Pelicans seeking their identity as training camp begins
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans begin training camp Tuesday trying to figure who they will be in the upcoming season.
It’s a trickier calculation than it might seem at first.
Are they going to be the team that had the best record in the Western Conference nearly one-third of the way into last season?
Are they going to be the injury-plagued group that slid to as far as four games below .500 in mid-March?
Are they going to be the group that won nine of its last 12 games to reach the play-in tournament but got eliminated in its first game?
Or will they be something different?
The leaders of the basketball operations staff, head coach Willie Green and each the primary 14 players on the roster took turns addressing reporters’ questions during Media Day on Monday at the Smoothie King Center.
The consensus was that an inordinate number of games missed by key players due to injuries contributed to the erratic nature of last season, but didn’t fully explain the disappointing finish.
“We definitely have unfinished business,” Green said.
The Pelicans did finish with a better record (42-40) than they had two years ago when a 36-46 team won two play-in games before losing to top-seeded Phoenix in six games in a first-round playoff series.
Guard CJ McCollum called last season “a failed mission.”
“We didn’t execute,” McCollum said. “We didn’t play at a high level consistently. We had lulls, we had breakdowns. We did a lot of stuff poorly and didn’t deserve to go to the playoffs.”
The Pelicans roster is mostly unchanged but training camp will provide an opportunity to implement a series of changes to try and continue building in the third season of Green’s tenure.
The organization revamped its medical staff in hopes of limiting the number of games missed when injuries inevitably occur, though the start of camp isn’t encouraging.
Forward Trey Murphy III, the team’s fourth-leading scorer a year ago, isn’t expected to play until some time in November after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Reserve guard Jose Alvarado and reserve center Larry Nance Jr. will both miss the start of training camp because of ankle issues, but the Pelicans hope both will be ready for the season opener October 25 in Memphis.
The absence of Murphy is most significant because after two seasons he has shown the potential to evolve into an All-Star-caliber player.
“Trey is going to be a problem (for opponents),” leading scorer Zion Williamson said.
Williamson played in just 29 games last season, continuing an injury-plagued career in which he has played in just 114 games in four seasons.
He still was selected as an All-Star even though he wasn’t able to play in the game. Williamson averaged 26.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists in addition to shooting 60.8 percent from the floor.
When asked what part of his game he has focused on during the off-season, Williamson said, “I’ve worked on being unguardable.”
The big three of Williamson, forward Brandon Ingram and McCollum have played together in just 10 games.
“That sample size not a big one,” general manager Trajan Langdon said.
Langdon added that the players are entering training camp with “a bitter taste in their mouths” because “we didn’t show who we really were.”
He said the Pelicans’ “gym has been popping” with player activity since Labor Day.
Green brought in former Charlotte head coach James Borrego as associate head coach to try and improve the team’s offense. Borrego was an assistant coach with the New Orleans Hornets when Green played here (2010-2011) and the two teamed up again in Green’s final season as a player (2014-15) in Orlando.
The head coach said he felt the team’s offense last season wasn’t built to succeed when injuries deprived him of key players for a given game.
He said the changes to the offense won’t be “a big overhaul,” but “I needed to elevate the program on the offensive end.”
“We need to develop a style of offense where it doesn’t matter who’s on the floor,” Green added.
He said throughout last season that the players were not taking as many high-quality 3-pointers as he would have liked and he thinks the team should be “confident that they can make catch-and-shoot 3s at a high percentage.”
“We’re probably not going to lead the league in 3-point attempts,” Green said, “but we can move the needle.”
The 3-point shooting figures to be a work in progress throughout the season because of the early-season absence of Murphy, the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter.
Green said the Pelicans’ “definitely will miss” Murphy’s “ability to shoot the cover off the ball.”
Executive VP David Griffin said rookie No. 1 draft choice Jordan Hawkins will have an opportunity to “absorb a lot of the missed shooting” in Murphy’s absence.
Hawkins is one of a handful of recent draft choices that the Pelicans hope will blossom, including Herbert Jones (No. 2 in 2021), Dyson Daniels (No. 1 in 2022), E.J. Liddell (No. 2 in 2022) and Kira Lewis Jr. (No. 1 in 2020).
Green said Jones, who is a starting forward, might continue to see sporadic minutes at center. Williamson also is a candidate to see minutes there along with starter Jonas Valanciunas, Nance and free-agent acquisition Cody Zeller.
Valanciunas also is a candidate to shoot more this season after averaging 14.1 points last season.
“He’s a really good shooter,” Green said.
Ingram is one of the best shooters on the team, but Green and Borrego plan to put the ball in his hands more so he can create for teammates in addition to finding his own shot.
“(Borrego) said he’s going to give me the ball a lot,” Ingram said, “so I’m counting on that.”
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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…