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

2 Comments

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.

Embiid, Morant, Lillard headline list of All-Star Game reserves

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

Joel Embiid was a lock. Few others were.

The fans made their voice heard and selected the five All-Star game starters from each conference. Embiid was the odd man out in the East frontcourt (there was going to be a snub no matter who was left off), and we can debate if Zion Williamson has played enough games to deserve being named a starter, but there were no egregious choices.

The brutal selections are always the last couple of reserves — there are more deserving players than spots — and that choice falls to the league’s coaches, who vote to pick the seven bench players from each conference (three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards).

Here are the 2023 All-Star Game reserves.

WEST

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)

West Biggest Snubs: Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards

EAST

Joel Embiid (Philadephia 76ers)
DeMar DeRozan (Chicago Bulls)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)

East Biggest Snubs: Trae Young, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson

Here are some thoughts and notes on the selections:

• This is the first All-Star game for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jackson and Haliburton — and they all deserved it.

• For my money, the biggest snub is Pascal Siakam of the Raptors. While the team has disappointed, Siakam has played not just at an All-Star level but at an All-NBA level averaging 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game, plus solid defense. He is a top 15 player in the league, let alone top 24.

• Davis and Booker not making the roster must be solely a matter of games missed for the coaches, because both are deserving.

• Jaren Jackson Jr. making it may be the biggest surprise — he’s an elite defender and solid offensive player, but he also missed the first 14 games of the season and defense-first players have a hard time getting the nod for a fan exhibition. The coaches voting in Adebayo from the Heat over Butler was thinking along the same lines, the coaches appreciate the defense and well-rounded game of the Miami big man.

• The coaches put one Heat player and one Knick on the team, balancing the scales for two teams who could have made a case for two players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) will be the team captains this season (as voted by the fans), who will select their starters from a pool consisting of Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), and Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).

• In a change to the format this year, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams on the court — playground style — just before the All-Star Game. They will choose from a pool of starters, and then the backups from the group of reserves above.

• The Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis, while the Nuggets’ Michael Malone will coach Team LeBron.

• The All-Star Game will take place Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. The entire weekend of events will be broadcast on TNT.

• As it has been the past few years, teams will play the first three quarters somewhat traditionally (although the winner of each quarter individually raises money for its team charity). Then the clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and the first team to reach a target score — 24 points (in honor of Kobe) higher than the total of the team leading after three quarters. Meaning simply, if team Giannis leads 100-99 after three quarters, the first team to get to 124 wins.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
Chris Coduto/Getty Images
0 Comments

The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.

Devin Booker reportedly could return to Suns next week

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

The Phoenix Suns are 9-13 since Devin Booker went out with a left groin strain (which counts a few games before, but does not include, his attempted Christmas Day comeback, which lasted all of four minutes in a Suns loss). While they have bounced back lately as Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson returned, Phoenix still slid down to eighth in the standings.

The Suns need Booker to return — and they may get it next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, sidelined the past five weeks because of a left groin strain, could return as soon as Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets, sources told ESPN… Booker has been ramping up his on-court work, and is expected to join the Suns at the start of a five-game road trip that begins Friday in Boston and continues Saturday at Detroit.

Booker should be named an All-Star reserve Tuesday, despite all the time missed — he has been that good. Booker is averaging 27.1 points a game shooting 37% from 3 (a good 58.5 true shooting percentage) and is dishing out 5.1 assists per night. The bottom line, the Suns have outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season and been outscored by 2.5 per 100 when he is out.

He returns to a team that needs a jolt and could get a couple — both the return of Booker to the rotation and a trade at the deadline to bring in depth. The Suns are likely to trade Jae Crowder at the deadline — the Bucks are considered the frontrunners but the Heat and Hawks are reportedly in the mix — which may not bring back what James Jones once hoped, but should give the team a little more depth.

If the Suns can get back to the team that started the season 15-6 they could make some noise in the West, but there is a lot for the Suns to clean up to get back to those days.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

0 Comments

It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.