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.