State of the Pelicans: They should be better, but are they good enough?
The 2017-18 season may go down as the most important in the history of the current New Orleans NBA franchise.
The Pelicans will enter their 15th season in the Crescent City with two of the league’s top 15 players in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, but Cousins becomes a free agent at the end of the year, so the pressure to make some noise in the Western Conference is both real and intense.
Even after missing the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six seasons, there were encouraging signs at the Smoothie King Center.
Cousins and Davis showed the ability to play together and the Pelicans were one of the NBA’s best teams on both ends of the floor during an 18 game stretch late in the year. While going 10-8 from March 1 through April 4, New Orleans ranked 11th in defensive rating.
The Pelicans shot 46 from the floor and made 36 percent of their three point attempts in those games, a definite improvement over their season averages of 45 percent and 35 percent respectively.
With “Boogie and the Brow” joining forces, the buzz is definitely back surrounding a franchise that has been operating on the fringes of the league. Now, as summer comes to an end and training camp looms just around the corner, let’s look back on the Pelicans’ offseason and what steps the team has taken to as it attempts to get back to the postseason for only the sixth time in the franchise’s history.
While it may have been a disappointment to some fans, it was no surprise when the Pelicans announced that beleaguered general manager Dell Demps would be back for his seventh season at the helm. Demps has the trust of owner Tom Benson and his chief lieutenant Mickey Loomis. Demps is an easy target for those searching for a cause for the Pels’ inconsistent play during his tenure. While “Dealin’ Dell” has consistently been active in the pursuit of talent, he’s been far more successful in finding bench support rather than an effective supporting cast for his franchise player, Anthony Davis. Demps essentially earned his pardon from the governor after pulling off the Cousins trade at the deadline. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs this season, or if Cousins bolts, there may not be anything to save Demps next offseason.
Alvin Gentry has had it rough in his first two seasons. His debut season was marred by one of the most injury-plagued campaigns in team history. Last season, the Pelicans got off to a second straight horrible start. Were it not for the mediocrity of the lower end of the Western Conference, New Orleans would have been out of the playoff chase by December. Gentry has done a solid job in keeping his locker room together, as his teams have always played with effort (though not always with purpose).
It seems Gentry’s greatest asset is his willingness to identify assistant coaches who fill a need and then let them do their jobs. Darren Erman has been a tremendous hire as Associate Head Coach, pulling the Pelicans’ defense from the depths of the league standings to among the very best. Gentry is hoping for that same type of success with the addition of Chris Finch this offseason.
Finch spent last season with the Denver Nuggets as they finished third in the NBA in scoring at nearly 112 points per game. He coached versatile big men like Danilo Gallinari and Nikola Jokic as the Nuggets employed an entertaining and effective offensive attack. Before that, Finch was on the bench of the Houston Rockets and led the Rockets’ D-League team to consecutive finals appearances and the 2010 D-League championship.
Gentry knows this may be his last opportunity as a head coach in the NBA. Having coaches who understand their roles and Gentry’s vision will be vital to any hope he has of extending this opportunity for another season or more.
Of course, the Pelicans’ first round pick went to Sacramento in the Cousins deal, so New Orleans leveraged its two second round picks to move up and select Duke guard Frank Jackson. Jackson missed Summer League play with injury and is just 19 years old, so whatever contributions he makes this season would be lagniappe.
With DeMarcus Cousins taking any discussion of a contract extension off the table upon his arrival in New Orleans, this offseason was all about retaining guard Jrue Holiday.
The Pelicans were able to do that with a five-year contract worth at least $126 million and as much as $150 million. It was an extremely high price to play for a solid, if unspectacular, player who will be entering his ninth season. Holiday isn’t a “franchise” talent, but he’s being paid like one now. The fact that Holiday had the leverage to negotiate a contract like this one shows just how little leverage the Pelicans had with Jrue. Holiday will be under a glaring spotlight all season long as his play in relation to his pay will be hotly debated.
Holiday’s overall value as a player is in question due to his injury history (he’s missed nearly 40 percent of New Orleans’ games over the past four seasons) and his tendency to disappear for stretches during games.
Holiday also had advantages both offensively and defensively at the point guard position, but the arrival of another backcourt general could have a dramatic impact on his value going forward.
During the late stages of last season, Gentry experimented with playing Holiday off the ball while starting Tim Frazier at the point. At times the results were encouraging, though Frazier’s offensive and defensive limitations made it hard to fully evaluate the change in strategy.
New Orleans is essentially “all-in” on that plan now with the acquisition of point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo, one of the league’s top passers and a former teammate of DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, comes on the cheap. The Pelicans were able to sign him for just $3.3 million, a bargain for someone with Rondo’s resume’ and experience. However, Rondo has seen his value decline as he’s now on his fifth team in the past four seasons.
Rondo did have one of his best seasons when playing alongside Boogie during the 2015-16 season, averaging just under 12 points and 12 assists per game in 72 contests. But, he’ll be playing with a much different roster and with much different expectations in New Orleans.
One of the biggest needs the Pelicans had this offseason was shooting, and Rajon Rondo brings precious little of that. He’s a career 30 percent shooter from distance and his midrange offensive game is nonexistent.
Rondo is also a player that inspires extreme emotions. He had a contentious relationship with Doc Rivers and Ray Allen in Boston. One of the NBA’s top coaches, Rick Carlisle, publicly stated his regrets for bringing Rondo to Dallas. Last season in Chicago he clashed with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.
The Pelicans are counting on him being a leader, and they are willing to roll the dice that he’ll be a positive force on the court and in the locker room.
Pairing Rondo and Holiday in the backcourt, along with Solomon Hill on the wing, means the Pelicans will potentially one of the worst catch-and-shoot trios in the league. Rondo had an effective field goal percentage of 56.4 percent in those situations, with Holiday coming in at 47 percent and Hill at 55.4.
With the lack of depth behind Rondo and Holiday, they should be on the floor together for extended stretches, which could be problematic for the Pelicans offense in the half court.
Jordan Crawford was a pleasant surprise last season as a scorer off the bench and the Pelicans will be expecting more of the same from the man dubbed “Instant Grits” by Cousins for his ability to get going quickly. He and E’Twaun Moore will have to compete for minutes with Holiday logging more time at the off guard spot. Despite his social media posts, Quincy Pondexter remains an afterthought more than someone the team can count on after missing two full seasons with injury.
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins give the Pelicans the NBA’s most talented front court duo by far. They are generational talents and their skills seem to compliment each other. Neither has had a teammate of the other’s caliber since they entered the league, maybe since they left Kentucky.
Cousins’ ability to handle the ball, his court vision, and his outside shooting should make life easier for Davis and the rest of the Pels. With a second player drawing double teams, Davis was given the freedom to operate in space and had some of his biggest games of the season with Cousins on the roster.
With Davis, the concern will always be his health. He played in 75 games last season, the most of his young career (his previous high was 68 in 2014-15), but left several games early with injury. Keeping Davis on the floor remains priority number one for the Pelicans.
For his part, Cousins seems to have dedicated himself to getting into the best shape of his career this offseason. There were times last season where Boogie struggled to keep pace with the team’s defensive rotations and he was not great at changing ends of the court in transition. Coach Gentry pointed to improving Cousins’ conditioning as one of the Pels’ offseason goals.
Davis and Cousins have few question marks surrounding their play. Davis still has room to improve in the post and as a consistent shooter from distance, and Cousins can still work on his composure and attention to detail, but these are the pillars the franchise is trying to build upon. As they go, so go the Pelicans.
Solomon Hill proved to be a very capable perimeter defender, but his offense was inconsistent all season. He’ll have to be the “3 and D” player he was expected to be when he was signed as a free agent to ease the pressure on the Pelicans’ bigs and the team’s new back court as well.
Cheick Diallo showed flashes of his ability in Summer League play as he nearly averaged a double-double with 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. His body has started to fill out as he nears 240 pounds entering his second season. His length and athleticism could help him play a valuable role as an interior defender and second-chance scorer.
Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik return, and while Ajinca occassionally brings offense and rebounding to the table it is clear that Asik is no longer in the Pelicans’ plans. The only thing keeping Asik on the roster is his albatross of a contract, annually rated as one of the most untradeable in the NBA.
Darius Miller returns for his second stint with the Pelicans and should be Solomon Hill’s primary backup if the roster remains as is. Miller spent the last three seasons overseas and averaged 10.9 points per game while shooting 41 percent from three-point range for Brose Bamberg in Germany last year.
Miller is clearly being counted on to help space the floor for a team still in need of consistent shooting. It remains to be seen if he can provide it.
It’s all or nothing for just about everyone in the Pelicans organization this season. The Pelicans may be better this season, but just about everyone in the Western Conference has gotten better as well. Even in a best case scenario, it would be hard to imagine this team winning a playoff series.
However, the most important thing the Pelicans can do this season is prove to DeMarcus Cousins that New Orleans in the place for him to be. Because if the season goes south, and it becomes clear that Cousins is on his way out, the New Orleans Pelicans could take a giant leap backwards. That could also initiate a chain of events that leads to Anthony Davis seeking his own path out of town and a further erosion of local fan support.
There are reasons for optimism and reasons for concern. And that, ladies and gentlemen, has been the story of the New Orleans Pelicans for quite some time.
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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…