Time to Fly
Pelicans positioned for playoffs or bust.
After several seasons of appearing on the brink of something special, the New Orleans Pelicans are seemingly there. Led by the trio of power forward Anthony Davis, center DeMarcus Cousins and guard Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans have added experience and depth with the signings of guards Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore, Tony Allen and Ian Clark, and the re-signing of small forward Dante Cunningham. There is reason to believe head coach Alvin Gentry has the pieces in place to not only make the postseason, but potentially make some noise in the playoffs, too.
At 24, Davis is continuing his upward progression to his full potential. At 6’11”, he excels in the lane, but can shoot from the paint, 15 to 20 feet away from the basket and beyond the arc when a three-point shot is open. Last year he averaged 28.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 1.3 steals in 36.1 minutes per game, and was named first-team All-NBA for the second time in his five years with the organization. His career averages are 22.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 1.3 steals in 34.4 minutes. Shockingly, he has yet to win a playoff game. But this may be the best team he’s had built around him.
Cousins is Davis’ twin tower. The duo may be the best big man combo in the association. He arrived in New Orleans too late last season to provide a postseason push, but in 17 games with the Pelicans he averaged 24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals in 33.8 minutes per game.
Holiday played in 67 games in 2016-17 after delaying the start of his season to care for his wife, who underwent brain surgery. Still, he had 15.4 points, 7.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 32.7 minutes per game. Depending on the lineups Gentry chooses, Holiday will see action at shooting guard and the point, which he will share with Rondo, a four-time All-Star and assist machine. While Rondo may be on the downside of his career, he will serve a leadership role here. Cousins and Rondo were teammates in Sacramento during the 2015-16 season. That year the center had 26.9 PPG, while the guard led the NBA in assists with 11.7 per game.
If there is one perceived weak spot entering the season, it’s at small forward. Cunningham will likely start here. He opted out of his contract with the Pelicans, and then re-signed a one-year deal with the team. He averaged 6.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 25.0 minutes per game last year. Darius Miller (0.4 PPG, 0.4 APG, 1.3 RPG) and Solomon Hill (7.0 PPG, 1.8 APG, 3.8 RPG) will play in reserve. The small forward position’s limited scoring will be supplemented by Moore (9.6 PPG, 2.2 APG, 2.1 RPG), Allen (9.1 PPG, 1.4 APG, 5.5 RPG), and Clark (6.8 PPG, 1.2 APG, 1.6 RPG).
When Boogie and The Brow aren’t dominating the frontcourt, the bigs will be backed up by centers Alexis Ajinca (5.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.6 BPG) and Omer Asik (2.73 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.3 BPG) and forwards Cheick Diallo (5.1 PPG, 0.2 APG, 4.3 RPG) and Perry Jones (3.4 PPG, 0.4 APG, 1.8 RPG).
The Pelicans are poised to be one of the top defensive teams in the NBA this season. That’s been part of the formula that Gentry saw as an assistant with Golden State when the Warriors won the NBA title in 2015 (and again, without him, last year). Although the team is patched together with a number of one-year deals, Gentry finally seems to have the players he needs to be successful. To make the playoffs, the team will need to find success early in the season and sustain it after the midseason All-Star break. If the Pels stumble early, it will be too easy to trade away solid players to teams in contention, and whatever hopes are present now will unravel.