ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The New Orleans Pelicans

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Last season: New Orleans final season as the Hornets wasn’t pretty. Eric Gordon was out much of the year, Anthony Davis showed promise but looked like a rookie at times, Austin Rivers looked like a mistake, they blew a 25-point lead to the Lakers, and they ended the season with 27 wins without even a sniff of the playoffs. The brightest spot (outside the promise of Davis) was the play of Greivis Vasquez… so they traded him away. We’ll get to that.

Signature highlight from last season: How about Anthony Davis tipping in a game winner?

Key player changes: The word came down from owner Tom Benson — speed up the rebuilding process. And with that Dell Demps took some gambles and did about as well as could be expected. He swapped “he could develop into a good player someday” Nerlens Noel and turned him into All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. Them Demps signed Tyreke Evans to a big free agent deal (too big?). Also on their way in were Greg Steimsma and Anthony Morrow via free agency and the Pelicans drafted Jeff Withey.

Gone are a couple guys they will miss (Greivis Vasquez, Robin Lopez) and some guys they won’t (Roger Mason, Xavier Henry, Lou Amundson).

Keys to the Pelicans’ season:

1) Can Eric Gordon stay healthy? After missing most of the preseason following another ankle surgery Eric Gordon stepped on the court for the first time last week and reminded everyone why he was a max deal guy — he can flat out get buckets. He has averaged 18.7 points a game shooting 56.3 percent overall and 50 percent from three in just 23 minutes a game in the three preseason games he played. When he’s on the court the Pelicans are a much more dynamic offensive team, but in the past four years he’s missed about half his team’s games. Will he be able to stay healthy, remain explosive, finish better at the rim and cut down on the turnovers we saw last season?

If the answer to all that is yes, will the Pelicans try to trade him? Buzz around the league is they will, but with three years and $44 million left on the deal good luck.

2) Can they be a good, or at least decent, defensive team? Two seasons ago they were a top-10 defensive team (Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza on the perimeter, Emeka Okafor protecting the rim), but last season (after sweeping personnel changes) they fell to 28th in the league, allowing 107.6 points per 100 possessions. That has to improve dramatically if New Orleans’ playoff dreams are going to stay alive. Can a potentially undersized backcourt of Holiday/Gordon/Evans funnel perimeter players properly, and can  Davis protect the rim? Defense is the biggest key to the Pelican’s season.

3) How big a step forward can Anthony Davis take? This preseason he has shown the ability to get the ball, face up and attack the rim off the dribble (he’ll take the midrange jumper but that is a work in progress). Combine that with his fantastic finishing around the rim and he can put points — and he will do it efficiently (his true shooting percentage of 55.8 percent last year is amazing for a rookie). On the other end of the court he was a strong rebounder and shot blocker, but could improve as a man defender, particularly on the block.

The bottom line is Davis is a franchise big man, an anchor, a cornerstone. People who just saw highlights or looked at the numbers last year may not have been impressed with Davis’ play, but if you watched him you would be. He is going to be something special, the only question is how fast he gets there.

Why you should watch the Pelicans: They have potentially one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league with Holiday/Gordon/Evans. They could be a force of nature and pair well with Davis along the front line — and every one of them is under 25. This could be a young team of the future coming together, or the mix could just implode in the backcourt. Either way that’s just fun to watch.

Prediction: 43-39, which likely puts them in the mix for a playoff spot but just missing out on it. At least that’s the most likely outcome. But it is possible that they don’t defend that well, the Holiday/Gordon/Evans doesn’t blend well and the whole thing just blows up and costs coach Monty Williams his job.

Russell Westbrook on Rockets laughing at Andre Roberson missing free throws: ‘Probably the guys that don’t play’

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The Rockets bench made a big production when an intentionally fouled Andre Roberson kept missing free throws in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Rockets yesterday.

Russell Westbrook stuck up for his teammate.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Westbrook:

I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it at all. Probably the guys that don’t play, probably over there the ones laughing, if I had to guess.

Good guess. It appears Montrezl Harrell and Bobby Brown – whose only playing time this series came late in Houston’s blowout Game 1 win – led the jeers.

But the most important thing for the Thunder is Roberson making his free throws. They need him on the court to defend James Harden, which exposes him to hacking. If Westbrook deflecting attention onto the Rockets’ benchwarmers helps Roberson at the line, great. But if not, the Rockets will keep having reasons to laugh.

Magic Johnson winks at bringing Paul George to Lakers

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Paul George-to-the-Lakers rumors have swirled for a while.

New Lakers president Magic Johnson will only fuel them.

Asked how he’d interact with the Pacers star to avoid tampering if they ran into each other, Johnson said on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

In explaining how he’d avoid tampering, Johnson probably tampered. Accidental tampering appears to be his specialty.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement says team employees can’t permissibly “induce, persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any Player who is under contract to, or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by, any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services or negotiate or contract for such services.” But the league arbitrarily enforces tampering, so who knows whether he’ll be punished?

Johnson almost certainly could have gotten away with the hypothetical conversation he laid out. But going on television and describing it — even as fantasy, even not directly to George — could constitute tampering in itself,

If Johnson helps attract George to Los Angeles, it’d well be worth it. At least he’s trying something.

Report: Austin Rivers returning for Clippers-Jazz Game 5

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There have been bigger injuries in the Clippers-Jazz first-round series: Blake Griffin‘s toe, Rudy Gobert‘s knee and Gordon Hayward‘s stomach.

But Clippers guard Austin Rivers has yet to play due to a strained hamstring.

It sounds as if that will change tomorrow.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This is neither as big a deal as the Clippers will make it out to be nor as meaningless as Rivers’ many detractors will claim.

The 6-foot-4 Rivers will provide an important defensive upgrade on the perimeter. The Clippers haven’t successfully hidden Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, allowing Utah too many quality looks. Here how the Jazz have shot when defended by each, per NBA.com:

  • Crawford: 18-of-36 (50%), including 7-of-17 on 3-pointers (41%)
  • Felton: 13-of-24 (54%), including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers (63%)

Rivers needn’t be great to help behind Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

Rockets bench hams it up over Andre Roberson missed free throw (video)

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Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.

Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.

It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.