of those teams will not win a single playoff series.
How, then, do we define success for the Pelicans?
Quantifying Success without Banners
Requiring a visit to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs is out. (In the East, absolutely.) A division hampionship is out, not in the most difficult division in professional sports. What's left?
Winning more than 45 games is a start. 50 is a nice round number some might use. Securing a playoff bid in the West, never a given, is a reasonable expectation. Other, concrete and quantifiable measures, are still needed.
Last season the Pelicans finished 22nd in defensive rating and one of the worst in defending the rim. Solid improvement in both areas is required for eventual championship contention. Finishing around 15th in the league while being better than absolutely awful at defending the rim is a good start.
Offensively improvement will be more difficult. Despite being one of the slowest teams in the league (27th in pace) and attempting far too few 3-pointers (23rd) New Orleans scratched and clawed their way to 8th in offensive rating. Gentry will undoubtedly have the Pels play faster and take more threes. Will that be enough to push the franchise upward, maybe even into the top five?
This all leads me to net rating and point differential. According to NBA Stats the Pelicans ranked 15th in the league with a +0.7 net rating. Amin Elhassen of ESPN frequently reminds listeners that point differential (which net rating distills into a per possession rate) is one of the most accurate measures for future performance in the NBA. Some combination of improvement on both offense and defense pushing the Pelicans net rating closer to +2.0 or more, on the fringes of a top ten team in the league, will be the metric I watch most closely.
Sports as Entertainment
This is an easier bar to clear, but an important one for even the most data driven fan. Professional sports are entertainment. A diversion from the daily real problems for fans the world over. It is no secret that life as a Pelicans fan over the last five years was short on the fun factor. A splash of Anthony Davis highlights oftentimes bracketed by long periods of Tyreke Evans, Greivis Vasquez, Jarrett Jack, and others attempting to dribble to the center of the earth.
No more. The ball will move. Davis, first in points per possession but a laughable 96th in transition possessions, will provide even more highlights. Evans will be unleashed to push the pace after rebounds and, if summer league is to be believed, made shots by the opponent. Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Quincy Pondexter will have a permanent green light behind the arc.
Simply being fun goes beyond entertaining fans. An enjoyable play style, greater success on the court, and the long term commitment by Anthony Davis forms the heart of the Pelicans' 2016 free agent pitch. Pelican fans and writers are well aware that this roster, as currently constructed, is not a championship caliber one. Attracting the necessary upgrades without a winning legacy, ideal geographic location, or massive television market demands the Pelicans use everything in their power to set themselves apart.
Just as the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons were more about convincing Anthony Davis to stay than anything else the upcoming season is far more about growing the appeal of New Orleans basketball than hanging an unrealistic banner. Improvement and entertainment are the keystones in the Crescent City this fall. Filling the Smoothie King Center for home games, scoring points at a breakneck pace, and making a little noise in the playoffs stand as guideposts.
Prepare for a fun season. Avoid the typical fan anxiety. There will be a time for that; just not this year.