Pelicans open training camp with eyes on winning now
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 1, 2019
The future may be now.
As much as David Griffin and the rest of the New Orleans Pelicans have talked about shaping the team for the long-term, they seemed intently focused on making waves this NBA season at the franchise’s annual media day.
With training camp officially beginning Tuesday morning, the Pelicans and their fans finally had to wake up from their dream offseason, when seemingly everything that could go right, actually did.
Today, the actual business of becoming a team started in earnest. No more Summer Leagues. No more pickup games.
The Pelicans presented themselves in line with Griffin’s confident attitude. The Pelicans are not ready to compete for a championship, but they are building as if that day is coming sooner rather than later.
“We’re gonna pursue wins from the get-go,” said Griffin. “We’re not here to facilitate spectating, we’re here to beat people’s ass. That’s what we want to do. But, we’re young enough that we may not be able to deliver on that everyday, and we’ll have to deliver on getting better than the day before. But, we’re walking in the door intending to win basketball games.”
Every sports executive says it. Most mean it. But, with Griffin, his goal is to live it, and have an organization that does the same.
He’s put together a leadership group as good as any in the NBA, and the franchise spared no expense in upgrading its staff, facilities, and, most importantly its roster.
It’s a new vibe. One that Jrue Holiday has felt.
“It’s different, at least from my time being here,” Holiday said. “There’s an energy here when you walk into the gym. The changes that they’ve made…have just been amazing, and the short time that they did it.
“The energy is definitely different. It’s picked up. People love coming into the gym and work, so I’m really excited.”
As is Alvin Gentry, who enters his fifth season on the bench.
“We’re looking forward to the start of the season,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great group of guys that are gonna work for the same common goal. I can see that just watching the pickup games that they play.”
Over the next 21 days, Gentry and his coaches will have to teach a new offense to 12 players, and a new defensive strategy to the entire team.
“We’ve got to be really good at the basics,” Gentry added. “Basic defense. Basic offense…Those are the things that I think we’ve gotta get down right away, and all the other things we can help advance when we’re doing player development.
“And as the season goes you’ll always be putting in things, and adding situations.”
The addition of former Rockets assistant Jeff Bzdelik should help improve a defense that ranked 24th in the league after finishing 14th last season, and 10th in 2016-17.
“I told the guys I’d be really disappointed if we weren’t a top ten defensive team, or a top five defensive team,” said Gentry. “I think we’ve got the depth…I think we’re very much on the same page of being aggressive defensively; not reacting but making the offense react to us.”
There’s a lot to do, and precious little time to do so. However, Gentry is fully confident in what can be accomplished by opening night.
“I wouldn’t trade my staff for any staff in the NBA,” Gentry said, looking over to his assistants hanging to the side of the media room.
There are plenty of toys to play with, beginning with the man-child Zion Williamson. While Williamson may or may not have been given supernatural athletic abilities at birth, he is both incredibly charming and surprisingly reflective for a 19-year old who is getting to know the entire world.
“It’s been crazy and fun,” he said with a smile nearly as broad as his shoulders. “Always on the move but, just having fun. I think when people look at what I’m doing, they’ll say it’s very stressful but I’m having fun with it…meeting my new teammates, trying to gel with them, it’s a fun process.
“I’m 19. Two years ago I was just a senior in high school, and now I’m sitting here.”
— Karen Loftus (@kcloftus) September 30, 2019
Griffin and head coach Alvin Gentry have a luxury with Williamson that the franchise didn’t have when Chris Paul or Anthony Davis began their careers in New Orleans; a roster deep and talented enough that if it plays to its capabilities, can compete at a high level, while allowing Zion to grow into the superstar he’s expected to be.
“I think the thing that we’ve gotta understand is that he’s not here to save our franchise,” Gentry stated. “Here’s here to be a part of something that Griff has referred to as ‘sustainable winning,’ and he’s going to be a guy who contributes but we’re not going to ask him to put on a cape and save our franchise.”
No one player can do it alone. The Pelicans already tried that experiment and got one playoff series win out of it.
With battle-tested veterans like Holiday, Derrick Favors, JJ Redick, and E’Twaun Moore, along with the young pieces taken back in the Davis trade, New Orleans is putting together as many parts as they can to build something that won’t fall to pieces when any one of the parts is missing.
The most vital cog in the machine is Holiday, the Pelicans’ longest-tenured and newly annointed franchise player.
It’s a title that Holiday embraces, though it won’t change his overall approach to the game.
“I think some of the adversity that I’ve been through here has helped me,” said Holiday. Up and down seasons, injuries, change in management, change in coaches, change in teammates…so, to kind of withstand that and take the punches and still come back strong, has been very positive.
“To be honest, I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough to know my game and to read teammates, to know how people like to play, know how people like to learn. For me it’s all about learning and growing.”
Learning and growing is what the preseason is for. It’s the first step towards the 82-game marathon that will tell the tale of the first beta test of the rebooted franchise.
As this edition of the Pelicans begins to figure out how to fly together, there will he bumps and bruises. But there are also expectations. In a Western Conference with as many as 13 teams with legitimate postseason dreams, the Pelicans could find themselves in contention for the playoffs come late March.
By then, one Pelican in particular may feel the pressure.
JJ to Zion: Don’t 🤐 this up for me
Zion: Yea. He did say that. 😂 pic.twitter.com/YSMioZ8VaI
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) September 30, 2019
If the playoffs are in sight, New Orleans is counting on the Pelicans be a team that fights for success, one that won’t back down.
Let the journey begin.
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Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter
David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…