The Pelicans are probably better than you think.
The Pelicans’ two blowout victories to start the 2018-19 season surprised many, but not the New Orleans locker room.
“To be honest, we just feel like if we play to the level that we are supposed to, (we can win.),” said head coach Alvin Gentry following a 131-112 victory over the Rockets. “We’re not surprised. We played exactly how we (needed) to beat that team.”
The Pelicans played with exceptional pace and spacing in two lopsided victories over Houston—a bonafide contender to win the Western Conference—and an overmatched Sacramento team to start the season. The wins came as direct contrasts to what had been a persistent offseason narrative of doom and gloom.
If you’ve been watching and reading national sports media, you have to have come across many proclaiming that Anthony Davis was somehow on the trade block or unhappy in New Orleans. Despite no direct indication from the superstar of the sort and no real reason for the organization to want to move him when he’s three years removed from free agency, the Anthony Davis trade speculation continued to permeate this offseason.
“Somebody argued the fact that, is he the best player in the league? I think so,” Gentry said. “If you don’t want to call him the best, I call him the most valuable…There’s no one in the league we would trade him for. There’s no one out of the league. Not even Beyonce. We wouldn’t trade him for her, then he’s probably untouchable.”
The reason for the persistent conjecture is the relatively small amount of success he’s had with the organization. Davis is a three-time All-NBA first-teamer who has just two playoff appearances and one playoff series win in six years with the Pelicans. There is an obvious aura of underachievement in New Orleans, but those who consider a trade to be a forgone conclusion, or even close to likely at this point, are living in a fantasy land.
It’s part of the national disrespect of a Pelicans team that just finished sweeping last season’s Western Conference third seed, and it’s rooted in an overall lack of belief in a team that isn’t featured in your typical SportsCenter segment or NBA primetime lineup.
“I look at what I have now, and what I can do now, and that’s helping my team win.” Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “You can’t listen to what somebody else is saying or listen to all the white noise or, ‘AD’s going here, he’s going here, he’s going here.’ Well, AD is playing for the Pelicans this year. So my job is to focus on winning and helping these guys as much as possible on and off the floor.”
The Pelicans are more than capable of putting a team around Davis to help him contend. We’ve seen too many NBA superstars force trades in the past to make any definitive statements about the 25-year-old’s future, but to consider a trade imminent is to disrespect the potential of this year’s squad.
This year’s themes are simple: defense, pace and AD.
Offseason Roster Changes
The major subtraction for the Pelicans is the loss of Rajon Rondo. The floor general was vital to the team in their two playoff series, putting together six double-digit assist games, including a 17-assist game against Portland and a 21-assist game against Golden State. He had emerged quickly as an on-court coach and perfect backcourt mate to Jrue Holiday on both ends of the court.
Rondo has been replaced by Elfrid Payton, a career 11 PPG scorer who has always been an excellent, athletic backcourt defender. In order for New Orleans to avoid a letdown, they will have to put Payton in positions to succeed, and Holiday will have to take on a larger role in Rondo’s absence.
The teams other major move was the addition of Julius Randle. Continuing the theme of great defenders, Randle is tenacious two-way forward who averaged a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double for the Lakers last season. His rebounding and defense make the Pelicans one of the league’s scariest defensive units.
High-upside guard Payton and the scrappy Randle playing alongside All-NBA defenders Davis and Holiday should make New Orleans a top-ten defensive team this season—if they don’t underperform.
The addition of Jahlil Okafor (12.4 PPG) and the re-signing of Ian Clark rounded out a busy offseason for the Pelicans front office.
What To Expect
Anthony Davis could be the league’s best player by the end of the season. He’s absolutely dominant on both sides of the ball and is more than capable of giving a team 45 points and/or 20 rebounds and/or 10 blocks on any given night. He can impose his will in a variety of ways and has developed a dominant mid-range game to go along with a capable three-point shot, guard-like handling skills, and a surging back-to-basket game.
When you consider that he’s an all-world defender who can defend all five positions, protect the basket, and make up for team defensive lapses, it’s easy to see why Davis thinks he’s already claimed the crown.
“In my eyes, I’m the best player in the game,” Davis said when asked what it would take to become the most dominant player. “I really feel that way. Nobody can tell me different.”
Davis’ dominance demands a certain success level. And thus, the Pelicans can’t afford to miss the playoffs or experience a first round exit. If they do, they’ll risk alienating a generational talent, and the trade speculation will pick up even more steam.
If Davis is “Batman,” Holiday is this team’s “Robin.” He’ll have to maintain his All-NBA defensive form if the Pelicans are to compete in the Western Conference playoffs. He’ll also have to take on more of a playmaking role in Rondo’s absence, and is more than capable, as he gave New Orleans around 24 points and six assists per game during the playoffs last season. His playoff form will have to be a constant level of production if this team is to take the next step.
Important pieces like offensive-minded forward Nikola Mirotic, who gave New Orleans 15 PPG last year, will play key roles for this team. Mirotic is averaging a bonkers 33 PPG through two games so far this year, and he along with E’Twaun Moore and Ian Clark will have to provide consistent auxiliary scoring for the group.
The Pelicans will be among the league’s leaders in pace, with the goal of using an excellent defensive roster to get consistent defensive stops, and then pushing the basketball in transition to find easy transition buckets. It’a an Alvin Gentry staple, and he has arguably his best roster to do just that.
Everything will begin and end with Davis, but his rapport with frontcourt mates Mirotic and Randle will give New Orleans a significant advantage in the frontcourt almost every night. The Pelicans should spend most games dominating the boards and controlling the paint with one of the league’s best groups of bigs. When their guards play well—particularly Holiday—they’ll blow a lot of teams off the court.
If Davis takes yet another step forward entering his prime and Holiday can shine as the team’s lead guard, there’s no reason why the Pelicans can’t outplay anyone in the West besides Golden State. Though, they would be underdogs in a hypothetical playoff matchup with the Rockets or LeBron James’ Lakers.
The Pelicans are poised to introduce themselves as a Western Conference power. They are one of the league’s most underrated and disrespected teams in the national media, and the notion that Davis can’t win in New Orleans is overblown. This group has the potential to shut down widespread trade talk if they play their best.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself watching Golden State and New Orleans in the Western Conference Finals. It’s really not far-fetched at all.
Yes, Anthony Davis is that good.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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