Editor’s note: Basketball is back! Today’s preview is part of an SB Nation-wide series. You can find similar previews for each NBA team at every individual blog site.
The New Orleans Pelicans are aiming to pick up right where they left off from last May. Coming off a 20-8 regular season finish and a first round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pelicans enjoyed their best campaign since the 2007-08 season — you remember, when Chris Paul was tossing alley-oops to Tyson Chandler, hitting Peja Stojakovic in stride for momentum-changing three-pointers and finding David West standing in his favorite spot on the elbow.
- Last Year’s Record: 48-34 (6th in Western Conference)
- Key Losses: DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Emeka Okafor
- Key Additions: Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Ian Clark (re-signed), Jahlil Okafor (unguaranteed), Trevon Bluiett (two-way), Jarrett Jack (unguaranteed)
What significant moves were made during the off-season?
After losing Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, the Pelicans regrouped quickly. The front office was able to secure Elfrid Payton early in the process, but scored a major coup the next day after Rondo signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. According to one report, Julius Randle had at least 25 teams interested in adding his services, but Dell Demps and Davis’ power of persuasions won out over the rest of his suitors.
The Pelicans were also able to re-sign Ian Clark, a trusted member of Alvin Gentry’s rotation, and add Jahlil Okafor and Jarrett Jack on unguaranted veteran minimum deals. Okafor, in particular, should grab your attention. There was a reason Mike Krzyzewski brought him to Duke. There was a reason Okafor was chosen third overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Yes, he has underwhelmed for most of his professional career, but injuries zapped a lot of the ability. After witnessing his summer transformation and watching him throughout training camp, he’s a no-brainer signing at a low-cost risk of $1.5 million and makes for an exciting fourth big on the pecking order.
What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Speed, versatility and a couple of studs.
While Cousins and Rondo are enjoying the weather out in California, the Pelicans have two decent basketball players remaining in the bayou that you may have heard a thing or two about: Anthony Davis, who finished top 3 in MVP and DPOY voting, was selected to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team, and Jrue Holiday, crowned one of the best two-way players in the league who also took home All-Defensive First Team honors. Please show me a stronger duo in the league that can cause havoc all over the court while soaking up as many minutes as necessary.
The plan for this season is to run, run, run, and fortunately for the Pelicans, they love to push the ball in transition. While outsiders bemoan the loss of Boogie, realize New Orleans averaged 12.5 fastbreak points per game (FBPS) before Cousins ruptured his Achilles and 19.1 FBPS after. Moreover, the loss of Rondo should be mitigated by the additions of speedy decision-makers in Randle, Payton, and Frank Jackson to the rotation. The prevailing theme on Media Day was turning up the pace several notches. Good thing the Pelicans possess a slew of thoroughbreds in Gentry’s stable.
In a league that’s becoming more position-less by the day, versatility is at a premium. Just a few short years ago, New Orleans possessed too many players that couldn’t guard outside of their position: Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Tim Frazier, Ryan Anderson, Luke Babbitt, Kendrick Perkins and Norris Cole. The present-day roster is littered with guys who can defend multiple positions, and offensively, the squad can live up to the #DoItBig mantra or run-and-gun well with any small-ball team.
What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
A prototypical starting small forward and a wealth of proven three-point shooters.
E’Twaun Moore, who stands 6’4 and is considered to possess below average athleticism, started 79 games at small forward last season. He entered the league as a combo guard, but was forced to play out of position after Solomon Hill tore a hamstring muscle in summer workouts. While Moore produced passable results, he’s far from ideal, yet he appears to have the inside track to start at the three again as he brings more to the table than his competition, which includes a healthy Hill. Darius Miller, a one-dimensional three-point shooter, will also see time there and the team is planning to experiment with Nikola Mirotic at SF as well, but all of the available moves are just temporary band-aids. What New Orleans longs for is permanent stopgap.
The Pelicans hovered around league-average from the perimeter in 2017-18, but with the strong likelihood of featuring a starting lineup with just one potent three-point shooter, New Orleans could be exposed further. Outside of Mirotic, Moore and Miller, there are few reliable deep threats. The idea is that Holiday, Davis or someone else can take that proverbial next step. Moreover, the pace of the offense should reveal a bounty of open shots from everywhere — reducing the need to rely on three-point shooting, but it’s always a scary proposition to rely on hope.
What are the goals for this team?
It’s pretty simple: build off last season’s unexpected playoff run. While Alvin Gentry has noted on several occasions the difficultly of moving up to the tier occupied by the Warriors and Rockets, the Pelicans need to come close. Anthony Davis’ clock is ticking. While he has two guaranteed years left on his contract, Davis will be presented an opportunity to sign a super max extension next summer. Every fan in New Orleans is praying he signs on that dotted line when the opportunity arrives, but that decision is expected to be heavily influenced by where the Pelicans finish in the standings and how they fare in the 2019 postseason.
Can Elfrid Payton fill Rajon Rondo’s shoes?
In a word, no. However, that may not necessarily be a negative for the roster.
Rondo’s best attribute is his intelligence and he was celebrated by Pelicans teammates for his floor general skills as well as calling out defensive schemes. Payton is a true point guard, who sees the floor well and can find his targets, but he’s never been lauded professionally for being special at his position. Yet, the change in personnel at the one has a good chance of sustaining success despite the drop-off in experience because Payton should provide consistently stronger levels of effort, he’s one of the best guards at taking the ball to the rim, he’ll be a more versatile piece defensively, and Davis, Holiday and other core holdovers from last season should have learned enough from Rondo to fare better on their own.
While Payton’s stays in Orlando and Phoenix didn’t go smoothly, it can’t be easy to continuously play for losing organizations. In addition, his new teammates have already shown genuine belief in Payton’s abilities, so much so that Davis thinks he and Holiday will form the best defensive backcourt in the league.
Don’t expect Payton to seamlessly replace Rondo, but the good thing is, he probably won’t need to. New Orleans is seeking a starting point guard who can push the pace, be an offensive threat and guard several positions. Payton, who knows this might be his last chance in the league, should be up for that challenge.
Will the Pelicans be able to rely on depth?
As fans know all too well, injuries can strike at any moment. Cast in point, after the first two preseason games, Okafor, Jackson and Randle were all forced to leave the action earlier than anticipated.
In years past, injuries decimated the roster and ruined postseason hopes. After the 2015 playoff berth, many expected New Orleans to remain a fixture in the Western Conference standings; however, 351 games missed to injury or illness forced that Pelicans team to take two steps back. We never saw Dell Demps first vision of Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon play out; at least one player was seemingly always sidelined.
Fast forward to now, Alvin Gentry should have more options at his disposal.
“The good thing is, we feel like we have a deep team,” said Demps in his preseason presser. “We’re going to have depth. We’re going to play at a fast pace. It’s important to have depth playing at a fast pace. And hopefully, we’ll stay healthy.”
Frank Jackson, Ian Clark, Solomon Hill, Darius Miller, Jahlil Okafor and one of Nikola Mirotic or Julius Randle are slated to comprise the bench mob. While losing Holiday or Davis for an extended period would be detrimental, it’s not hard to picture the Pelicans as a deeper, stronger team. This detail can only serve to help in New Orleans quest of finding the postseason in successive years.