With the elimination of the San Antonio Spurs, the New Orleans Pelicans and Golden State Warriors are set to battle in the second round of the 2018 NBA playoffs. The first game of the series will tip-off on Saturday, but a time is yet to be determined.
A matchup against these vaunted Warriors is fitting. They were responsible for the Pelicans fast exit from the postseason three years ago, and it had been all downhill for New Orleans until finally the turnaround witnessed this season. Yet, before we delve into deep analysis and discussion about this upcoming series, let’s take a look back at how New Orleans — and specifically Anthony Davis — arrived at the precipice of perhaps their most exciting playoff appearance in franchise history
Ever since Davis heard his name announced in the 2012 NBA Draft, all eyes have focused on him to try and carry the New Orleans organization back towards relevancy. Although the prized jewel of the forced Chris Paul trade, Eric Gordon, was in place, the existing roster was less than impressive when Davis first arrived. However, after a dismal 27-55 season, General Manager Dell Demps put his head down and went to work.
After trading Gustavo Ayon for Ryan Anderson before the start of Davis’ rookie season, the landscape soon changed dramatically in New Orleans. During the summer of 2013, the Pelicans were part of a three-team deal that netted Tyreke Evans for Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez, and two days later they traded Nerlens Noel, Pierre Jackson, and a 2014 1st rounder for Jrue Holiday. The following year, Omer Asik arrived in a big deal with the Rockets and Wizards that involved another outgoing future first round pick.
Mortgaging the future did result in Davis’ first postseason appearance in his third year in the league, but unfortunately, injuries kept that core from ever finding meaningful success. That playoff appearance back in 2015 was very short-lived as the Pelicans were swept by the future champs, the Golden State Warriors. Although New Orleans brought in Alvin Gentry during the next offseason — in hopes of improving the product on the court, that vision failed to transpire quickly as evidenced by a lackluster 30-52 season. Consequently, Demps’ first vision was scraped.
Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon left for Houston in free agency, but in opening the Pelicans’ cap space, the team added Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Terrence Jones. In addition, New Orleans changed gears momentarily and drafted Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo. The new blue-collar roster, though, didn’t bear much fruit. With a 23-34 record and sitting two games out of the playoffs, the front office decided to make the biggest of splashes, trading for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi during the 2017 All-Star Game for a package that included Evans, Hield, Galloway and a couple of draft picks.
Finally, Anthony Davis had his equal-caliber running mate.
Although the Boogie trade failed to result in an immediate postseason appearance, there were glimpses seen by the franchise’s decision makers to continue traveling down this road. Holiday was re-signed to a lucrative contract and Rajon Rondo, Ian Clark and Darius Miller were brought in over the last summer.
Suddenly, the Pelicans were the NBA’s most interesting experiment. While the rest of the league was trying to spread the floor and add more shooters to play Warriors-style small ball, the Pelicans decided to zag to the league’s zig by building a team around two dominant big men.
Before DeMarcus Cousins’ season ending Achilles injury against the Houston Rockets on January 26, the Pelicans were on an upswing at 27-21 overall after winning four straight games and seven of eight. However, nearly all of humanity wrote New Orleans off to make the playoffs after Boogie went down and the team did little to settle fears as the Pelicans dropped five of the next six games.
”We were just figuring everything out,” said Davis on the night of Boogie’s injury. “That’s the tough part… We’ve got to keep going and just keep finding a way to win.”
The Pelicans, though, did not go quietly into the night. Instead, they went on an electrifying 10-game winning streak led by Davis, Holiday, Rondo, and new arrival, Nikola Mirotic. Prior to turning things around, New Orleans had traded away yet another future first round pick, but they did jettison the corpses of Asik, Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson for sweet-shooting Niko.
“We keep regrouping and finding a way to win,” said Gentry after the team’s tenth straight victory. “That’s the most important thing. We keep talking about, there’s a much bigger goal that we’re trying to accomplish. If we’re going to do that, we have to play against ourselves, not play against the other team. If we’re going to do that, we have to execute.”
The Pelicans continued their march towards the playoffs up to the very last day of the regular season, finishing with a 48-34 record. Most importantly, the team didn’t limp home after Cousins’ injury, winning 21 of 34 contests to earn a matchup against the three-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
This could have been the end of the story and many would have been content. For a team to lose a perennial superstar halfway through the season and still make the playoffs was quite an accomplishment. A lot of positives could have been drawn heading into the off-season and into next year. But to paraphrase Jrue Holiday, this team wanted to be “greedy” — a first round exit just wouldn’t suffice.
Before the playoffs began, the Trail Blazers were massive favorites to advance.
So, how did the Pelicans come together to shock the NBA by not only winning the series but dominating and sweeping Portland out of it in a quick four games?
As a unified team comprised by a lot of good parts and one heck of a potent starting lineup.
Sure, Anthony Davis averaged an insane 33.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 2.8 BPG and shot the ball extremely well (57.6 FG%), but the real surprises were Holiday, Mirotic and Playoff Rondo.
“I don’t know where that Playoff Rondo name came from, I don’t know who came up with that,” said Gentry after Game 2 against the Trail Blazers. “He is a guy that if you can remember last year in the Chicago-Boston series, he had them in the same situation where they went in and won two games and then he was hurt, but he’s just a guy that he really has command of the team. The guys really believe in him.”
Playoff Rondo deservedly got a lot of press, but Davis made sure to give credit to other teammates throughout the Pelicans first round series against the Blazers.
“Anytime I step on the floor, teams try to game plan for me and all these guys step up,” said Davis after the Pelicans had a 2-0 lead on Portland. “Niko made a big shot, Diallo made a big three. A big layup… Jrue played Jrue basketball. Ian made tough shots. E’Twaun… all those guys… The more teams try to take me out, the more these guys step up every night.”
And here we are, just days away from the start of the second round for the Pelicans. Though New Orleans is still very much the Anthony Davis show, the contests against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum showed that the Pelicans’ supporting cast can more than hold their own. So, don’t be surprised if New Orleans gives the Golden State Warriors all they can handle and make up for a lot of heartache from three years ago.