And they say New Orleans is a football city.
While that claim might not be refutable just yet, the Pelicans have come a long way towards reversing it, exciting fans with the allure of a possible championship in the near future. The hype comes on the back of star-man Anthony Davis, whose ascension to the throne is in full swing. Safe to say, Alvin Gentry isn't necessarily worried about inflated expectations either.
Claims of increased anticipation aren't qualitatively-based, either; there's supporting data. The Pelicans, for the first time in franchise history, sold out every floor-side seat in the building, as Michael Stanfield, senior vice president of sales, announced at a fan event Tuesday.
Meanwhile, "The Brow" is plastered on billboards everywhere and the 2K16 cover, in decent company too. One of three cover options, Davis is showcased driving to the rack as an alternative to
Seth Steph Curry doing likewise or James Harden preparing to rain down an impassioned one-hander.
While recognition of Davis's talent and improvements is well-deserved and certainly noteworthy, the grander team scheme is also deserving of attention.
One proponent of the Pelican project is Bill Simmons, whose recent Tweet suggested that the Pelicans might be, in his mind, legitimate dark horses for a title run.
NBA title odds are out of whack. Pelicans at 45-1 is way too high. Better coach, Davis as possible MVP, 23 mill in expirings to trade.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) September 1, 2015
He said that about no other team.
While it is is extremely unlikely that the Pelicans win it all this year, they have earned their plaudits and such exaltation. Many would have liked the Pelicans to rid themselves of Omer Asik (including this writer, although not as ardently as others) or go in a different direction, but maintaining roster continuity in itself should be considered a step forward. The Pelicans' retention of every key piece from last year's run is an oddity in today's spin-the-bottle affair of constant change.
Squad consistency is something that very few teams have carried through with, but it is always a sign confidence in the current crop. Other teams this offseason to mimic that policy were the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Grizzlies, not half-bad company and an indication of this roster's potential and skill. Historically, it's what the Spurs have succeeded because of.
Gentry's plan seems simple enough: build a team around Davis that will allow him to blossom as the team develops around him. It's a plan that Davis has approvingly taken note of, pledging his next six years to New Orleans.
And it's the same plan that has the media paying attention to a small market team whose future was unsure just five years ago. Try for a second to forget Sports Illustrated's third-ranked player and focus on the plan of Dell Demps and Alvin Gentry.
The Pelicans have a solid roster that looks to be overall well-suited for Gentry's style of play. Monty Williams' philosophy was murky; during his tenure, the Pelicans fiddled with offensively-oriented strategies and defensive-first strategies, and had no clear direction for future years. Unlike Williams, Gentry has a clear vision, and the players he wants. His enduring run-and-gun will give the Pelicans a new level of consistency, as will the roster carryover.
Gentry is all about chemistry and steadiness. Rather than overhauling the roster over the offseason, he chose to bring back even the players who seemed to contrast his system.
That means players like Asik and Alexis Ajinca, who will be utilized similarly to Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat when in Phoenix with Gentry. They might not run with the rest of the team on fast breaks, but will be screen-setters in the half-court and doubling as defensive anchors and rebounders to secure the ball before the rest of the team leaks out. They won't be the ones at the end of frantic fast-breaks, but they'll be the ones turning the gears on the hidden part of the court. So, in fact, they fit in quite well.
Who knows, Gentry may even see a shred of offensive talent in Asik. His trust is a huge token of faith to the Turkish hammer (direct copy of Gortat's nickname, I know), and one that could easily pay off in the long run. If Asik can live up to expectations, the Pelicans will have a great combination on the block defensively that opens doors for guards on the fast-break, with both Asik and Davis forcing misses and snagging boards.
Meanwhile, Tyreke Evans has responded to Gentry's system, as well, shedding pounds and returning to a rookie-year physique. His backcourt mate Eric Gordon opted into the final year of his contract, meaning that he will enter unrestricted free agency once the upcoming year is complete. And while the Pelicans might have to contest other teams for his signature in ten months, right now he seems set for his best season in years.
Contract years have always mysteriously improved performance, a phenomenon which I cannot explain. It's mystifying.
Besides the contract, Gordon has lost weight, readying himself to run. The fewer pounds should also aid him in eluding the injury bug, which he did a good job with last year. Considering the history of Gordon's knees, the less pressure on them, the better.
This same story carries over to the likes of Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday, who are feverishly getting into shape to outlast opponents. Gentry's philosophy has appealed to the players, apparently, and they are primed to prove to Coach what they've gained talent-wise and lost weight-wise.
Amid the clamor of individual progression is the silence and serenity of consistency, the missing ingredient in the formula. It's what the Spurs and Warriors have, teams that know each other's niches and voids, and it trumps individual talent more often than you think.
So keep focusing on the twelve pounds and three-point shot, because those are super-duper cool. Seriously, they are. But keep an eye on the master puppeteers directing the on-court actors, as well. Quietly, they might have started building a dynasty.