NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
Coach: Alvin Gentry (third year)
Last Season: 34-48 (10th in Western Conference)
Notable Additions: Rajon Rondo (free agency), Tony Allen (free agency), Ian Clark (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Tim Frazier (trade), an undetermined percentage of Omer Asik (Crohn’s disease)
Vegas Over/Under: 39.5
Best-Case Scenario: Anthony Davis and a slim-fit DeMarcus Cousins prove a versatile enough frontcourt to cram big ball into the small-ball era; New Orleans makes the playoffs for the second time in the AD era, and locals finally realize their team isn’t called the Hornets anymore.
The rocky start to the Boogie-Brow alliance seemed to only reaffirm the consensus that a zag toward Twin Towers wouldn’t work in an NBA where Dirk and Kevin Love starting at the 5 is no big deal. But while the Pelicans were a paltry 7-10 with Cousins in the lineup last season, they were a plus-2.9 in net rating in the 394 minutes Cousins and Davis played together, with an already-upper-tier defense performing at a league-best rate. The offense still had a you go, I go feel, even in the duo’s best moments together, but there was something there.
Yet, after another perplexing offseason, it could be difficult for the team to rekindle whatever that something was. With their hands tied, the Pels bit down hard and overpaid Jrue Holiday (five years, $126 million) to be their third star. Sure. Fine. But with limited means and forced to dance around the luxury tax, the “big get” of the summer somehow ended up being noted ball-pounder Rondo, a 31-year-old who hasn’t been a good NBA player since Davis’s rookie season and figures to only compound the shooting issues that dogged the Pelicans all last season. (Note to anyone pointing out Rondo’s career-high 3-point shooting last season: He also logged a career low from inside the arc and somehow shot under 50 percent within 3 feet. These things are related!)
New Orleans also took fliers on Ian Clark and Darius Miller and brought back Dante Cunningham, a 4 whose masquerade as a 3 in Gentry’s tenure underlines the team’s barrel-scraping for 3-and-D help. But, for the most part, the Pels are stuck hoping space for their big boys comes from some combination of Holiday’s efficiency behind the arc catching up to his increased volume, Davis’s long-rumored 3-point range finally manifesting itself, and balancing its frontcourt looks with three-guard sets.
In the meantime, there’s still the defense, which can now throw out two members of last season’s all-defense second team (Allen, Davis), a player just on the fringes of a selection (Holiday), and a few more capable hands. The parallels here to Grit ’N’ Grind are obvious, given the addition of Allen, the market, the two bigs, and the surplus of surliness. Diving headfirst into the mud may be trickier against today’s stretchier competition; even the original Grit-’N’-Grinders have evolved past it. But it wouldn’t be the worst approach for a franchise still trying to carve out an identity in a football-obsessed city where any sustained success would be welcome, even a string of first-round outs.
The reward for doing so this season? Trying to figure out how to swallow the massive tax bill that’d come with keeping Cousins as a part of the winning combination. Cool!
Worst-Case Scenario: The fit between Cousins and Davis is never quite right; injuries strike again (natch); the front office and coaching staff are overhauled; Cousins walks without compensation next summer; we’re subjected to daily whispers of Davis’s imminent departure to the Boston Celtics; and questions about why there’s a team in New Orleans and not Seattle become louder and louder. Y’know, small potatoes.
As bleak as that sounds, a full-blown reboot might be the best thing for a franchise that, of late, has operated with the same rationale one employs while paying off one credit card with another. The Pelicans were the chic upstart, and Davis the Next Big Thing, after a late surge into the 2015 playoffs. But ever since, the team’s attempts to stay on trend have played out with the refinement of a Weird Al cover.
They hired then–Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry, a coach more closely associated with fast, small-ball offenses than perhaps any in the league at the time, and then shelled out $63 million guaranteed to two plodding centers. When Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon walked the next summer, the Pelicans paid Solomon Hill about $12 million a year because Demps had a great chitchat with him at an airport three years prior (or something). Then, without a hint of irony, the team began proclaiming that it needed to play more like the Celtics, i.e., The Team Your Superstar Told You Not To Worry About. Now, with former Nuggets assistant Chris Finch in the fold, there’s talk of off-ball cuts and having Cousins Jokic-strate the offense. But Davis comparing himself and Cousins to the combustible Nikola Jokic–Jusuf Nurkic combo may be closer to the unfortunate truth than he intended.
Either way, it’s hardly a secret to everyone around the organization that this season is the last chance to figure it out.
TL;DR: Hope for the start of a fun, snarly new era; prepare for the start of another rebuild.