51 Questions: Can the Pelicans make a leap forward in the crowded Western Conference?

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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27.

The hardest leap to make in the NBA is the one that takes you from good to great. Three years into Anthony Davis’ career, the New Orleans can definitely be classified as “good.” They won 45 games, good enough for the eighth seed in a brutal Western Conference. Even with the Thunder’s injuries creating that opening, New Orleans earned their spot. They navigated injuries to Jrue Holiday (who missed 42 games), Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (21 games apiece) and put up a surprising fight against the Warriors in the first round, even though that series ended in a four-game sweep.

Despite earlier reports that head coach Monty Williams was working under a playoffs-or-bust ultimatum, Pelicans management decided that a postseason appearance wasn’t enough. They fired Williams after the first-round loss and replaced him with Alvin Gentry, widely seen as the chief architect of the offense in Golden State that ultimately took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. It’s a clear upgrade — the idea of a player as talented as Davis in an offensive scheme like Gentry’s is absolutely terrifying for the rest of the league. More importantly, making a major coaching change coming off a season of upward progress sent a clear message: this is a team aiming to take the next step, solidifying themselves as not just a surefire playoff team, but a real threat.

Whether they were successful there is a different story. The Pelicans’ offseason moves were mostly insignificant compared to their West competitors — their biggest acquisition was Kendrick Perkins, who at this point can’t be counted on for more than spot minutes as a fourth or fifth big. In lieu of a roster overhaul, the Pelicans are counting on three things to elevate them to contenders: Davis’ continued otherworldliness, improved coaching under Gentry and a healthier, more consistent supporting cast. All three of those things are possible; some are surer things than others.

As long as he’s healthy, Davis is the NBA’s next generational superstar. In his third season, at age 22, he put up a 30.81 PER, the 11th all-time mark for a single season, putting him in a class with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James. Already an offensive monster around the basket, Davis made enormous strides as a defender and further honed his midrange shot. Now, he’s making noise about wanting to shoot more threes and adding 12 pounds of muscle. If either of those things is even sort of true, there’s not much the rest of the league can do about it.

Becoming a contender is easier when you have a transcendent superstar, and the Pelicans are lucky enough to have one. But that’s not all they need, especially in a brutal Western Conference that looks to have six legitimate contenders ahead of them (the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets and Grizzlies). There’s a lot of talent on their roster, but outside of Davis, everybody has question marks stemming from either health or fit.

Holiday will still be limited in training camp, still recovering from surgery on the same leg that’s given him problems in both of his seasons in New Orleans. When healthy, he’s an underrated defender at the point guard position and a devastating pick-and-roll partner for Davis. The rest of the Pelicans’ backcourt is talented but not without its risks. Gordon was quietly very solid in the second half of last season, shooting 44.8 percent from three-point range. Tyreke Evans should also be terrific in Gentry’s offense. But both of them need the ball, and both have injury concerns.

The Pelicans’ frontcourt situation beyond Davis is similar to its backcourt: a lot of talent, but not a lot of natural fits. Anderson provides valuable spacing in the frontcourt, but his fit is odd considering New Orleans re-signed Omer Asik to a five-year, $60 million deal this summer. Anderson can’t play much small forward, and he’s a limited defender, so his ideal fit is alongside Davis at power forward — but it’s unclear how much Davis will play at center and how much he’ll play with Asik, who’s a legitimate liability on offense.

Beyond Gordon and Evans, the Pelicans have serious question marks on the wings as well. Quincy Pondexter isn’t expected to be healthy until November at the earliest, which could mean Dante Cunningham will have to play out of position at the three. If everyone is healthy, Evans can slide to small forward and play alongside Holiday and Gordon, but that’s a big if at this point.

There’s plenty of intrigue on this roster beyond Davis, who alone should make the Pelicans a playoff team in a year when two of last year’s contenders, Portland and Dallas, are expected to take major steps back. But even as good as Davis is, and as perfect a fit as Gentry’s offense is for this team’s strengths, it’s tough to see them making much noise once they get to the postseason. The West is simply too deep, and most of the teams at the top are either getting key players back from injury (Oklahoma City) or made major moves to improve (San Antonio and the Clippers). It’s going to take time for everyone to get comfortable with the new coach, and injuries have prevented the kind of natural chemistry building that most teams go through in their formative years.

But this team’s future is bright. They’ll have flexibility next summer to add talent, and Davis is only getting better. Regardless of their unlikeliness to be a true contender, he alone makes them appointment television. The rewards will come down the line. For now, it’s about growth and keeping this positive momentum going.

There’s already an Anthony Davis Lakers mural up in Los Angeles (PHOTO)

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Anthony Davis isn’t in Los Angeles yet. In fact the trade between the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans hasn’t been completed, and reportedly won’t be completed until July 6.

But that doesn’t mean that Lakers fans aren’t already anticipating his arrival.

On Instagram Sunday, Venice muralist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. posted an incredible new rendering of Davis, draped in Forum blue and gold.

Via Twitter:

Zermeño is the artist who painted one of the LeBron James murals that was defaced in L.A. last summer.

The Lakers did nothing right last season, and are a train wreck of an organization. Despite that, they have landed one of the best players in the NBA and if he can stay healthy they should be able to find their way back to the playoffs next season. There’s lots of work to do on this Lakers roster, and as much as people want to jump to conclusions, it’ll take some filling out before they’re contenders.

Davis is a step in the right direction, but this whole thing could go in the direction of “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” very quickly.

Never put it past Lakers fans to go all in. Less than 24 hours from the announcement of the trade and we already have a mural of Davis.

Reports: Pelicans fielding calls from teams interested in No. 4 pick

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The trade for Anthony Davis has not been completed yet. The New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers are apparently not expected to finalize the deal until July 6.

But one thing that could throw those plans out the window is if GM David Griffin gets another offer before Thursday’s NBA Draft. According to multiple reports, teams have been calling the Pelicans interested in the No. 4 overall pick they gleaned in the deal in principle for Davis.

Via Twitter:

From a distance it appears Griffin is not looking to completely rebuild from the bottom. His roster isn’t really set up for that, anyway. Jrue Holiday is already 29, and having two 19 or 20-year-olds would necessitate waiting longer to contend than perhaps Holiday’s contract lasts.

Still, it’s not as though Griffin couldn’t have another deal in principle in place by Thursday for that pick. Teams select for other teams all the time. A wink-and-handshake deal could be done so the Pelicans select for whomever a potential trade partner wants at that No. 4 spot.

The NBA is a weird place so I wouldn’t be surprised if this deal gets done earlier, or even later as Adrian Wojnarowski has suggested is possible. At the end of the day, the outcome is that Davis is on the Lakers despite that organization doing absolutely nothing right to get him there other than being in L.A.

Report: NBA asked Drake not to attend games in Oakland

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Emotions were running high during the NBA Finals among the fan bases: The Raptors were on their way to their first-ever title and their fans were loud even on the road; In Oakland, there was a part-owner of the team shoving Kyle Lowry.

Drake giving Nick Nurse a shoulder massage on the sidelines at Oracle would not have gone over well.

So the NBA encouraged Drake not to come to the games in Oakland, according to a report from TMZ.

The NBA reached out to Drake and asked him not to travel to Oakland for any of the NBA Finals games at Oracle Arena due to “security concerns,” multiple sources tell TMZ Sports.

We’re told the league expressed concern about potentially angry Warriors fans doing something stupid like taunting Drake or throwing stuff at him … which wouldn’t just put Drake at risk, but also other people sitting near him.

In the end, they all agreed it was best for Drake to stay in Toronto for the away games — with Drake ultimately leading the Raptor fan watch party at Jurassic Park during Game 6.

They chose… wisely. I have no doubt the NBA encouraged this move, it only makes sense.

Besides, the last thing these Finals needed was more Drake.

Winners and Losers in blockbuster Anthony Davis trade

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It is very possible both teams at the heart of this blockbuster trade — the Lakers and Pelicans — get what they want out of this deal. Which is rare. It’s the goal, no GM makes a trade thinking they lost the trade, but usually someone comes out on the short end.

This time, the Lakers — a team that has missed the playoffs six years in a row — got their man now have two of the top seven players in the league. Meanwhile, the Pelicans have (or will after Thursday’s draft) Zion Williamson and are set up in the short term to be entertaining, and in four years or so could be a beast in their own right.

But there are losers to go with the winners in this trade, here is the breakdown.

Winner: Anthony Davis.

The man got where he wanted to go. He felt he toiled in obscurity in New Orleans, and that the small market franchise had done a poor job building a team around him (which is absolutely true). Davis believed he wasn’t getting the endorsements and attention he deserved. That changes now (and be careful what you wish for). This summer he will lead Team USA at the World Cup in China, then come back and play next to LeBron James in Los Angeles — the brightest of all spotlights — with a team that has the potential to contend. Davis got exactly what he wanted, now he just has to stay healthy and take advantage of it.

Winner: LeBron James.

At LeBron’s first press conference in Los Angeles, he said he knew he needed to be patient as they built this team to contend around him… and everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen. He’s 34, he not at that point in his career where patience is an option. Now he has another elite star around him — and a perfect complementary player for his game. It should work. The pressure now is on Laker GM Rob Pelinka to fill out the roster with role players who can make this a contender, because star power alone is not enough in today’s NBA.

Loser: Boston Celtics.

Danny Ainge had a plan and haul of assets to pull it off (thanks again Brooklyn). The Celtics signed Gordon Hayward, traded for Kyrie Irving, drafted well and developed those players, things were coming together… and then it all fell apart. Boston didn’t land Paul George or Kawhi Leonard in trades. Hayward had the freak injury and is not back to his old self yet. Irving became disenfranchised this season and now he has one foot out the door (likely to Brooklyn). Rich Paul kept saying Davis would only be a rental in Boston. All of that meant Ainge couldn’t go all-in on a Davis trade like he had planned (throwing in Jayson Tatum specifically), and once again Boston missed out. Ainge is a great GM, don’t get me wrong, but this shows how hard to put together these multi-year plans in the NBA and pull them off. In an East with Toronto (who may or may not be the same after this summer), Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, Boston has a lot of work to do to get back to contender status.

Winner: Rich Paul.

Fans may not like his tactics — and there were miscalculations along the way — but the job of an agent is to get his clients where they want and what they want. Rich Paul has done precisely that. The man orchestrated this. His client LeBron is in Los Angeles where he wants to be, and now has a running partner in another Paul client, one who now has the spotlight he wanted. It may not have happened on the timeline Paul wanted, but he may be the biggest winner in this whole thing.

Loser: The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Knicks have big free agent plans this summer, and maybe Kevin Durant still comes (and plays, eventually). However, the longshot dream of landing Davis is dead, and worse yet now there is another major player for elite free agents in the game. One that is a better draw than New York as you read this. Maybe this summer works out for New York, but in the past week the market got a lot more complex.

Twenty-four hours ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were the best free agent destination in Los Angeles. Now…. they may still land Kawhi Leonard (or he may choose to stay in Toronto for a year or two, who knows?) but the Lakers are still the Lakers in that market. And now the Lakers are the big free agent draw.

Winner: David Griffin and the New Orleans Pelicans.

When the Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery — and essentially the rights to draft Zion Williamson — the calculus of this trade changed a little. They now had the potential superstar/top-five player, it became a matter of building along that timeline. This trade does that. New team VP David Griffin had leverage (the Lakers needed a star and this was their best chance) and he used it to get a haul. Maybe the Pelicans keep Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, maybe those two get flipped for other players, and that same thing is true of the draft picks, starting with the No. 4 in this draft. Bottom line, Griffin got this franchise the building blocks to contend, and while there is work to do to reach that level in the short term this team is going to be fun to watch.

Loser: Dell Demps and Magic Johnson.

The nuts and bolts of this trade could have been worked out at the trade deadline if egos and emotions had been put aside. They weren’t. In New Orleans, there was anger at the timing and nature of Rich Paul’s trade request, which led to people above Demps shooting down the idea of any trade with the Lakers. Demps wouldn’t even talk to Pelinka — only Magic, and barely that — and wasn’t able to manage up and get the people above him on board (Griffin pulled that off). Magic, when he was in the office, bungled this and killed the Lakers’ locker room chemistry in the process. That it got done this June, and with far fewer back-and-forth rumors, doesn’t reflect well on the guys out the door.

Winner: Lakers fans (and their sense of exceptionalism).

There is some pushback on this trade in Lakers nation. Fans become emotionally attached to and overvalue draft picks the team brings in, fans watch them develop and see them as “their guy.” Those fans don’t want to give up Ingram and Ball and Josh Hart (and a lot of picks), and they are right that is a lot of assets… and the Lakers got Anthony freakin’ Davis. The Lakers now have two of the top seven players on the face of the earth. This is what Lakers fans expect — stars to come to them, and for them to contend. In Los Angeles, Lakers’ exceptionalism is a real thing. That faith has been rewarded. Savor that.

Loser: LaVar Ball.

Does this even need to be explained?