2018 Preview — New Orleans Pelicans

2018-19 New Orleans Pelicans


Projected Record: 47-25 (7th in West)

Over/Under: 45.5

2016: 48-34 (6th in West)


Key Additions:

  • Julius Randle (Free Agency)
  • Elfrid Payton (Free Agency)
  • Jahlil Okafor (Free Agency)
  • Tony Carr (Pick #51)

Key Subtractions:

  • DeMarcus Cousins
  • Rajon Rondo

Summary

Strengths:

  • Anthony Davis is a fully operational battle station
  • Frontcourt is deep and dynamic
  • Guard rotation is very good

Weaknesses:

  • Still thin on the wings
  • Mirotic likely to regress
  • Can Davis and Holiday stay on the court?

As a lover of Weird NBA Things, the Pelicans have been music to my ears for the past calendar year. This team is so weird, and it’s the best.

Since trading for DeMarcus Cousins halfway through the 2016-17 season, the Pelicans have stubbornly eschewed modern NBA roster construction. They’re just kind of doing their own thing over there, and I love them for it. This team has basically no wings — Solomon Hill and Darius Miller are the only players shorter than 6’9″ and taller than 6’4″ who stand to see significant minutes — and a veritable army of 6’4″ combo guards surrounding the incredibly funky Anthony Davis/Nikola Mirotic/Julius Randle frontcourt trio. This team shouldn’t work.

And yet.

With Boogie Cousins out for the season last year, the Pelicans quickly became the darlings of the Western Conference. They found two of the most improbable comeback stories of the season in Darius Miller (returned from Germany to shoot 41% from three) and Emeka Okafor (who hadn’t played in five seasons!), and rescued friendly fire victim Mirotic from Chicago to casually turn him into Montenegrin Kevin Durant for two months. The Pelicans rampaged ahead to 48 wins and a stunning first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, and even put a cherry on top by stealing a game off the indomitable Golden State Warriors — and yes, it is kind of hilarious that Western Conference success is based on how many games it takes the Warriors to beat you.

Compared to last season, the Pelicans look somewhere between “the same” and “slightly improved” on paper. Randle is a savvy addition; a clear upgrade from Okafor who posted a 21.7-10.8-3.5 stat line per 36 minutes with Los Angeles last season. Frontcourt versatility is this team’s greatest strength, and Randle is no exception — he’ll fit well with virtually any lineup Alvin Gentry wants to deploy, whether as a “four” next to Davis or a “five” next to Mirotic. It’s going to be tough to attack or defend against this trio.

Outside of Randle, however, the changes here are nominal at best. Elfrid Payton brings theoretically similar value to what Rajon Rondo provided last year, but Rondo played a crucial role in the playoff win over Portland, blitzing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum alongside Jrue Holiday and stepping up his game as an offensive facilitator. Does Payton have that extra gear? They might need him to. Elsewhere, things are mostly the same. Jahlil Okafor is here, I guess, and 2017 second-rounder Frank Jackson is ready to make his NBA debut. The rest of the roster is unchanged,

So what can the Pelicans accomplish this season? Right now, it could be difficult to improve on last season’s outcome, as their ceiling doesn’t seem to have moved noticeably higher. LeBron James has loomed large over all these middle-tier Western Conference playoff teams, and for good reason — half of the conference was separated by only three games last season, and his arrival muddies the waters even further. The Pelicans should be one of the league’s weirdest and most exciting teams, but expecting much more than that might just be asking too much.


Most Valuable Player: Anthony Davis

There’s really nothing better than having a bona fide MVP candidate in their prime, is there?

The occasional minor injuries and early departures are inevitable when it comes to Anthony Davis, but by and large, he’s found ways to stay on the court, playing 75 games in each of the past two seasons. It’s paid dividends — he’s averaged an absolutely absurd 28 points and 12 rebounds over the past two years, leading the league in blocked shots last season and developing a respectably league-average three-point shot. There’s almost nothing he can’t do at this point.

Davis has come a long way from his promising-but-unrefined early seasons, and now development has become a game of inches — a little bit of improvement as a passer couldn’t hurt, and he doesn’t quite dominate the offensive glass as much as you might think, ranking outside the league’s top-20 in offensive rebound percentage. These are nitpicks. With good health, he should be in the top-three of everyone’s MVP ballot, and the Pelicans will go exactly as far as he can carry them.

X Factor: Julius Randle

I’m in love with Julius Randle’s fit on this New Orleans team. Really, with this frontcourt as a whole. I was intrigued by the idea of Davis and Cousins dominating the paint as a pair, and I wish we’d seen a little more of it, but the interlocking skill sets of Davis, Mirotic and Julius Randle are going to be incredibly interesting in Alvin Gentry’s capable hands.

Randle is a bowling ball. Listed at a perhaps-generous 6’9″ and weighing 250 pounds, he’s a seriously dense guy who can cause problems in the paint. And yet, he’s also quite versatile — Luke Walton and the Lakers quietly embraced small-ball focused approach last season, which let to Randle splitting his minutes almost 50-50 between the four and the five, per Basketball Reference. He’s a very good playmaker, dishing over three assists per game across the past two seasons, and a prolific rebounder, with 10+ rebounds per 36 minutes in each of the last three seasons. Randle does a little bit of everything, in other words.

This is really a section about all three of Davis, Mirotic and Randle. Almost all of New Orleans’ frontcourt minutes are going to go to their featured trio, and any pairing of the three should fit together snugly. We already saw what Mirotic’s shooting looked like alongside Davis, and Randle can fill in as a small-ball center alongside Mirotic or as a standard four next to Davis (though Davis switches around so much that his position functionally doesn’t matter). Each can hold their own on both ends of the court — and hopefully none of them end up hurt, because Jahlil Okafor ominously looms at the back end of the bench.

Don’t Forget About: Frank Jackson

Three foot surgeries cost Jackson, the 31st pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, his entire first season in the NBA. As you can see, though, he looks pretty damn healthy — Frank Jackson is going to be fun.

Two years ago, Duke — as they always tend to be — was loaded. Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum would all go on to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Jackson was the forgotten man — a prolific scoring guard forced into an awkward backseat role among a group of players who fit together awkwardly on the court.

He made the most of what he got, though. Jackson was impressively efficient during his lone season at Duke, with a 60% true shooting percentage. The best word is “explosive.” He’s a dangerous attacker off the dribble — his 42″ vertical leap sure helps — while also knocking down close to 40% of his three-pointers on healthy volume. Provided he avoids reinjury to his thrice-repaired foot (and overcomes a preseason ankle injury), he could open some eyes this year.

There will be an opportunity for Jackson to carve out a role. Rajon Rondo’s departure leaves a lot of minutes up for grabs in the guard rotation, and Jackson will battle with newcomer Elfrid Payton, E’Twaun Moore (a very quiet breakout player last season) and the underwhelming Ian Clark for spots around Jrue Holiday. Don’t be surprised if he’s surpassed most — or all — of that group by the end of the season.


Second Opinion

Ryan Hebert, Lifelong Pelicans Fan Man (@HebertofRiffs)

The Pelicans Are The Coolest Team In The Western Conference

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There’s a lot of small market and beleaguered teams in the NBA who, when they attain breakthrough success in the form of a postseason run, find themselves hopelessly attached to the exact personnel and identity that got them to the next level. The Timberwolves find themselves paralyzed by a coach/GM who cannot move on from his star player and from the vision of his glory days in Chicago. He cannot grapple with missing the playoffs and success, to him, will always be rooted in his most successful defenses and in that time where he wasn’t as brutally criticized for having less of grasp of time management than Robert Williams III, the Time Lord . Doc Rivers spent roughly five seasons signing past their prime former Celtic Killers, in the process killing the present of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Nostalgia in the NBA is the crutch of a failing coward whose diaper is reaching critical mass. Sure, you reached a new level of success with a particular roster. Cool story, Glenn. But the NBA is about pimpin past THAT level and moving on to The Final Level, and you gotta keep it movin to get there

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Now, to an elementary Coolness Evaluator, losing Boogie and Rondo would look like a disaster. Boogie is an Immense Pimp who constantly has the Worst People In The World mad at him for being a hilarious curmudgeon. Rondo is an absurd form of grifter, who grifts you by lowering your perception of him with poor regular season efforts and bizarre antics before unleashing on you a form of basketball that is equally genius and spite-driven towards try-hards like CJ McCollum. These are classically cool traits. But much like in music, if you refuse to adapt in new and funky ways, your ability to create meaningfully is hindered. Milesdavis didn’t just make Cool Jazz then stop there. Similarly, the Pelicans recognized last year for the statement it was relative to that moment in time and kept it Movin. And the new Directions are Funky

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Juliusrandle: in terms of fit, it was nearly impossible to find someone better for AD, Gentry and New Orleans. An Immensely Beefy Southpaw, Randle can push the pace at the 4/5 as a funky ball handler and passer, punish defenders inside and work the high low with AD/Nikomirotic. He also reacts to on court occurrences with the tangible shock of someone at the beach who just saw a seagull explode after being fed bread with Alka Seltzer, which couldn’t possibly be better utilized than in being in a lineup featuring Anthony Davis. There’s gonna be a lotta dunks and a lot of funk. There’s fire on the bayou and Juliusrandle don’t blink

Celtics Suns Basketball

Elfrid Payton: I have no idea if he’s good or bad at basketball, but this guy had a haircut like if Little Richard was from outer space, so I’m willing to bet that he was cosmically destined to play in New Orleans. Sometimes congruence of identities between the player and team/region can transcend on court limitations because of the underlying Universal Energies. Much in the same way that Zach Randolph made sense in Memphis and Marcus Smart makes sense in Boston, I believe that Elfridpayton makes sense in New Orleans. I KNOW that he has the funk within him and, in the right system, can tear the roof off the sucka. Look for Alvingentry to elevate his game in this uptempo environment.

Abandoning your past self is hazardous, but so is hanging on to something that just isn’t happening no more. Bowie went through characters like the Knicks go through coaches and it facilitated immense artistic growth that outlasted all of his early glam contemporaries, who needed garish presentations to differentiate themselves. If you’re gonna be freaky to transcend your surroundings and limitations and truly own it, that has to evolve with the times as well. The Pelicans are moving the thing forward unapologetically and I can dig that.


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