Pelicans hope right mix of players in place for one key playoff push
NEW ORLEANS — Pelicans forward Anthony Davis summarized the upcoming season on the eve of training camp.
“It’s like we’ve got one year to figure it out,” Davis said Monday.
That’s because one year is the duration of the contracts of several key players — center DeMarcus Cousins, new point guard Rajon Rondo, new defensive stopper Tony Allen, new guard Ian Clark and recently re-signed forward Dante Cunningham.
It could also be all the time that general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry have to get New Orleans back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The duration of their futures with the Pelicans are less certain than the players’, but they’re all in this together. A failure to make the playoffs could lead to major changes and dim playoff prospects by mid-season could lead to the shopping of players, most notably Cousins, in search of compensation that won’t be forthcoming for anyone who leaves in free agency next summer.
But New Orleans is hopeful that it’s most talented team in nearly a decade will produce a playoff berth.
The mid-season acquisition of Cousins in February to pair with Anthony Davis gave the Pelicans a unique combination of big men at a time when big men are becoming scarce in the NBA. But the team wasn’t appreciably more successful after the trade than it had been before the trade.
“We had to do everything on the fly last year,” Gentry said. “It takes time to adjust when you add a player of that magnitude.”
Cousins made an adjustment during the off-season by losing what he called “a significant amount” of weight.
“We have a chance to change the style of play in the league,” Cousins said. “We have a unique set-up, something that hasn’t been seen in a while.”
But the two big men aren’t enough by themselves. In the off-season, New Orleans added Rondo to allow re-signed Jrue Holiday to concentrate on playing shooting guard, Allen to increase the team’s defensive and mental toughness and Clark to upgrade the 3-point shooting.
The team lost small forward Solomon Hill to a season-ending hamstring injury, leaving a hole in the starting lineup. That left Gentry pondering whether to slide recently re-signed Dante Cunningham into that spot or, when the match-up is right, opting for a three-guard lineup by having Holiday, Allen or E-Twaun Moore replace Hill.
Regardless of who starts at small forward, Davis will find himself guarding the opponent’s small forward more than he has in the past.
Cousins and Rondo played together in Sacramento and are clearly excited to be reunited for this season.
Rondo said he hasn’t played “with a guy like” Cousins since Rondo and Kevin Garnett won an NBA title together in Boston in 2008.
“He wants to bite your head off every night,” Rondo said. “He puts fear in a lot of guys in this league every night and I love it.”
Rondo’s presence gives the Pelicans a purer point guard than it had with Holiday, who is going from being a point guard/shooting guard to a shooting guard/point guard.
“Those six to eight really tough baskets every game become three or four because he makes the game a lot easier,” Cousins said of Rondo. “He’s the ultimate floor general. His knowledge of the game is through the roof. It’s scary the way he sees things before they happen.”
Even Rondo would have a hard time visualizing what is going to happen this season. Though New Orleans should be better, it still plays in the Western Conference, home of the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
Like the Pelicans, several other teams in the West have made significant additions — Houston (Chris Paul), Oklahoma City (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) and Minnesota (Jimmy Butler) — to try and catch the Warriors, while continuing to fight with San Antonio, Utah, Memphis and Portland to be upwardly mobile in what Gentry called “an arms race” in the West.
Last season New Orleans lost its first eight games after starting the previous season 1-11.
“It’s really tough to recover in the West if you start 2-10 or 0-13 or something like that,” Gentry said.
But this team seems unlikely to start off as poorly as the last two.
“We have the right DNA,” Rondo said.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…