Examining the New Orleans Pelicans Playoff Hopes

One of the most compelling contrasts in summer strategies involved Indiana and New Orleans. The Pacers seemingly swapped out its defensive identity for an offensive one, but the Pels did just the opposite—allowing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to sign with the Houston Rockets and instead nabbing numerous defensive-minded grinders and overlooked talents.

A five-man lineup of Anderson, Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, and Anthony Davis stood among the league’s best on offense over the last three years. Of course, it was a rather rare occurrence when at least one of them wasn’t sitting on the sideline sporting a suit as well.

It all depends on personal preference, but the new-look Pelicans just became infinitely more watchable in my opinion. Entering year two under Alvin Gentry’s tutelage, there should be more familiarity with his offensive system. No longer forced to focus on making up for the mistakes of teammates on defense, Davis and Holiday can devote equal attention to both ends of the floor. Evans is working to get healthy, but coach Alvin Gentry will have to prepare as if the bully-baller won’t be back following three knee surgeries in a nine-month span. This puts the onus on Holiday and Davis to lead the charge as Silver Surfer and Galactus. The Silver Surfer moniker hasn’t stuck quite yet, but the fact that Jrue might be rocking goggles this season could help it come to fruition eventually.

Projecting the starting lineup is easy at first with Davis and Holiday, but Gentry was unwilling to commit to anyone else in his recent podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe. I’m willing to take a leap of faith in forecasting Buddy Hield and Solomon Hill as the third and fourth guys, but that fifth starter seems very much up for debate. Furthermore, the starting lineup could be altered on a near-nightly basis depending on the center matchup. Davis’ reluctance to play the 5 full-time is well-documented, but as more teams go small the opportunity and upside for him to earn spot starts at center will increase.

The Louisiana Triangle is set in stone though, as Hield should yield lots of threes (if nothing else). Holiday-Davis pick-and-roll will be the team’s bread and butter, but Hield’s immediate offensive role should not be understated. There may not be a rookie league-wide who will be asked to do more on that end for a squad with legitimate postseason expectations. His spacing will be warmly welcomed.

Golden State’s retired “Strength in Numbers” motto will be represented in New Orleans this year. Forgetting the four penciled-in starters, rounding out the rotation with E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway, Terrence Jones, Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham, Tim Frazier, and Alonzo Gee isn’t half bad. New Orleans has serious depth in its backcourt and along the wing for the first time in what feels like forever.

If Davis and Holiday can enjoy healthy campaigns, this roster has the wit, grit, and two-way versatility to grow together and take hold of a top-eight spot in the Western Conference. If I were a betting man, I’d sooner place a stack on the better-balanced ballers in New Orleans than the hotshots in Houston. Pat Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Clint Capela can’t play the whole game, and the Rockets defense might be even more of a mess than it was last year. Outside of Golden State, San Antonio, Utah, the Los Angeles Clippers, and perhaps Portland, I’m not sure there is another shoe-in for the postseason. Marc Gasol’s injury, Chandler Parsons and Mike Conley’s health concerns, and the general age of the Grizzlies means Memphis is no longer a given. Dallas is likely to sneak in, but who knows if Andrew Bogut and the Mavs’ cast of veterans can stay healthy either? Russell Westbrook’s rage alone should keep OKC in the discussion, but will a severe lack of spacing ultimately haunt the Thunder? Minnesota, Denver, and even Phoenix could be in the conversation if everything breaks right, leaving Sacramento and the Los Angeles Lakers as the two surefire lottery teams. It’s going to be one heck of a race, which is no surprise given the relative strength of the NBA’s middle class.

The 5 is undoubtedly the Pelicans’ biggest question mark, as Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik are both liabilities on at least one end of the court. Over time rookie Cheick Diallo could mold himself into a Tristan Thompson-type, but no one is anticipating that will happen in year one. After the albatross contract Asik received last summer and the recent spike in the salary cap, it’s surprising that only one of NOLA’s offseason additions cost more than the Turkish center. Perhaps Asik is able to rebound after a dreadful season last year and Ajinca can be a decent source of bench offense, but the biggest roadblock for New Orleans (besides injuries) is pretty obviously the man (or lack thereof) in the middle. Robert Sacre, Chris Copeland, and Israeli player Shawn Dawson received non-guaranteed deals (i.e. training camp invites), but the Pels already have 15 players under contract for 2016-17, so barring a trade don’t expect those three to survive roster cuts.

It’s an extremely important year for the Pelicans. A strong season could put them in prime position to begin attracting big-time free agents in the coming years as their cap sheets become more flexible. If Holiday can assert himself as the star player New Orleans believed they were acquiring from Philly, building a title-contender becomes a much more feasible and achievable goal. With a pair of two-way studs, sports fans will soon be flocking to the Smoothie Center in droves. Imagining Holiday throwing alley-oops up above the blender for Davis to smash down rim-shaking dunks is something to look forward to for a state that’s had a hell of a summer.

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