The New Orleans Pelicans were on the verge of breaking down the door to NBA relevancy. The pieces were seemingly primed to reach the next level and the team become a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. New Orleans had improbably knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder to crash the 2016 playoff picture, and the future appeared bright in the Bayou. Heck, talk was circulating across the league that Anthony Davis might be it’s new face, sorry LeBron James.
But things soon began to unravel after a quick postseason exit, and injuries played no small part. The Pelicans led the league in missed games during the 2015-16 season, with it’s superstar adding 21 games to the total. New Orleans stumbled to a 30-52 record, but at the end of the rainbow an enviable lottery pick resulted in the most recent collegiate player of the year, Buddy Hield.
It may have been destiny.
The Pelicans have finally turned the page from Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and although the team will be starting the season without a possible starting backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, Hield is staring at a wonderful opportunity in front of him. The handicap will surely hold back early team success, but the hidden caveat is that the prized rookie is going to be given an enormous role early in his NBA career, one that he could run away with. Make no mistake, Hield is as liable to sink as swim, but given his offensive gifts it seems the table is being set for what could be a Rookie of the Year campaign and a hell of great first-year experience for the Davis-Hield tandem.
The Pelicans will have their bumps. Sure, adding a piece like Solomon Hill is expected to solidify the small forward position, but ultimately he, too, might be a stop gap until the Pelicans can add a premier three. Hill did start 78 games in 2014-15 but posted meager averages of 8.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in about 29 minutes a night. Then he had problems finding consistent playing time on a rather mediocre Pacers squad one year ago. Once the novelty wears off, he may prove to be rather similar to Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Alonzo Gee — all replacement level NBA 3s or worse.
Depth will probably be an issue, but it won’t always be because of a lack of personnel. If Evans finally does return, what does that mean for Hield? Will he operate exclusively with the second unit, or would he be forced to share the court with another high usage guard?
Plus, let us not forget the Lance Stephenson question still needs answering. The 6’5" swingman did well in 26 games with Memphis last season, averaging 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. In addition, his best career season came in 2013-14 while a member of the Pacers where he posted 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. In the midst of those two stops, though, Stephenson struggled to establish that same level of performance. For example, he shot just 37.6 percent from the field while hitting only 17 percent from three as a member of the Charlotte Hornets.
Although the Pelicans are hoping he exhibits something close to the form he once showed in Indiana, Stephenson does represent a low-risk signing. The Pelicans could be inclined to take a chance on his minimum salary, especially if ownership still places a good deal of importance on winning. Stephenson has been a difference maker in the past and has hopes of further revitalizing his career. The problem is it’s completely unclear how this situation might unfold, much less affect teammates.
If things go well, a career 30.8 percent three-point shooter could settle in the 36 to 38 percent range, just as Stephenson did in 2015-16. That would make him a viable wing in the rotation and further undermine Hield’s spotlight among a myriad of other guards, who if healthy, await their chance to shine as well. If things go sour, the front office can obviously cut Stephenson, but wouldn’t the organization be less likely to go down that road after passing on payment of just the $100,000 guarantee?
I guess it’s possible that Stephenson and Hield could complement one another nicely. Both are capable slashers and could set one another up for a myriad of jump shots both from the mid-range and the arc. Yet, the franchise must realize the future really lies in the hands of Davis and a potential secondary star, not some journeyman who has had trouble finding a foothold in the league.
Davis doesn’t require another superstar — although it would be nice to nab a Kevin Durant in free agency. AD is one season removed from being in serious MVP discussions, but following the monster rookie season of Karl-Anthony Towns it is as though many have already forgotten what the Pelicans forward can do. Davis’ 59-point game still stands as exemplary proof of what he can really do as a scorer. Aspects of Davis’ overall defense still need work, but he is an offensive force that is unparalleled from all the parts of the floor in today’s NBA. While Towns and Andre Drummond are certainly strong 5s, it is Davis who holds the talent to eventually lead the league in scoring.
Nothing has changed, really, except for some injury concerns. But if Davis can finally remain healthy, that alone should keep the Pels in the picture. Among all the personnel who will be ready to go from day one, Hield has the best chance to sharpen that image thanks to his natural gift with scoring the ball. He is capable of getting quality looks at will, and his shooting ability and range can take over games. Hield is mature and NBA-ready, which should factor in large given that he will be handed the reigns to the offense early. Can he serve as a good playmaker for Davis, too?
That perhaps is where the real evolution and intrigue lies: if these two can click on the court, the Pelicans should find themselves thrust back into the discussion of young teams on the verge of becoming real threats.
The previous attempt by the team to surround Davis with a Holiday-Gordon-Evans trio failed to live up to billing. But give the Pelicans credit, they moved on as best they could over the summer and at the end of the day still possess a franchise-changing big man to build around.
Don’t forget that Holiday, in time, could return to form and mimic the player who made the All-Star team back in 2013 as a Sixer. He averaged 17.7 points and 8.0 assists per game that season, and last year he was good for 16.8 points and 6.0 assists in just 28 minutes per game (23 starts). Holiday has not played anything close to a full season since leaving Philadelphia, but at least this year’s absence is of a different variety with his wife Lauren facing upcoming surgery.
The Pelicans are probably at least another season away from really striking at the door again, but Hield could buck that idea now. Of course he would have to navigate a lot of mitigating factors, but it could happen far sooner than many think because Hield is not some button-faced rookie in need of experience — he is ready.
New Orleans is presently a team constructed around their big man. After a somewhat disappointing season that cost him big in the pocketbook, Davis will attempt to reassert himself as the NBA’s best power forward and one of it’s best players overall. There really is no reason he should have fallen out of that conversation to begin with, but he may still not be ready to go it completely alone. Both Holiday and Evans should eventually give Davis a hand again, but Buddy Hield will get the first crack at it.
There are teams in far worse predicaments than being able to start an MVP-caliber talent and a teammate whose skills should put him in ROY conversations. If things go their way, the Pelicans could surprise this year and strike towards a .500 record, but the most likely outcome is that New Orleans fights its way to approximately 35 wins.
And who knows, maybe destiny rewards the team again, this time delivering one of the many talented point guards or a scoring swingman like Josh Jackson of Kansas or Jayson Tatum of Duke, both touted freshmen expected to be of the one-and-done variety. To be sure, it is looking a bit far ahead, but to be honest that’s exactly what we must do with this Pelicans squad, starting with the relationship between Anthony Davis and Buddy Hield.