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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: New Orleans Pelicans

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Monty Williams is counting on Jrue Holiday to lead his new'ish core (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

What happens if a “win now” team fails to even win half of its games, and eventually misses the playoffs?

Well, you talk about how young the team is, and how it’s full of impressive trading chips.

What happens when you bring up the fact that the team could have been even younger, and that the last two trades the franchise’s general manager has made have been a little surprising and criticized to a large extent in some quarters?

We’ve got a new name! (Runs away.)

The New Orleans Pelicans, as is the case with most other NBA teams, want to make the playoffs this season. Not content to watch possible center of the future Nerlens Noel work his way back from an ACL tear, the Pelicans dealt their top pick from last June’s draft (along with a protected 2014 first round pick) for an All-Star. This would seem to be a sound move if the All-Star in return wasn’t Jrue Holiday (nice, but a fringe All-Star working in a year without Derrick Rose’s ASG contention in place), and if the 2014 draft didn’t potentially feature a top notch collection of prospects throughout the lottery.

The second trade that GM Dell Demps cobbled together was a three team deal that gave Sacramento the competent holdover point guard they needed (Greivis Vasquez, who played well last season for the then-Hornets in coach Monty Williams’ slowed down offense), and gave the Portland Trail Blazers the competent holdover center they needed in Robin Lopez. In return, the Pelicans took in someone they probably didn’t need – former Kings Rookie of the Year, and ball dominator Tyreke Evans.

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This means that if incumbent scorer Eric Gordon’s trade leverage was at an all-time low for the Pelicans following the draft and the Holiday pickup, then Demps managed to dig a bit of a hole for that leverage to bunker down in after taking in Evans. In Holiday, Gordon and Evans the Pelicans have three high-usage players that need the ball in their hands to be effective. And though all three are adept at making the obvious extra pass (Holiday, who will start at point guard, more so than the others), this is still a rotation with quite a bit to figure out.

All while attempting to jump 18 wins or so in order to make the postseason. With a coach in Williams (a Nate McMillan acolyte) who limits possessions and, as a result, big per game numbers for his guards.

Good thing Anthony Davis is still around.

If Davis stays healthy and continues to round out, the second year big man could be in line for a monster season. The Kentucky product lost out on the Rookie of the Year to Portland’s Damian Lillard last season, but at no point during that campaign did any NBA analyst worth their salt back away from thinking that Davis would finish his career as the best player from the 2012 draft. Though Anthony has some upside as a smallish center in the modern NBA, his face-up ability and shooting stroke (if, not necessarily, shooting makes at this stage) should turn him into a killer power forward. And while the Pelicans still need to bring in a top-flight big man, face up center Jason Smith is a good enough player to hold the fort for now.

Anthony should improve on his somewhat lacking (he was a 19-year old rookie, after all) individual defense in his second season, and if Davis can up his minutes per game to 33 or so and play over 75 contests this season (28.8 minutes per game and 60 games last year), his presence alone should pull New Orleans out of the defensive doldrums. Local media may point to their 14th-ranked defensive points per game average, but that was masked by the team’s slow pace. In terms of points per possession the squad was the fourth-worst in the NBA last year.

The litany of scoring guards and Ryan Anderson’s presence won’t help that, but Davis has the ability to cover a multitude of sins. Still, Monty Williams is up against it in his fourth season.

New Orleans’ depth isn’t great, the team won’t have a first round pick next June, and next year’s payroll will feature three players making eight figures a year, with Ryan Anderson not far below that mark. Williams will have to develop a weave of a structure that will attempt to not only get the best out of a former All-Star in Holiday and a former all-around stud with promise in Evans, but raise Gordon’s value so that the team can find solid helpers in the front court.

That’s a lot to ask for a coach that has had a fitful time dealing with franchise player headaches, an ownership change, botched trades, personnel missteps, and massive turnover. Despite the changes, the current players will all play to their respective strengths and follow their respective curves. The key is enhancing that production. Will Williams provide them with the atmosphere they need in order to create?

The answer comes in April. For now, we’d just settle for Monty letting his guards run a little bit.

Projected record: 37-45

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Anthony Davis, after rejecting some punk kid's shot. (Getty Images)

Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Pelicans for … Anthony Davis reminding us why we all got so excited.

You might have come away from 2012-13 feeling like Anthony Davis’ rookie campaign was kind of a letdown. After all, he was tabbed as a game-changer well before New Orleans lucked up and snagged him with 2012’s No. 1 pick, a 6-foot-10 monster whose wingspan, athleticism and instincts made him a rare defensive prospect and the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year ... and that didn’t happen. (Despite statistical arguments that it should’ve.)

In fact, Davis only accomplished one of his preseason goals: making the All-Rookie First Team. While his objectives were unreasonably lofty, and while a spate of injuries largely scuttled his chances of achieving them, they still represent a bar that he set and failed to clear. Also, New Orleans posted nearly the same winning percentage with Davis as they did before he arrived. Plus, the Hornets’ defense dropped from middle-of-the-pack to 28th in the league last season, and actually allowed more points per possession with Davis on the floor than when he sat. Add it all up and, yeah, you can see the argument for it being a disappointing debut.

If you watched the Hornets, though -- not exactly the easiest thing to do, since they dropped out of contention before Christmas, barely appeared on national TV and were most relevant when preparing to become birds -- you saw why Davis topped the NBA general managers’ list of likely breakout candidates.

There was the elite finishing at the rim (67.8 percent in the restricted area, 10th-best among forwards with at least 100 attempts, per NBA.com), which you knew about, but also the evidence (however slight) of touch on the jumper, which you didn’t. The advanced understanding of how to find and exploit space off the ball, and the ability to supplement his lacking low-post and face-up game by being devastating in transition and on the pick-and-roll.

The flexibility he offers New Orleans’ offense by being able to contribute without dominating the ball, or even really needing plays called for him. The capacity to limit mistakes when he does get the rock, turning it over only once in every 10 possessions used. The blocked shots, all 112 of them, with a rejection rate that made him the NBA’s eighth most-frequent shot-swatter.

The individual counting stats might not have been as impressive as we expected, but the building blocks of an advanced NBA offensive arsenal were there, and far earlier than many anticipated. Now, with a year of seasoning and improved grasp of the challenges of big-man defense, plus another summer of impressive Team USA duty and work on his face-up game, Davis seems poised to take a major step forward. He’s looked fearsome in preseason, averaging 21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.1 combined blocks/steals in just 29 minutes per night for the rebranded and revamped Pelicans; granted, it’s just preseason, but it’s a start, and it’s got New Orleans fans thinking very big when it comes to what Davis might provide this year.

Whether his production – combined with the additions of guards Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, hoped-for bounce-back seasons from Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, and the long-range sniping of Ryan Anderson – can push the Pelicans past .500 and into the Western playoff hunt remains to be seen. If nothing else, though, the 20-year-old Davis should give us reasons to keep a close eye on New Orleans and remember why he inspired such excitement in the first place.

Honorable mentions: The next turn in the ongoing Gordon soap opera; whether Evans can thrive in the Manu-type role he reportedly wants; whether Holiday plays like the All-Star of last year’s first half or the 40-percent-from-the-floor version of the second; Year 1 of fearsome birds!

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

When the then-Hornets obtained Eric Gordon in exchange for Chris Paul, they presumably thought they were acquiring a potential All-Star and foundational player. Two seasons and all of 51 games later, the organization likely has more questions than answers regarding its starting shooting guard. Gordon has suffered through injuries, often appeared less than excited to wear the team’s jersey, and generally been an underwhelming figure. Plus, who knows what he really thinks of their new mascot?

Gordon has been a victim of bad circumstance, certainly, and it’s possible that he’s just waiting for a better situation. If that’s the case, then this season should be his coming-out party in New Orleans. With Jrue Holiday at point guard, Tyreke Evans set to become another scorer and creator, and Anthony Davis set to familiarize the basketball world with the new position of “power condor,” the Pelicans look like a contender for a spot in the postseason. To accomplish that goal, Gordon is going to have to play like the multifaceted talent he appeared to be in his first few seasons with the Clippers.

There’s no clear reason why he shouldn’t be able to do just that. Gordon still has those skills, and his injuries haven’t robbed him of his athleticism just yet. On the other hand, he also hasn’t been on the court enough to convince the Pelicans that they know what they’re getting. It’s time they learned exactly that.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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