2018-19 Preview: New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis’ Pelicans finally won a playoff series, so anything less than that will be seen as a step back for New Orleans.

After all, the five-time All-Star center has been in the League for six seasons now, and it’s high time the man who finishes third in NBA MVP voting start appearing in basketball games during May and June.

The pressure will be on Davis to make good on his MVP standing around the League, but more importantly, the Pelicans will need to show Davis that the organization is serious about contending in order to keep their star in the Big Easy. If not, rumors will abound. After all, Davis did just sign with Klutch Sports, the agency run by Rich Paul, who happens to be one of LeBron James’ best friends and his agent.

 2018-19 Pelicans  Ballhandlers  Wings  Bigs
 Returners  Jrue Holiday, Frank Jackson E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill, Ian Clark, Darius Miller  Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, Cheick Diallo, Alexis Ajinca
 Newcomers  Elfrid Payton, Jarrett Jack, Darius Morris  Troy Williams  Julius Randle, Jahlil Okafor
 Gone  Rajón Rondo, Jordan Crawford  DeAndre Liggins DeMarcus Cousins, Emeka Okafor
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Offense: As big as DeMarcus Cousins was, the Pelicans were able to replace him once he tore his Achilles by acquiring stretch forward Nikola Mirotic from Chicago in February. Mirotic’s arrival totally opened up Davis’ game as a center, unlike any of A.D.’s previous frontcourt mates, and allowed for New Orleans to finish strong while sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs.

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Losing Rajon Rondo to the Lakers via free agency this summer may be a blow the Pelicans may not recover from. Rondo was the ultimate playmaker for the Pelicans, really adding to Jrue Holiday’s game by allowing his teammate to play a James Harden-like attacking guard role while playing alongside Rondo, in addition to running the team as point guard when Rondo needed a breather. With that variable gone, one has to wonder: Will Holiday’s play suffer in 2018-19? Can youngster Elfrid Payton and/or veteran Jarrett Jack fill the quarterback void left by Playoff Rondo? After all, last season’s Pelicans led the NBA in pace, with Rondo constantly igniting fastbreak attacks with his fleet-afoot corps. Can Holiday and Payton keep that transition game stoked? Can the 34-year-old Jack run the same game? Will the point guards continue to set up Davis closer to the basket than he’s ever been, resulting in more rim shots at a highest-ever percentage like A.D.’s metrics last year?

As talented as Cousins is, New Orleans quickly discovered he was replaceable (the lack of a free agent offer merely doubled down on that notion). Not only was the Mirotic deal a godsend last year, but the Julius Randle free-agent deal for dimes on the dollar was a magnificent summer addition. Now Coach Alvin Gentry can play two of his bigs—Davis, Mirotic and Randle—at all times at the power forward and center slots for 48 minutes per game if he so desires. On that end, the Pelicans will be unstoppable. The only question is, Can this year’s guards match last season’s play?

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Defense: Three-time All-Defense center Davis and first-time All-Defense guard Holiday played some of their best defensive basketball in from February on, posting the League’s fourth-best defensive efficiency (103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) for that portion of the regular season. Only Utah, Philadelphia and Houston did better. By comparison, NOLA’s offense ranked 16th during that time span, letting all know the real reason for the Pelicans’ improvement.

Credit must also go out to starters Rondo, E’Twaun Moore, Mirotic, along with reserves Darius Miller and Ian Clark, who all played heavy minutes during that span. All but Rondo return. By being able to employ three-guard lineups, New Orleans was better able to disrupt opponents’ sets better than most.

With the injured wing Solomon Hill returning to the mix to play alongside Miller in a reserve capacity, the Pelicans’ defensive depth will be an added dimension not seen last season. Hill dealt with a hamstring injury all season long, and even when he played his 13 games during the latter portion of the season, he was not at full strength. If Hill can return to his level of play in the 2016-17 season, the entire Pelicans D will be better for it.

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Upside: Point guard Frank Jackson, and bigs Cheick Diallo and Jahlil Okafor are three prospects who may one day crack the heavy-minutes rotation, but there is no pressure on them to play immediately. For now, all eyes are on 23-year-old power forward  Julius Randle, who not only softened the blow of losing Cousins, but also offers scoring relief for Davis and Mirotic on offense. His biggest contribution, however, should come on D, where Randle can double as a small-ball center for A.D. when necessary. That is part of the reason why there is no rush for Diallo or Okafor to play big minutes just yet. The Lakers’ former prospect is now a major player in New Orleans.

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Durability: Holiday, Moore and Miller only missed one game between them, which is quite a feat for three of New Orleans’ four main minutemen. The fourth cornerstone, Davis, matched his personal best (75 games) for the second straight year, putting to rest early-career talk of him being injury-prone after missing 15-21 games in each of his first four seasons in the League. Mix in new acquisition Randle, who didn’t miss a game last season, and you really begin to see that Pelicans take no days off.

Synergy: The Pelicans are totally invested in Davis and Holiday, who have played 14,790 and 9797 minutes together in New Orleans uniforms. As for the rest of the team, they are a continual work in progress. Randle, Mirotic and Elfrid Payton all will be free agents next summer, keeping this franchise in-limbo until the day Davis signs the max extension that will take him beyond the 2020-21 season.

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Experience: The Pelicans are one of the most inexperienced teams you will ever see in the postseason, should they repeat their 2018 playoff feat. Sure, in their career, Holiday and Davis played in 30 and 13 postseason games, respectively. But when your entire 15-man roster cannot tally 100 playoff games, your franchise truly does not know what it takes to play basketball in May and June. The 34-year-old Jack is the only man on roster older than 30.

Win Frame: 37-41 wins