Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard lookat the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 12
Last Season: 48-34 (sixth in West)
Notable Additions: Julius Randle (free agency), Elfrid Payton (free agency), Jahlil Okafor (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: DeMarcus Cousins (free agency), Rajon Rondo (free agency)
Vegas Over/Under: 45.5
Team MVP: Anthony Davis
Best-Case Scenario: Things finally go as planned, and the Pelicans take a leap four years in the making.
New Orleans got a taste of rarefied air in the 2015 playoffs, but has been searching for the next fix ever since. The turnover in team identity has become so rapid as a result that each of the past two seasons had their own two micro-seasons. The Pelicans regrouped from an injury-marred 2015-16 by outfitting Davis with scrappy defenders, but junked that plan before the trade deadline to deal for DeMarcus Cousins; then, after hitting a stride playing Big Ball, Cousins went down, Nikola Mirotic came aboard, and Alvin Gentry finally got to hit the NOS button.
The current rendition is probably the best one—because the overall talent level is higher, sure, but also because it’s the one best fitted to the two core players remaining from the 2015 playoff team: Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Holiday played more off the ball than ever last season, and the extra attention on his own offense, while playing in 81 games, led to his emergence as one of the league’s elite two-way forces. Davis’s shift to full-time center also produced some of his best basketball to date, which is like having your cake and eating it too and then having and eating more cake. As both players reached new heights, the team that filled in around them came to feel more like an extension of their best attributes: They were fast and feisty, and struck a balance on both sides of the ball—a struggle even in the heady times of Davis’s third-year ascent. After Boogie was felled by an Achilles rupture, New Orleans ranked among the league’s 10 best teams in win rate and net rating. In the end, the Pelicans’ first big swing at filling in around Davis proved to be the right one.
When Cousins and Rajon Rondo bolted in free agency, the Pelicans doubled down on their new approach. Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton won’t help their middle-of-the-road 3-point shooting, but both are athletic playmakers who are used to ripping and running (and in the former’s case, barrelling into the paint). Unsurprisingly, the Pels are, dare I say, flying in the preseason, with a pace (118) even faster than what they clocked post-Boogie (104.5). New Orleans is also high on Frank Jackson, a 2017 second-rounder who medically redshirted last season, and could reap the benefits of a svelte Jahlil Okafor, who, though embattled, can still do some damage to a second unit’s defense (I’ll let you guess which side I’m referring to). But the key may be Mirotic. Finding a suitable frontcourt partner for Davis has always proven difficult; his skill set is so unique that it needs to be complemented by an equally unique player. But in Mirotic the Pels seem to have found a Ryan Anderson 2.0 (i.e., a shooting 4 with the bulk to guard centers when needed) who doesn’t give away all of his value on defense. They still don’t have a prototypical 3 they can count on, but otherwise, the roster just makes sense.
The downside is that after trying their hands at being chaos agents, the Pelicans now look more like the teams they’ll try to leapfrog in the West. The dream of upending the Warriors’ stranglehold with their two skilled Godzillas died when Cousins crumpled to the floor last January. But maximizing two of the best 30 players in basketball isn’t a bad fallback plan.
Worst-Case Scenario: Things go awry again, and the Pelicans finally feel the repercussions of their continually delayed ascent.
Barring injury, New Orleans seems like a safe bet to make the playoffs. Questions arise the longer you stare at the particulars, namely: Can Payton can stick as the starting point guard? Can Solomon Hill become the wing stopper they’re paying him to be? Can the new additions bolster an offense that dipped to league average after losing Boogie? But a healthy Holiday and Davis, backed by a staunch defense and continuity at key spots, is more than most West teams without five Hall of Famers can claim.
Back-to-back postseason appearances would be a notable step forward for a franchise with only seven total to its name, but simply making the cut no longer feels like enough. Though Davis can’t opt out of his contract until the summer of 2020, he can sign a supermax starting this summer; any decision signals his intent long term, and thus sets in motion the star-player exit playbook we’ve by now become quite familiar with. Whatever you read into him signing with LeBron James’s agency, it was at least an acknowledgement that he’s thinking ahead to his next move. Fair or not, everything that happens from here on out will be framed with Davis’s future in mind.
You can make the case for the Pelicans as the third-best team in the West. Utah may operate with machine-like precision, but New Orleans has a top-three player just entering his prime. “Anthony Davis is limitless,” Zach Lowe wrote in the fall of 2015 to explain picking the Pelicans third in his League Pass rankings, and I think about that every time I’ve tried to get a handle of the Pelicans’ potential. That is still true of Davis, but the Pelicans no longer can rely on possibility. They need to be great, this season.
TL;DR: The Pelicans are capable of becoming an elite team in the West. They need to be.