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Had Pelicans big man Anthony Davis not missed 14 games due to injury in 2014-15, many would have placed him right next to Stephen Curry and James Harden in the Final Triptych of Deserving Dudes. Really, when you start a descriptor off with “for the first time since LeBron James or Michael Jordan,” you’re on the right path.
The Pelicans as a franchise eventually might not work the right way up their figurative path towards championship contention in the West, but Davis certainly is. If the career arc continues apace for the 22-year old, we’re going to be watching something special.
In fact, we already have. Davis was a monster in 2014-15, leading a mismatched and oft-injured New Orleans franchise to the postseason for the first time since the Chris Paul Era. He managed 24.4 points, making over half his shots and 80 percent of his free throws, adding 10.2 boards, 2.2 assists, and a combined 4.4 blocks/steals for the Pelicans. His game-winning three-point shot against Oklahoma City in February helped break an eventual tiebreaker and send NOLA to the postseason – and guess what? He does that now.
His help side defense improved without sacrificing rejections. He played defense without fouling. His range improved, considerably. His passing improved and yet, somehow, his turnovers dipped – the man played nearly 2500 minutes as his team’s focal point, also setting offensive foul (read: turnovers)-inducing screens along the way, and yet Davis only turned the ball over 95 times all season.
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Davis led a mangled, lacking Pelicans team to the playoffs. Yes, the aforementioned Thunder were without Kevin Durant for 55 games and Russell Westbrook for 15 contests, but Davis wasn’t with a whole heck of a lot himself. His supporting cast either disappointed him with their play, or their ability to stay on the court.
It all ended in a sweep, at the hands of the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, in the first round. Davis led the playoffs in scoring average at 31.5 a game and blocks at three per contest, alongside 11 boards a game, but his team’s defense was porous and Anthony was frustrated in key moments by Warriors defenders Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. NOLA had great chances to win both Games 3 and 4 back home but failed, and the disappointing inability to grab a single game gave the Pelicans front office room to do what they’d probably planned on months prior – the team fired coach Monty Williams following the postseason.
In stepped Alvin Gentry, a Warriors associate head coach and respected leader. He comes with assistant Darren Erman, who hopes to straighten out New Orleans’ 22nd-ranked defense.
And, from there, little else.
New Orleans hasn’t had its own first round draft pick since 2012, when it selected Davis, and all it has to show for three lost picks (two from the lottery) is a sadly limping Jrue Holiday, and a center in Omer Asik that has yet to prove he can act as a proper fit alongside Davis. General manager Dell Demps appears to have overcommitted to Tyreke Evans and overestimated the allure of Eric Gordon at times in his run, and the depth is still lacking. The team has the ninth-highest payroll, with three and nearly four players making eight figures, just a few million under the luxury tax.
Worse than any of this is the injury bug that held New Orleans back next season and threatens not only its start to 2015-16, but the team’s entire season.
The latest player to go down is Tyreke Evans, out for two months after his second career right knee surgery (he had a similar cleanout procedure on his left knee following the playoffs). His game isn’t always fun to look at, and his personal numbers won’t astound, but the Pelicans were absolutely miserable with Evans off the floor last season.
Holiday’s career is teetering due to his repeated lower leg fractures, and he’ll be on a minutes restriction of 15 a game to start the season. Reserve Norris Cole suffered a high ankle sprain in camp, a nagging setback that can affect a player for months, while Luke Babbitt, center Alexis Ajinca and Quincy Pondexter (coming off of a disappointing season) are out for the foreseeable future.
The coach better click, and the star better shine.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
— NBA (@NBA) February 7, 2015
Did the summer help at all?
It started strong, went quiet in the middle, and fell to bits in the end.
Monty Williams was an interesting coach. Loved in the locker room, his work on both ends was rather intriguing – he set up an active defense (with awful results) and a quirky offense (with darn good results), but the writing was on his particular wall by spring.
Gentry will change things. He’s forthcoming without being challenging, this will be his fourth head coaching gig and his stock has never been higher after he completely revamped an underachieving Warriors offense last season. Beyond his presence, however, the Pelicans weren’t able to do a whole lot with this roster.
The team signed Davis to a record five-year, $145 million extension the minute the free agency period started, good move, and it watched as Eric Gordon opted in for the last year (at over $15 million of his contract). It re-signed Ajinca at four years and over $20 million, kept Dante Cunningham for three years and $9 million, kept Luke Babbit at the minimum for two years, while retaining a rejuvenated Norris Cole for a year and $3 million.
When injuries hit prior to training camp, the team glommed onto well-meaning but ultimately daffy types like Chris Douglas-Roberts and Nate Robinson to help with (or, let’s be honest, create) guard depth. The team also signed Alonzo Gee to a one-year, $1 million deal with a player option for 2016-17.
The squad’s pushiest move of the summer was to retain center Omer Asik at five years and $58.5 million.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
It’s Kendrick Perkins.
This isn’t us acting the part of the wiseacre, and we’re not being facetious. Coaches don’t count, Alonzo Gee, Jeff Adrien, CD-R and Nate Rob aren’t going to move the needle too much, the Pelicans didn’t have a first round pick again, and all the other signees were on the team last season.
Perkins is here to impart wisdom to Asik on how, exactly, to contribute as a starter while working as a zero on offense, and to tell heaps of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kevin Durant stories to Anthony Davis.
From there, the second place finisher would have to be Nate Robinson. We love Nate, but that should be terrifying to Pelicans fans.
The injury bug. We just can’t get away from it.
It’s not just that Tyreke Evans might not be back until Christmas, it’s that he’s had a series of knee surgeries and his effectiveness (he was fantastic in a pinch as NOLA point guard last season) could dim. The same is already true for Eric Gordon, who despite relative health in 2014-15 just hasn’t been the same since knee injuries derailed his career.
We have no idea if Pondexter will bounce back this season after his knee injury, or if the calf and persistent leg woes that have hampered Omer Asik were the reason the Pelicans were so crummy defensively with him on the floor alongside anyone but Anthony Davis. Stretch four Ryan Anderson, sadly, has not been the same since back and neck injuries sent his shooting percentages spiraling, and Jrue Holiday’s repeated leg fractures are as frightening as NBA injuries come.
Additionally, it was presumed that Kendrick Perkins (who graduated high school the same year as LeBron James) would at least be a little more sprightly at this point in his career, but he hasn’t been the same since tearing his ACL during the 2010 Finals.
You can point to the team’s inability to force turnovers, the bad depth and iffy outside shooting, but we’ll have to see how the new coaching regime handles these inherited woes. Who they’ll be able to work with, first and foremost, is key.
Contributor with something to prove:
Eric Gordon is the usual tie-in, here, but even with a solid 2014-15 under his belt it’s hard to expect much with his dodgy knees. It’s hard to be a Tyreke Evans fan at times, but he performed well last season at three positions while helping keep the Pelicans afloat. Holiday can’t be trusted right now, and due to his leg issues that’s hardly his fault.
As with everything else, the glare has to skulk over to Anthony Davis’ locker.
If he could continue to improve at the rate we’ve seen, a terrifying proposition, he could turn in an MVP season while dragging what could even be an even worse Pelicans team (however more sensibly coached) to the postseason yet again.
Potential breakout stud:
Most on the Pelicans staff have more or less established their ranks as players. Yes, when healthy, there is likely more that types like Evans or Gordon could do in a perfect world, but they’ve just about tailed off. Alexis Ajinca was a nice surprise in New Orleans, but he’s not busting out.
If anything, it could be Luke Babbitt. The sharpshooter will start the season on the mend, as it is with most his teammates, but he also shot 51 percent from long range last season and could find a role in an Alvin Gentry offense that would presumably know how to hide his defensive deficiencies while taking advantage of his perimeter gifts.
Anthony Davis carries everything. Evans returns renewed and refreshed in time for winter, once again playing three positions while thriving in Gentry’s balls-out offense. Holiday’s minutes restriction bears fruit in 2016 as the versatile guard adds a new wrinkle to New Orleans’ attack after 30-odd games of taking the action in from the bench for long stretches. The expected dives of Dallas and Portland and ascension of the healthy Oklahoma Thunder allow for one final postseason slot to grab. The team, with its MVP working at a fever pitch, somehow overcomes what is a killer early schedule.
If everything falls apart:
Hasn’t it already?
Kelly Dwyer’s notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
51-31, sixth in the West.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
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