2017-18 Preview: New Orleans Pelicans

By Darryl Howerton #21

New Orleans does everything big. Mardi Gras. Super Bowls. All-Star Games. Big. Big. Big. Their basketball team is no different, stocked with perhaps the NBA’s best big-man pair in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, along with highly-compensated 16-minuteman backup bigs in centers Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, not to mention fellow returning giant Cheick Diallo, an intriguing 21-year-old prospect in his own right. That said, can an NBA team be too big to succeed? After all, the Pelicans have not been too big to fail, evidenced by their subpar record last season (34-48). But then again, All-Star Cousins did not join All-Star Davis until the season was more than halfway over. Given a full training camp and 82 games to figure each other out, perhaps these Pelicans may be big enough to stand out in an era when small ball is taking over.

Pelicans 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Jrue Holiday E’Twaun Moore, Jordan Crawford, Solomon Hill Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Cheick Diallo
Newcomers Rajon Rondo, Frank Jackson Tony Allen, Ian Clark, Darius Miller, Perry Jones
Gone Tim Frazier, Jarrett Jack, Quinn Cook  Wayne Selden, Axel Toupane Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Offense: In the A.D. Era, the Pelicans actually peaked under Anthony Davis’ leadership during the 2014-15 season when Davis was 22. Back then, New Orleans reached the first round of the NBA Playoffs with a winning record (45-37), while the Pels fielded a starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Davis and Asik, with Ryan Anderson, Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham coming off the bench. Since that time, New Orleans has struggled to find its identity with so many injured players in that span. In time, the roster changed, mostly via free agency. Now—thanks to last season’s February trade for Cousins—the retooled offense hopes Cousins stays around long enough to see if two bigs together can work in 2017 NBA. With Holiday and Rajon Rondo being given the keys to become the creative playmakers in this new deal, both Davis and Cousins won’t have to do it alone, as they may have attempted to do so in times past. After all, nobody questions the point-guard skills of Holiday or Rondo, just as all consider both Davis and Cousins versatile All-NBA bigs on their best days. That said, it is the rest of the roster that can be called into question. The 6-11, 270-pound Cousins may be the team’s best three-point shooter, while Davis could be their best long-2 shooter. It bodes well that either big man can create space for the other to work down low. But what is not favorable is when the rest of the team does not have much high-volume three-point shooting experience, with the most of those treys coming from Ian Clark (61 for 163 three-pointers at 37 percent in 2016-17),  Crawford (37 for 95 at 39 percent), Moore (77 for 2018 at 37 percent) and Holiday (100 for 281 at 35 percent). That lack of three-point attack is part of the reason why New Orleans ranked 26th in offensive efficiency in 2016-17.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Defense: It is no surprise the 2016-17 Pelicans had a top-10 D—ranking ninth in defensive efficiency, to be exact—with Davis (2016-17 All-Defensive Second Team) leading the attack. However, now that A.D. has Cousins (2.6 combined blocks/steals for his career) by his side there is no reason why this Pelicans squad could not rank amongst the best defensive units in the NBA. Rondo and Holiday have the skills and smarts to be ball hawks. Cousins is not as versatile nor accomplished a defender as Davis, but he is an enforcer by nature. Freed from playing goalie, Davis could become the perennial Defensive Player of the Year winner, with his blend of athleticism and skill set. If the latter happens, the formers will occur as well, which in turn will turn NOLA D into a real thing in this NBA. You know Grit-‘n-Grind O.G. Tony Allen, formerly of Memphis, will have no problem transforming his fellow wings into stoppers and shot challengers. But if the 24-year-old Davis can take his game to DPOY level, New Orleans can become a 50- to 60-win ball club.

Jonathan Bachman /NBAE via Getty Images

Upside: As just mentioned, Davis’ upside on D is the empty checklist that AD needs to attend to next. Not just for himself, but for the sake of his teammates, including young pupil Diallo, who is starting to show the signs of a blossoming offensive performer (the 6-9, 220-pound power forward only played 199 minutes in 2016-17, but the 2016 second-round pick grabbed 73 rebounds and scored 87 points). On a team loaded with bigs, he’s a tall one to keep an eye on.

Durability: The reason most people write off the Pelicans as a playoff pick is because their whole team has been so injury-prone. Starting forward Solomon Hill already may be out for the season after hamstring surgery. Cousins has missed 10, 17, 23 and 11 games the past four seasons, respectively. Davis, who only missed seven games in 2016-17, had missed between 14 and 21 games in each of his first four seasons in the NBA. Holiday’s count reads similarly, missing 15, 17, 42 and 48 games respectively the past four seasons. Most of the rest of the players on the Pelicans’ roster have similar rap sheets. Until New Orleans players can prove they can stay on the court, nobody will believe.

Synergy: Davis and Holiday are the two New Orleans institutions, who have logged 11,702 and 6,521 minutes in NO uniforms. Most of their teammates have come and gone through the years, which is the main reason for the lack of cohesion, on both offense and defense. Not once, since this franchise landed their franchise-altering player as a No. 1 draft pick in 2012, have the Pelicans fielded a top 10 offense and defense simultaneously. Head coach Alvin Gentry has his work cut out for him to produce both this season, but the stakes are high, especially with Cousins entering his middle-max free agency season as an eight-year NBA vet. If he can mesh with his new teammates and the oldest Pelicans, this team indeed has a future, not to mention, a present.

Experience: A couple former Celtics are who Davis, Cousins and Holiday will lean on should the team reach the playoffs this season. After all, Rondo and Allen—both members of Boston’s 2008 NBA championship squad—are the two leading postseason minutemen on the squad, ranking 35th (23,045 playoff minutes) and 69th (17,782) among active players in the league. Meanwhile, Clark is a third Pelican who has an NBA championship ring, with the newbie sharpshooter earning his jewelry as a reserve guards on the Golden State Warriors’ 2017 NBA championship squad.

Win Frame: 40-45 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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