Season Preview: New Orleans Pelicans

My choice for the just-made-up weirdest offseason award, the Pelicans (nee Hornets) saw the presumptive 1st overall pick in the draft, Nerlens Noel, fall to them at the 6th pick, only to instantly flip him, along with next year’s first rounder, to the 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holiday.

This move was somewhat curious in the sense that most would consider New Orleans to be a few years away from contending for a playoff spot in the loaded West. As such, the team was expected to keep acquiring young assets until they saw more progress. Taking a flyer on Holiday, and sacrificing a potential lottery pick in the best draft in years in the process, doesn’t exactly fit with the popular process of bottoming out for years.

Holiday instantly improves the team, but not in the way you might think. Holiday’s All-Star berth came on the strength of an improvement in his offensive numbers that was partly fueled by taking a bigger role in the Philadelphia offense, but New Orleans got solid play out of Greivis Vasquez on that end. Holiday will bring a different dimension with his ability to get to the rim, but on the whole New Orleans had a league-average offense last season and is unlikely to see dramatic improvements there.

Holiday’s defense, on the other hand, will be a big improvement over the lead-footed Vasquez. While the offense last season was league average, the defense was pathetic. The hope is that internal improvement from Anthony Davis and the addition of shotblocker Greg Stiemsma will help pull that ranking up this season, but it will also help a lot to have a strong defender at the point of attack to keep pressure off the bigs. This will be especially important when sharpshooter Ryan Anderson is one of those bigs.

The rest of the perimeter core will be very interesting to watch. The Pelicans extended a high-dollar, multi-year offer to Tyreke Evans, which the Kings declined to match. Evans has had a rocky time in the league since his rookie of the year campaign with poor decision making, injury trouble, and a shaky jumper stunting his growth. Last season was a step back in the right direction, with improved shooting and playmaking bolstering an improved campaign. The mesh with Holiday in the backcourt will require some growth off the ball though, and that’s not something Evans has dealt with effectively so far in his career.

Further complicating matters is the presence of oft-injured shooting guard Eric Gordon, who is once again sitting out in the preseason, but is expected to be available at some point during the season. Theoretically Gordon could be a valuable safety valve for the offense, providing outside shooting and secondary ballhandling. The reality of who he is as a player and who this team needs are at odds, however. Gordon has done his best work with the ball, and his shooting has always seemed better than his numbers actually are. This assumes that he will actually take the court at some point, which is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. If he can get on the court and show something of his old game I would expect New Orleans to try to flip him for assets or cap relief.

It will be a challenge for Monty Williams to find a way to get Holiday, Evans, and Gordon enough time with the ball without sacrificing looks for Davis and Anderson, but ultimately the offense should be fairly effective. Evans has indicated a willingness to come off the bench, and there is enough peripheral offensive talent with guys like Anthony Morrow and Jason Smith that they should finish in the top half of the league in efficiency.

The defense will really determine whether the team will be thinking about the playoffs or regretting giving up their first-rounder, and my bet is that it will be the latter. Stiemsma is a nice addition as a shot blocker, but he is unlikely to be able to play huge minutes. Improvements from Davis and an updated scheme would have a bigger effect, but I that New Orleans will have to wait another year or two to get a taste of the postseason.

Predicted Finish: 32-50 | 5th place in Southwest Division | 12th place in Western Conference