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.

Here’s LeBron James trying on Lonzo Ball’s weirdo jump shooting form (VIDEO)

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Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point range this season. That’s up a little more than six percent from last season, and three percent better than his career average. He doesn’t need much help there this season, but you know that LeBron is always looking for ways to improve.

Including, apparently, trying on UCLA star Lonzo Ball’s shooting form.

During warmups on Thursday before the Cavaliers took on the Chicago Bulls, LeBron messed around with Ball’s awkward shooting form. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an odd draw from right-to-left, with the right-handed Ball almost shooting from the left side of this face.

Ball was a 41.3 percent shooter from deep during his one season at UCLA and will be a top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, perhaps much to the chagrin of whichever team has to deal with his dad, LaVar.

Scottie Pippen throws blame for Knicks woes at feet of his former coach Phil Jackson

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Apparently, it’s not “be kind to your former boss month.”

Bulls legend and Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen was on ESPN’s “The Jump” — the Rachel Nichols hosted NBA show on each afternoon — and the topic turned to how much the Knicks stink. And why. Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around for just about everyone on that front, but Pippen threw his former coach under the bus (transcription via the New York Daily News).

“To be honest with you, I’m going to have to go at my old coach Phil Jackson,” Pippen said on ESPN’s “The Jump.” “I think he just hasn’t put the right pieces on the floor. I give a lot of credit to Carmelo who is being very professional in getting through these 82 game season. And now he’s being benched to some degree, they’re taking a lot of his minutes away. But this team just hasn’t had it. They haven’t had it since Phil Jackson landed there. There hasn’t been any upside.”

After saying “fans would love to see Carmelo in New York and Phil out,” Pippen was asked by host Rachel Nichols if he believes Jackson “should be out.”

“Yes,” Pippen replied emphatically.

Most of Jackson’s former players have his back, most recently Shaquille O’Neal who laid blame at the feet of the Knicks’ players. The ones that Jackson assembled into a mismatched team.

Phil Jackson’s record may be 77-162 since taking over the Knicks, but reports are he isn’t going anywhere. While owner James Dolan can flip like a pancake on a griddle, the sense is that Jackson will keep collecting his $12 million annual salary and will keep trying to build a triangle-offense team. That means Carmelo Anthony likely gets moved this summer.

Jackson has seemingly fallen into the trap the Knicks have been unable to climb out of for years — since James Dolan took over as owner seemingly — of not just picking a system, sticking to it, being patient and avoiding quick fixes. Triangle, Rhombus, pick-and-roll heavy, whatever offense the Knicks use should be built around getting Kristaps Porzingis touches and playing to his strengths. Get younger players who fit that system to go around him and let it grow together. Be patient. Instead, it’s Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

Jackson deserves blame. A significant amount. So do the players. So does Jeff Hornacek as coach. But make sure Dolan gets a big slice too, this team has struggled since he was given control, and he is the one constant.

Frustrated Kyrie Irving on another ring: “And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

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Since the All-Star break, the Cleveland Cavaliers have not looked like a championship team. They have been in a malaise going 8-10 with the second-worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. The Cavs like a team that is just waiting for the games to have meaning again in the playoffs. It makes one tempted to say this will come back to bite them in the postseason, but which team in the East is going to beat them?

The Cavaliers players are frustrated with their play of late, too.  Kyrie Irving vented about it after practice, as reported by Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Obviously it was just a frustrating game and there have been a few frustrating games for all of us,” Irving said. “Just getting back to what we do, having fun with one another and being truthful with one another — we’ll be good…

And then Irving said: “You can’t rely on just thinking that one championship is enough. It’s natural for human beings to just get comfortable. To rely on just having won a championship. But if you a (competitor) you want two, you want three, you want four. And if you dedicate yourself more like you say you do, then you want more. And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

Injuries have had key players, most recently Kevin Love and J.R. Smith out of the rotation of late, and working them back in has not gone smoothly. Still, this is the same core from the team that won the title last season, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get back into a groove.

Cleveland is acting like a team that thinks it can flip the switch.

Maybe they can, but there are some powerful teams out West who seemed to have flipped theirs long ago.

 

Rumor: Bulls ready to move on from Jimmy Butler this summer

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Predicting what the Chicago Bulls front office will do this summer is a game of roulette — the ball can land anywhere and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Is Dwyane Wade coming back? Is Nikola Mirotic part of the future? Fred Hoiberg? What kind of team are the Bulls trying to build, anyway?

Then there is the biggest one: Is Jimmy Butler still part of the long-term plan? Or is he going to be moved to facilitate a rebuilding process?

Last summer when the Bulls had the chance to trade him, they kept Butler to build around him… then made some interesting choices in trying to do that. They didn’t get enough shooting, players didn’t fit well, and others didn’t develop, and the Bulls are struggling to even make the postseason.

So what do the Bulls do this summer? One exec told Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer that the Bulls were going to move Butler.

Paul George and Jimmy Butler were involved in trade rumors at the deadline, and all indications are that those conversations will resume this offseason. One front-office source told me recently that Butler is “as good as gone,” while George sounds like a player who wants out.”

Paul George wanting to contend (or if not, be in Los Angeles) is not news, but whether the Pacers decide to be serious about trading him this summer depends on a number of factors that we’re not going to get into here. This article is about Butler.

Do the Bulls want to trade Butler? Some in the front office do, some don’t. There were reports the Bulls wanted an All-Star level player for him so the team did not take a step back, but nobody was giving that up. Everyone in Chicago from ownership through management is not on the same page, which helps explain some of the stop-gap team building moves by the team. Chicago needs to decide if it wants to go for the full rebuild, which is what happens if they trade Butler. The playoffs are out of the questions for a few years if they do, but that’s not a bad thing if they draft well and commit to the plan. However, there is a sense that ownership thinks “this is Chicago, we don’t rebuild.”

All of which is to say, if the Bulls trade Butler it’s not a huge surprise. If they keep him, it’s not a huge surprise. But other teams — hello Boston — may be prepping for him to come back on the trade market around the draft.