2016-17 record: 34-48. 11th in the Western Conference.
Transactions: The Pelicans made a massive splash at the all-star break last season by getting superstar big man DeMarcus Cousins (along with Omri Casspi) from the Sacramento Kings for rookie Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a first and second round pick in the NBA Draft.
The addition of Cousins wasn’t enough to launch the Pelicans into the playoffs as he appeared in 17 out of a possible 25 games and New Orleans with 7-10 with Boogie playing alongside Anthony Davis in an eagerly anticipated Twin Towers line-up. They didn’t fail to make the playoffs because of the performance of Cousins or Davis but because of the Pelicans lack of a real supporting cast.
The aim of this off-season should have been to surround their two superstars with a solid supporting cast to chase a playoff appearance and maybe more with the big big man combo in the NBA. But that was not something that they could really accomplish to the extent that was necessary in the current Western Conference climate where seemingly every projected playoff seed was able to add major pieces in order to gear up for what will be an absolute bar-fight this season in order to grab one of the eight seeds.
The Pelicans were really limited in what they could do because of previously poorly made decisions. They’re hamstrung by a lot of money being tied up in the likes of E’Twaun Moore, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca and Solomon Hill. Don’t get me wrong, they can be very good role players and I’m not trying to argue that they can’t be valuable to this team in that sense, but with the current financial reality having this much money tied up in depth is preventing the Pelicans from adding any big pieces necessary to really make a big push in the loaded West.
The lack of financial flexibility could also potentially have dire consequences for the franchise down the road. Cousins is a free agent after this season and if New Orleans can’t get at least get into the playoff picture, he might not be compelled to come back. With the Pelicans being at least two seasons away from looking at any kind of real financial flexibility, the organization could be in a horrible bind because of a previous lack of long-term thinking that is now coming back to haunt them.
There’s also the reality that Anthony Davis is truly one the most unique and incredible talents in the NBA. The kind of player that you should be able to build a competitor around and should be a franchise anchor for years. With only one playoff appearance thus far in his career, New Orleans has failed to capitalize on having one of best players in the league on the roster. If they were to take any steps back, how long will Davis be compelled to stick around?
For a team up against the cap with little flexibility and such pressing issues to consider, this off-season was vitally important to New Orleans. They need to compete but didn’t have the ability to add the pieces that could really put them over the top. What would be needed was savvy manoeuvring and quality additions on low end deals to help them add pieces to give them an edge going forward.
The first big move of the summer was a reflection of the Pelicans current reality. Being unable to really capitalize on the big free agent point guard market and potential upgrades at the position because of their financial situation, they re-upped with Jrue Holiday on a massive five year, $126 million deal that kept him with the team but also cements their current direction and further limits their ability in free agency.
It also means that if they are able to bring back Cousins that the team will have three massive deals surrounded by those bad depth deals which means that New Orleans will be a non-factor in the huge free agency class next summer. Then again, given the on-court chemistry that Cousins has shown with Holiday in his brief stint in the Big Easy thus far, not bringing him back could have potentially been a much bigger risk in terms of Boogie’s future with the team.
Holiday does offer some significant concerns for New Orleans going forward as well. For a franchise that’s largely defined by injury concerns due to Anthony Davis only appearing in at least 70 games in his rookie season, Holiday has also only hit that mark in three out of his eight NBA seasons. He’s missed 122 games over the last four seasons although it’s important to point out that his time missed last season was due to a family emergency and not due to injury.
The reality is though that the Pelicans weren’t going to get an upgrade like Kyle Lowry and that losing Holiday in the open market without a suitable replacement would have been an absolute disaster for a team that’s going to do everything it can to surround its dynamic front-court with comparable talent.
Holiday is a very good NBA player. He averaged 15.4 points, 7.3 assists, 3.9 boards and 1.5 steals last season. He’s a solid defender who has the size to switch on screens. Most importantly, he’s got the ability to excel in the pick-and-roll on a team that can’t space the floor to the extent that most other top contenders can and isn’t prone to a lot of turnovers. He can facilitate well to either of the Pelicans’ big men and doesn’t need a ton of touches to be effective on the floor.
Holiday’s deal means that New Orleans is looking to commit to this core big three for the long-term should Cousins re-sign. It also means that in a league where point guard play has never been more important, the 27 year old is going to have to take his game to new heights at times and contribute in an increased scoring role if (likely when) Davis or Cousins miss time due to injury. Thankfully the Pelicans managed to make an addition that will help him immensely in that regard.
Getting Rajon Rondo on a one year, $3.3 million deal was a big coup for the Pelicans on a lot of levels. The most obvious one was in terms of its impact on Boogie Cousins who had formed a tight bond with the often mercurial Rondo during their time together in Sacramento in addition to some obvious on-court chemistry. The willingness to bring in one of the big man’s favourite teammates is a gesture that could go a long way toward bringing him back beyond this season.
Rondo also adds back-court depth to a team that badly needed it. He’s an incredible facilitator and has lead the NBA in assists per game three times – including during the season he spent with Boogie in Sacramento. He’s an elite NBA play-maker with his court vision, passing and also ability to handle the ball and drives that force defenses to collapse on him, which will help the Pelicans to create space and get them a lot of quality looks. Even at 31, he’s still a lock down defender in one-on-one situations and can still use his 6’9” wingspan to make life miserable for opposing guards. He’s also an incredible rebounder for a guard and is still willing to crash the boards.
Rondo’s biggest weakness will be mitigated by the fact that Alvin Gentry plans to play him with Holiday so that Holiday can play off the ball more and get more scoring opportunities which means Rondo’s consistency issues won’t stand out so much in that respect. He’ll be there primarily as a facilitator for Cousins, Davis and Holiday which is a role that he can play very well.
Given that the Holiday-Rondo pairing in the starting back-court, New Orleans still needed a solid back-up point guard option and added one in former Golden State Warrior Ian Clark on a veteran minimum. The 26 year old didn’t get much of a chance to display his skills on a loaded Warriors squad but still averaged 6.8 points on 48.7% shooting including 37.4% from three point range in just 14.8 minutes of action per game off the bench.
Clark is a solid back-up option who should thrive with increased minutes. Most importantly, he provides the Pels with consistent three point shooting and spacing off the bench. These are two of the most important commodities in the modern NBA and both of which the team has pretty consistently been in short supply.
The potentially season ending injury to Solomon Hill could have been potentially derailing to a Pelicans team that has relied on his lock-down defense and constantly used him to check opposing team’s top players which was a role he played well very for them last season. The team rebounded from that blow pretty nicely by signing The Grindfather, himself, Tony Allen.
At 35, Allen plays like a man much younger and is still at the top of his game on the back-end having been named 2nd team all-defense last season. He’s immediately the Pelicans best defender and fills the huge void that Hill’s injury left quite nicely in that regard.
The team had dumped Quincy Pondexter’s deal on the Chicago Bulls in order to have room for the Allen signing and included a 2018 second rounder to sweeten the deal. Pondexter hasn’t played since the 2014-15 season due to injury.
Dante Cunningham re-signed with the team on a one-year, $2.3 million deal in the hopes of having a big year and seeking a better deal in free agency. He’ll likely get that chance as the Pelicans are so depleted at small forward that he’s probably starting. A career replacement-level player, he’s going to have the chance to prove he’s much more with a big role to start the year.
The team also brought Darius Miller back to the NBA after two and half years playing in Germany.
2017 NBA Draft: The Pelicans traded up in the draft by trading their 40th overall pick and cash considerations to the Charlotte Hornets for their 31st selection in order to draft Duke point guard Frank Jackson. The 19 year old emerged as one of the most efficient scorers in college hoops even while sharing a back-court with Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard.
At 6’4” with a 6’7.5” wingspan, Jackson has solid size and length for a guard. He’s got an incredible 42 inch vertical leap which allows him to finish emphatically at the rim. The former Blue Devil possesses an explosive first step and speed that allows him to get down the floor quickly and excel as a slasher. He’s also got a great ability to create shots on the perimeter which accounted for 60% of his shots last season and hitting 39% from three point range.
Jackson needs to work on his court vision and ability to initiate the offense if he’s going to become an NBA point guard which is something the Pels had in mind when they traded up to get him in the wake of dealing away Tim Frazier and the uncertainty within the organization around Jrue Holiday who had not yet re-signed as of the draft.
On the defensive end, Jackson has displayed solid intensity and a high compete level and has very good footwork and willingness to battle it out. He is, however, limited by his lack of lateral quickness which could hurt him against elite guards. The foot injury that prematurely ended his season also caused his draft stock to drop but he is apparently fully recovered.
The young guard should be a solid prospect for the Pelicans and if they are able to bring along his play-making skills, Jackson could become a solid combo guard for New Orleans on the second unit.
The Pelicans also had the 52nd overall pick in the draft which they had traded back-up point guard Tim Frazier for, but then opted to move the pick to the Indiana Pacers for cash considerations which was a puzzling decision given that although Frazier’s 7.1 points and 5.2 assists in 23.5 minutes per game aren’t flashy, he was a competent floor general and good reserve option, which makes it puzzling that a team struggling with depth would essentially end up moving a capable back-up for cash.
Outlook: The conversation about this team begins and ends with its two big men: DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis and how they grow and mesh together throughout the season. The Pelicans have two of the best big in entire NBA sharing a front-court. Two men with incredibly unique skill-sets who if they are able to put it all together can absolutely decimate most opposing defenses.
We didn’t get to see much of them last season because of Cousins missing time due to injuries and suspensions and the team basically abandoning the season as it wound down in order to chase a better draft pick, but with a new season comes a new beginning and tantalizing new opportunities to Boogie and the Brow.
In Cousins, New Orleans has an elite offensive talent. His repertoire is absolutely staggering for a big man of 6’11” and 270 pounds. He has an impressive mid-range game that allows for pick-and-pops or for him to post up opposing players. His spot up jumper is actually pretty efficient and he’s recently introduced a nice fade-away to his arsenal. Boogie is also said to be trying to develop a consistent three point shot which would help address the Pelicans spacing issues.
Perhaps most impressive is his passing. Cousins has shown the ability to hit Davis on the post with crisp passes for open looks. He’s also quite adept at finding The Brow for alley-oops. If the Pelicans can run a 4/5 pick and roll or Boogie can continue to find AD in the cut, this combo can wreak havoc on opposing D as they develop more chemistry.
The two bigs averaged double digit rebounds last season (11.8 for Davis and 10.2 for Cousins) which can really bolster the New Orleans defense when they share the floor. Their ability to prevent second chance opportunities is a huge boost to the team as is the quick transitions when Boogie is able to hit Davis with an outlet pass as The Brow sprints down the floor.
Davis is a superstar in his own right. In 2015, a poll of NBA general managers saw 86.2% say that they would select the young big man to build their franchise around. It was a huge margin of victory when you consider that the next two most popular choices were Kevin Durant and LeBron James at 6.9% each.
Since then, injuries have caused the 24 year old’s stock to fall a little, but he’s still a perennial all-star and one of the best players in the league on both sides of the ball. His defense is among the best in the league among big men. He finished 3rd in the league in total blocks last season and second in blocker per game. He had the fifth highest defensive win share total in the NBA on his way to being named 2nd team all-defense.
On the other end, Davis was 4th in the league in scoring with 28 points per game and was 4th in the NBA in offensive win shares. He’s an exceptional offensive talent with incredible awareness and remains one of the best finishers in basketball. His mobility is second to none among NBA big men. There is no big in the league who can run the floor as smoothly or effortlessly as Davis which makes him a constant threat.
There is no better front-court combination in the NBA. After only spending 17 games together last season, these two are ready to play together and develop the kind of chemistry down low that will be a nightmare for opposing defenders.
The problem with the Pelicans is that beyond their all-star big man combo, there just isn’t a lot of depth to the team.
Rondo and Holiday will form a solid back-court and Rondo certainly showed great chemistry with Cousins in their season together in Sacramento and Holiday has shown he works well with both bigs, but there are major question marks at the wing with Solomon Hill possibly out for the season and it’s really hard to a team to be successful in the modern NBA without a shooter on the wing. Let alone succeed in an incredibly stacked Western Conference.
The Pelicans lack of depth will prove problematic. As will their lack of consistent three point shooting. It’s possible that Cousins could continue to develop from deep and his 36.1% on 361 attempts from three last season was certainly impressive, but on the back end neither Holiday or Rondo are particularly adept three point shooters.
Potential starter Dante Cunningham did hit 39.2% from downtown last season – albeit on only 2.7 attempts per game. His ability to shoot more from deep with more frequency will be a big key to determining the Pelicans success this season.
Off the bench, Ian Clark should be a huge boost in that department and Jordan Crawford showed some potential as a second unit volume scorer as he averaged 14.1 points per game off the bench averaging 23.3 minutes and shooting 48.2% including 38.9% from three point range over 19 games with the Pelicans last season. He’ll be relied on to continue that performance this season as depth scoring is a huge need for New Orleans. But consistency remains an issue.
E’Twaun More could also be someone who can help out on the wing with his positional versatility and and solid defense against both opposing guards and wings. More showed flashes of hitting beyond the arc at times last season, but inconsistency also plagued his shooting. When he’s on, he will provide a lot of value to the team in terms of the versatile line-ups they can trot out and the lock down line-ups when he shares the floor with Rondo or Tony Allen. When he’s off, it will get ugly.
Cheick Diallo should develop into a bigger piece of the Pelicans rotation in his second season as he really started to show a lot of promise when he came up to the big club from the G-League. The 21 year old really thrived as a rim protector and shot blocker and an ability to finish with contact on the other end. He’s provides a lot of energy and athleticism off the bench and should get more time and a bigger role in the rotation this season.
Still there are a lot of questions about how consistent that the Pelicans role players can be and how much spacing and long distance shooting can be reliably expected from the team as it is now. The worst possible scenario for the Pelicans would be to get caught in the NBA math problem of trading 3s for 2s. Without a really solid three point threat in the starting line-up that could be a huge concern for New Orleans against other Western Conference powerhouses.
There is no question, however, that the team will continue to be a top ten defense – especially with the addition of Rondo and Tony Allen, but offensively there are a lot more questions about how effective and versatile this group can be and how much anyone can be relied on for consistent offense beyond Cousins, Davis and Holiday.
I like this team. I really do. I am a huge fan of Boogie and The Brow and want to see Holiday have a break out year with his new contract. I think that Rondo and Allen are solid veteran additions and really like what they bring to the team.
However due to the financial realities facing the Pelicans against the cap, there were huge needs that they weren’t able to address particularly around providing consistent long range threats and spacing around their two bigs.
That is a huge weakness to have in the modern NBA and a potentially fatal one in the West.
The problem with the current imbalance between the conferences is that there will be three seeds outside of the playoffs who could have conceivably competed for a top four seed in the East. Ultimately, there are deficiencies in the team’s make-up and depth that lead me to believe the Pelicans will be one of those teams.
Barring the emergence of someone off the bench or a big move before the deadline, I don’t think they did enough to address their biggest needs over the off-season and I’m not sure that this team can overcome the math problem of the modern NBA. Particularly around their biggest need which is three point shooting. Holiday could always make a leap off the catch and shoot from deep in his off-the-ball role and I’d love to see that because I’d like to see this team in the playoffs.
There are also the ongoing concerns about health. Davis and Holiday in particular have extensive injury histories and losing either of them for an extended length of time could really hurt the team in such a tight Western Conference.
I think they’ll hang around the playoff picture for most of the season and if things go well they could even find themselves in. But it’s going to be a tight race and an uphill battle.
Ultimately, I think the Pelicans as they are right now will fall just short.
Sorry to my friend Esa who is a die-hard New Orleans fan. I hope they prove me wrong, my man.
Prediction: 40-42. 10th in the Western Conference.