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2016-17 New Orleans Pelicans Preview: Anthony Davis looks to rebound amid new teammates

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Will the significant roster changes elevate the team up the Western Conference standings?

NBA: Preseason-Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Team Name: New Orleans Pelicans

Last Year's Record: 30-52

Key Losses: Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Luke Babbitt, Norris Cole, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Toney Douglas, Kendrick Perkins,

Key Additions: Buddy Hield, Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Terrence Jones, Langston Galloway, Cheick Diallo, Lance Stephenson (?)

What significant moves were made during the off-season?

Following their first postseason appearance in four years, the New Orleans Pelicans front office took a continuity approach with the roster, making the biggest change at head coach as Monty Williams exited stage left to make room for the arrival of Alvin Gentry’s offense on wheels extravaganza. It never materialized, so following a terribly disappointing 2015-16 season, the organization decided to flip flop their approach this past summer by adding 6 (potentially 7 — pending the decision on Stephenson) new faces to the locker room.

  • Buddy Hield (6th) and Cheick Diallo (33rd) were drafted in the 2016 NBA Draft.
  • FA Solomon Hill was signed on July 19th to a 4-yr, $51.9 million contract.
  • FA Langston Galloway was signed on July 20th to a 2-yr, $10.7 million contract.
  • FA E’Twaun Moore was signed on July 21st to a 4-yr, $34 million contract.
  • FA Terrence Jones was signed on July 22nd to a 1-yr, $1.1 million contact.
  • FA Lance Stephenson was signed on September 12th to a 1-yr, partially-guaranteed (100K) $1.2 million contract.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

NBA: Preseason-Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Everything starts with Anthony Davis. He is entering his fifth season, but it’ll be the first time he begins a new campaign following a downward trend in the numbers. (Newsflash: Davis was still really good.) In addition, he underwent surgery for the first time in his career.

Despite the negatives, Davis is stronger, taller and more accepting of a leadership role with the Pelicans. In preseason play, his decision-making has been quicker and more decisive, and his performances evidencing a more aggressive mindset. The hope appears real that this will be the first time in his career he will be comfortable leading by example — a facet the New Orleans Pelicans desperately need.

Following the superstar next on the list, the presence of two-way players who exhibit a blue-collar work ethic should be a certifiable strength. Ball movement among last season’s core was never up to the head coach’s liking, neither was a consistent effort level. However, the biggest impediment to team success was a swiss-cheese defense that finished 28th in Defensive Rating. New Orleans management correctly identified their best chance to move back up the standings was to fix the defense over the summer, so replacing most of the roster’s key losses with unselfish, defensively-minded players should improve the team overnight.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

The biggest detriment to the organization has undoubtedly been the number of injuries. Following a league-high 351 missed games to injury, I harped over perceived inadequacies in the medical staff, training methods and available technology. Although closely monitoring Jrue Holiday’s minutes prevented a reoccurrence of injury to his troublesome tibia and Davis was caught recently boasting about exciting new training methods, a lot of work remains. Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter have yet to get over the hump, and just four games into the preseason schedule has already witnessed too many new entries on the latest injury reports.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Partially due to all of these injuries over the years, the Pelicans have never been able to pinpoint a necessary 2nd star alongside Davis for more than a stretch of games. In 2014-15, Tyreke Evans stepped up in the absence of Holiday, and then a year later, Holiday shined briefly after most of his restrictions were lifted midseason before succumbing to a broken eye socket in March. With both players starting this season on the sidelines, the Pelicans are unlikely to find Batman his Robin.

Lastly, the composition of the roster remains a mildly concerning weakness as it requires further tuning. For example, the team is yet to find the right complimentary player next to Davis in the frontcourt. Traditional centers that include Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca have usually looked awful in Gentry’s system, while a purely offensive force like Ryan Anderson never resulted in any sustained success. The Pelicans are getting a cheap look at Terrence Jones, and Solomon Hill should see pertinent time at the four, but expect the best answer to lie elsewhere. The hope is Cheick Diallo morphs into that ideal player, but it isn’t probable to occur anytime soon for a kid who appeared in only 202 minutes at Kansas. Moreover, it cannot be overstated that history has proven hits on second round draft picks are few and far between.

What are the goals for this team?

During the media day festivities, Dell Demps focused on “the process” rather than a trip back to the playoffs.

“I think all the teams in the Western Conference right now are setting goals to get to the playoffs. I think right now what we’re going to focus on is the process. That process is going to be our daily work: focusing on our defense, making sure we’re doing the right things — playing hard, playing smart, and playing the right way.”

Even though his poor choice of words automatically conjure up an image of Sam Hinkie in most minds, Demps’ premise is not wrong.

Amid all the injuries of a year ago, it was painfully obvious to avid followers that the team was miles from championship contender status. The chemistry was off and the most basic of fundamentals like high energy were far from constant. Professional teams are not going to win if there is such a lack of cohesion, so the front office needed to rebuild the shaky foundation with more suitable pieces.

On paper, they made sizable progress over the summer. Hill, Moore and Galloway exude a team-first attitude from every pore of their bodies. A few more moves, perhaps adding another big piece to the core, is in store, but the Pelicans have enough to proceed to the next logical step. Before they can legitimize postseason expectations, though, the existing personnel must first learn to do things correctly together: build continuity, create a defense that can shadow offenses for more than a few dribbles or passes, and no matter what, always put forth 110% effort out on the floor.

Will Anthony Davis become an MVP candidate again?

Early indications in preseason looked good (a per 36 minute scoring average of almost 30 points a game) until Davis sprained his ankle against the Houston Rockets in the team’s fourth game of the exhibition schedule. Although he’s probable to start the regular season, the 23-year-old’s injury list is far too extensive.

Thankfully most of the missed games due to injury are mild in nature, and as I alluded to earlier, Davis should be better prepared to handle the nicks and bruises of an 82-game season following the implementation of a new training regiment over the summer. However, the proof is going to remain in the pudding.

No matter what he says or the changes he makes in an exercise routine, Davis is going to have to ultimately gut out nearly every regular season game on the NBA schedule. Once that happens, Davis will almost assuredly re-enter all relevant MVP chatter — he’s too otherworldly talented to not be included. It may be this upcoming season or it may be the next one, but to be considered one of the best, you’ve got to be there for it... Now, I beg of you, immediately go knock on the nearest piece of wood!

What should we expect from Buddy Hield?

NBA: Preseason-Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Buddy Hield was seemingly on fire in every game during his senior year at Oklahoma. Three-pointers rained as frequently as June afternoon showers in New Orleans. A similar picture may still eventually reproduce in the NBA, but don’t expect it to happen during Hield’s rookie campaign. Fresh faces, no matter the amount of collegiate experience they arrive carrying, suffer through a lot of early highs and lows on the biggest of stages.

On more than one occasion, Alvin Gentry has made reference to a roller coaster when describing Hield’s first year. Buddy Buckets is going to have some stellar offensive games and likely follow them with duds the very next night. In fact, we’ve already bore witness to this enormous discrepancy in productivity. Through his first two preseason games, Hield averaged 18.5 PTS, 2.5 3PM, 5.5 REB to go along with shooting percentages that would make Stephen Curry proud. The last two games? An entirely different story (7 PTS, .5 3PM and 2.5 REB) which closely resembled Hield’s summer league shooting prowess.

Thus, expect Buddy Fresh to finish somewhere smack dab in the middle of all those crests and valleys. If injuries continue to hamper the Pelicans for much of the season, Buddy should have an opportunity to finish with something along the lines of 12-14 PTS, 1.5 3PM, and enough rebounds and assists to give notion of a rather complete player — sorry haters.

.....

Barring another rampage of missed games due to injury, the New Orleans Pelicans should have an outside chance of challenging for one of the final playoff seeds in 2016-17. They have made several key additions to the roster that should precipitate improvement, but don’t kid yourselves, starting the season without Tyreke, Jrue and Quincy is going to sting and now requires a lot of things to go the team’s way. How quickly the healthy and able can effectively bond together around Anthony Davis, who himself will be striving to surpass a mark of 70 games played for the first time in his career, will heavily decide the team’s finish in the final standings of the Western Conference. Playoffs or not, the ride promises to be fun.

Editor’s note: This is part of SB Nation’s 2016-17 NBA preview series. You can find all of the team previews here. Contract details were obtained from Basketball Insiders, written by Eric Pincus, and statistics from NBA Stats.