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New Orleans Pelicans expand core, identity in ‘Summer of Transformation’

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Building on the organization’s latest success has potential to pay off handsomely and keep Anthony Davis around for longer than critics think.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Jahlil Okafor called this offseason his summer of transformation, and it’s been such for a number of parts within the New Orleans Pelicans organization.

With an unselfish core eager to take the next step, an identity the franchise has found success in and newcomers enticed by recent success, New Orleans put its faith in this group to push the organization further than ever before.

Anthony Davis has cemented his place as one of the best players in the NBA, but choosing to change representation and sign with Klutch Sports agent Rich Paul — who also represents LeBron James — made the 25-year-old’s desire for continued growth evident. It was a decision Davis thinks will help him move toward becoming the most dominant player in the league.

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

“It was just for where I am right now in my career, what I’m trying to do. I thought the change was necessary,” Davis said Monday during Pelicans media day. “That’s all it was. I’m just trying to be the most dominant player in the league.”

Jrue Holiday joined Davis on the 2017-18 NBA All-Defensive First Team and emerged as arguably the most valuable two-way guard in the league. During New Orleans’ first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, it was clear Holiday started to play with newfound energy and confidence — something the Pelicans believe will continue in the coming season.

“Jrue really looks like he’s in midseason form,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “He’s in great shape right now. I think he’s ready to take off and have another year like he had last year. I thought he was really as good as any guard in the league, especially from a two-way standpoint last year. He’s at that age too where he’s really coming into his own. 27-to-30 years old is where most of the guys take off in this league and really play their best basketball.”

E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill both return after using the summer to better their play on the wing this season. Moore smirked when asked about his summer preparation, offering up he made an attempt to gain bulk in anticipation of assuming duties out of position at small forward again. Hill was sidelined for 70 games of the 2017-18 season due to a hamstring injury, but the team feels he’s in the best shape since its occurrence and is hopeful he can provide much-needed depth at his position.

With Nikola Mirotic, Ian Clark and Darius Miller all prepared to recreate the Pelicans postseason success for a second year as well, New Orleans attempts to set a trajectory for its core from a year ago aimed past the Western Conference semifinals.

“That’s how championship teams are built,” assistant coach Darren Erman said in a Q&A with The Advocate. “Very rarely is there a 2008 Boston Celtics that are built overnight and win a championship. Usually it’s San Antonio, Golden State or Miami, who even took another year after LeBron got there. Having guys who know the other guys on the floor and can build their knowledge rather than starting over is really helpful.”

Not only are championship aspirations built around a consistent core, but also adding pieces capable of positively pushing the boundaries within a team system and identity.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Julius Randle said the decision to join the Pelicans was a no-brainer, adding that he wants his relationship with New Orleans to last long-term. Randle chose this team for one reason: he feels he will benefit in a fast-paced offense next to unselfish stars. Elfrid Payton was attracted by much of the same, but asking him to replace the production of veteran guard Rajon Rondo is a difficult task. Payton will be expected not only to push the ball but to regain his reputation as a defender. Davis expects Payton, alongside Holiday, to create what he said could become the best defensive backcourt in the league.

Reservations about the transition exist and rightfully so given how close the Western Conference playoff race will be. More importantly, the Pelicans were able to fill in the holes left after losing two starters in free agency based on a recognizable identity. That’s exactly why success is necessary not only to retain it, but to carry it into the summer of 2019 with cap space to explore. Regardless, the Pelicans plan to live or die this season at full speed ahead.

Gentry relates taking a franchise from good to great with an amateur golfer improving his or her game. An amateur golfer can start out shooting 115 for the course and slowly work down to 90 or so, but the step in consistently shooting less than 90 is incredibility difficult. As an identity hangs in the balance, and the commitment of the superstar that drives its existence, Gentry plans to stick to the fine-tuning and letting everything else fall into place.

“We have to put the best team out on the floor,” Gentry said. “We have to try to make AD the best player that he can possibly be. We’ve got to try to be successful as a franchise. Then if we do all that, all the other stuff takes care of itself.”