It's a fun time to be a New Orleans Pelicans fan.
Not only did Anthony Davis spend his summer tearing through international competition, but New Orleans also made one of the year's bigger acquisitions when it traded for Omer Asik. The Pelicans have established their core group of players; now it's time to see what those players can do.
The Pelicans won just 34 games last season, but considering how many games they lost to injury, that number doesn't look too shabby. This year's New Orleans squad, if healthy, will be a legitimate Western Conference competitor and should fight for a playoff spot.
There are still some big questions facing the team, but overall it's hard not to feel optimistic about the future in New Orleans.
Can Eric Gordon Still Play at a High Level?
Gordon was once a promising young player, but injuries and regression have derailed his career over the past few years. If he doesn't improve upon a poor 2013-14 campaign, the Pelicans' playoff hopes are all but gone.
Last season, Gordon scored 15.4 points per game on 54 percent true shooting, including 39 percent shooting from deep. That's not terrible production (though it's not exactly good for a guy making almost $15 million a year per Sham Sports), but it's not nearly enough to outweigh his staggeringly bad defense.
ESPN.com's real plus-minus system rates Gordon as one of the worst defenders in the league and by far the worst to see over 30 minutes per game. When he was on the floor last season, the Pelicans had the worst defense in the league. When he sat, they shot up to 14th overall.
Gordon's short for a 2-guard (6'4”), and injuries have sapped him of his lateral quickness to the point that he's rarely able to stay attached to his man off the dribble. It's possible that this is just temporary and that he will eventually improve defensively. But it seems unlikely.
Fortunately, there is reason to believe Gordon can improve offensively. Last year, 31 percent of his shots came at the rim—his highest rate since the 2009-10 season—yet for some reason, his free-throw rate plummeted.
It would be easy to assume that he drew less fouls due to a decrease in athleticism, but he wasn't blocked at the rim at a significantly higher rate than other years.
It honestly feels like Gordon had some bad luck with calls last year. Should that luck change, he's in line to be an efficient scorer and a useful offensive weapon—exactly what the Pelicans need if they're hoping to win more games than they lose.
Best Five (Tie)
Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, Omer Asik
Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis
The safe bet for the Pelicans' best five would be the first lineup listed above.
Last season, playing Gordon and Evans together was a defensive nightmare, but they'll look much better next to Asik and Davis, who should form one of the best defensive frontcourts in the league. New Orleans hovered around the bottom five in rim protection last season. It would be a surprise if the Pelicans finished outside the top five this year.
Offensively, this unit could run into slight spacing issues against the league's best defenses, especially if Davis's jumper doesn't improve much. That's where the second lineup comes in.
The Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis combo was one of the best offensive lineups in the league last season. They scored a blistering 123.5 points per 100 possessions last season, the second-best rate of any lineup that logged at least 90 minutes.
Admittedly, 90 minutes is a small sample size, and the unit's outlier-ish 37 percent offensive rebounding (!) is unsustainable.
But the group should be awesome offensively even when its rebounding rate inevitably falls—it has too many weapons not to be. Defense is obviously a big issue, but should Davis improve at the rate he's expected to on that end, the group will outscore opponents by a whole lot more than the 3.7 points per 100 possessions it did last year.
Regardless of what happens with the Pelicans this season, it's going to be a blast watching Davis grow over the course of another year.
Last season, Davis established himself as a legitimate superstar as well as one of the best young players in NBA history.
Not only did Davis average nearly 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game, he also exceeded .200 win shares per 48 minutes. Just 21 players have ever accomplished the feat in the second year of their careers; LeBron James is the only other player to have done it before age 21.
Davis is in Hall of Fame company, a crazy thought considering how much room he still has to improve on both ends.
Defensively, Davis is good, but not quite as good as his block and steal totals may lead you to believe. New Orleans was only slightly better defensively when Davis was on the court, and opponents shot surprisingly well (49 percent) at the rim against him.
That's partially a product of the Pelicans' leaky perimeter defense, but Davis's own issues are a factor as well.
Like most young bigs, Davis is an uneven pick-and-roll defender. New Orleans asks its bigs to hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, and at times Davis has struggled with this. He often finds himself caught between hedging and retreating back to his man and has a tendency to shuffle alongside ball-handlers rather than wall off the rim.
Still, if his improvement from Years 1 to 2 is any indication, he'll learn quickly. And even now, he's able to erase a lot of mistakes thanks to his sheer physical gifts. No one turns poor positioning into a highlight-reel block quite like Davis does.
On the other end, Davis has yet to develop the mid-range jumper or back-to-the-basket game typical of most bigs. Instead, he does the bulk of his half-court damage (outside of offensive rebounding) on the move, either with a face-up drive or with hard cuts to the basket.
Davis isn't a particularly advanced ball-handler but is very quick and can cover a lot of ground with just one dribble. When New Orleans is able to get him the ball on the move and in space, he's devastating.
Davis' game is far from polished on either end; he's already a two-way force. It's hard to imagine what he'll look like two or three years down the road.
Team Award Predictions
Veteran Experience Award: John Salmons
This one is dedicated to the token veteran player who inexplicably gets way too many minutes because he “knows how to win” or “understands how to play the right way.” Basically, he plays because he's old.
In his defense, he is a solid outside shooter, but he doesn't bring many other tangible skills to the table. And apparently, Monty Williams agrees, per NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer. Take it away, Monty:
He can shoot the ball, he’s got great experience and the thing I’ve always liked about John is you can’t rattle him. John, sometimes you’ve got to grab his wrist and check his pulse, because that’s just his way. He’s got a solid demeanor about him. He’s been on some really good teams and been in some really good programs. I just like him as a player.
Take that as a warning, New Orleans fans. You're about to get very familiar with Salmons and his love of deep two-point jumpers.
Being Jimmer Fredette Award: Jimmer Fredette
This award is secretly just an excuse to talk about Fredette and his role in New Orleans. You probably couldn't tell because of how clever and subtle its name is.
If Fredette can't make a dent in the Pelicans' rotation, then it's hard to imagine he has a real future in the NBA. He's a legitimately good offensive player and elite shooter who doubles as perhaps the single most destructive defender in the league (in a bad way). That's a tricky combination.
Fredette's really only playable on a team with elite defensive bigs and a coach who's willing to overlook certain defensive flaws. The Pelicans have the bigs, and if Gordon's minutes are any indication, Williams is willing to trade defense for offense at times.
Fredette's battling Austin Rivers for backup guard minutes. If he can't win any, his future in the league is murky at best.
Most Improved Player Award: Tyreke Evans
Evans' numbers from last season are unimpressive, but they're also misleading.
Evans played poorly for much of the year. But most of that time was spent coming off the bench, where he played alongside little offensive talent and next to no shooting. As a starter, he was a totally different player.
In 22 starts, Evans averaged 20 points, six assists and five rebounds per game on 56 percent true shooting. He got to the rim a ton, started killing opponents on slash-and-kicks and was a general nightmare to defend.
The Pelicans have experimented with guys like Luke Babbitt and Darius Miller in the preseason, but at this point Evans appears to be the clear choice to start at the 3 on opening night. That could cause some complications in the second unit but should also lead to a big bounce-back year for Evans.
When the Dust Settles...
New Orleans gets its winning record but misses out on the playoffs.
If not for a rash of injuries, the Pelicans would have finished much closer to .500 last season. The natural progression of their young players (read: Davis) and the addition of Asik should be enough to tip them over that point in 2014-15, even in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, the Pelicans are top-heavy, and even if everything breaks right for them, they're just not deep enough to win the roughly 50 games necessary to reach the playoffs.
Still, it should be an entertaining season, especially where Davis is concerned. A legitimate run at the MVP trophy isn't at all out of the question for him this season. He's going to be awesome, and very soon the Pelicans might be too.
Predicted Record: 44-38
Predicted Western Conference Finish: 11th