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The Pelicans Are Gambling With Their Backcourt

With DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis taking so many touches inside, the pressure on the backcourt to provide spacing is enormous

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Alvin Gentry did not leave Golden State to coach Anthony Davis to two 30-some-win seasons. But that’s the Pelicans, forever set to tumble-dry, perpetually damp every time you check on them. New Orleans is desperate to break that cycle, re-signing Jrue Holiday and adding Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark this summer after acquiring DeMarcus Cousins the trade deadline last season. But for that to happen, everything has to fall right. Only one team struck gold in health, roster fit, and talent last season: appropriately, that was the Golden State Warriors. More appropriately, they won it all.

The Pels have a better chance at finding pyrite. "Right now, I think we look good on paper," Davis told ESPN last week. "We've just got to figure it out." The All-Star power forward is right—with the team nearing the hard cap, there’s no flexibility if this roster doesn’t mesh. When the season begins, New Orleans needs to look good off paper, too, because all the remaining paper is gone. The franchise will pay $118.4 million in guaranteed contracts this season, slightly under the $119 million luxury tax limit. Even the midlevel exception, which was used to sign Rondo, Darius Miller, and Frank Jackson, is dried up.

The danger in having Holiday and Davis as the franchise’s two highest-paid players is that they’re also the most injury-prone. Over five seasons with the team, AD has missed 75 games; the Sixers paid $3 million in fines after dealing Holiday because they sugarcoated his past ailments. Even if the squad remains healthy, there’s no guarantee that this is the roster that will take the Pelicans back to the playoffs. The franchise is gambling on the fit of its stars as much their ability to take the court all season. Gentry told the Dunc & Holder podcast in mid-July that he plans on using both point guards, Rondo and Holiday, for the starting lineup. Because the Pels "like [Holiday’s] scoring," he’ll start at the 2, but the franchise player will alternate into the ballhandling spot as well. It’s Rockets lite.

Once again, it makes sense on paper: Rondo does need the ball in his hands, while Holiday can play off the ball effectively. The latter takes twice as many deep shots, as well, though—Rajon defenders unite—Rondo finished his Bulls stint with the highest 3-point accuracy (37.6 percent) of his career. Still, $30 million is a high price for a backcourt experiment. The alternates, Jordan Crawford and Clark, can offer the Pels a well shot of respite in deep shooting. Last year Clark put up a .558 effective field goal percentage, his best ever. But in his four-year professional career, the former Warrior never averaged over 15 minutes a game. Understandable, by Golden State standards, but he’s another chance that New Orleans needs to flesh out well.

Spacing from the backcourt is crucial in an offense with Cousins and Davis, two top-10 scorers that primarily make their livings near the rim. It’s new assistant coach Chris Finch’s mission to maximize the fit between the two bigs, something Boogie’s midseason trade didn’t quite allow the time to work out last year. "How do they share the space on the floor with each other?" Finch asked during an interview with 1280 AM, a local radio station.

"That’s going to be one thing we prioritize with them. … DeMarcus is an elite passer; Anthony has really been working on his ballhandling. Their job is going to be to make the players around them better, to create high-quality shots by forcing the defense to react to what they do."

Finch hails from Denver, where he spent a season trusting a big at the top of the floor. It resulted in one of the NBA’s top offenses, though Nikola Jokic is a remarkably gifted facilitator. He averaged the second-most assists for the Nuggets last season, to the tune of 4.9 per game. Finch sees that same potential to be maxed out in Boogie, who last season dished out a career-high 4.6 assists. There’s risk in constructing an offense with the bricks the rest of the league discarded for modern, small-ball styles, as guard and wing-heavy lineups erect themselves all around New Orleans in the Western Conference, but risk is what the Pelicans are building a season on.