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.

Report: Nets assistant GM Trajan Langdon named GM of Pelicans

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The New Orleans Pelicans continue to rebuild their broken front office. Now that David Griffin has taken his place as the Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, the Pelicans are reportedly adding another name to their executive staff.

According to Shams Charania, Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Trajan Langdon will join Griffin in the New Orleans front office as the team’s new general manager.

Langdon started his front office career as a scout with the San Antonio Spurs, and was named assistant general manager of the Nets in 2016.

Via Twitter:

Brooklyn is a team that has done more with less as of late, and has acted as efficiently as they can particularly as they’ve tried to recover from the moves of a former GM. The Nets moved Billy King Out of the GM job in 2016 in favor for Sean Marks. The Pelicans fired Dell Demps in February.

It looks like the Pelicans are going to do all they can to get Anthony Davis to stay, and that includes a new front office team, upgrades to their practice facility, and a better health and training staff.

Langdon could be just a piece in the puzzle, but he could also be part of the group that has to figure out the best trade package for Davis if the day comes. Either way, New Orleans is regrouping as they move forward with the number one overall pick where they will presumably take Zion Williamson.

Bucks lead East finals 2-0, and now series shifts to Toronto

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry have more than held their own against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton so far in these Eastern Conference finals.

Other than some pretty boxscores, the Toronto Raptors have nothing to show for those efforts.

The supporting cast hasn’t supported much for Toronto, and with what is almost certainly a must-win Game 3 of the East title series looming on Sunday night at home, Raptors coach Nick Nurse is weighing lineup tweaks. Nurse suggested Saturday that Serge Ibaka may start at center over struggling Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell may get minutes that would figure to come at Danny Green‘s expense.

“We’ve got to be better, man,” Nurse said Saturday. “We’ve got to be more physical, we’ve got to hustle more and we’ve got to work harder.”

He may as well have punctuated that by adding “or else.”

In this playoff format that was put into play in 1984, teams that win the first two games at home of a best-of-seven series have ultimately prevailed 94% of the time. And that’s the luxury Milwaukee has right now, leading the series 2-0 after rallying to win the opener and then controlling Game 2 start to finish.

“We can’t rest,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We can’t relax. We can’t assume anything.”

So the odds are stacked against the Raptors. Nurse was told the lack of success teams have when down 0-2 in a series, and insisted he doesn’t care.

“I don’t really give a crap about that,” he said. “I just want our team to come play their (butt) off tomorrow night and get one game and it changes the series.”

Leonard and Lowry are outscoring Antetokounmpo and Middleton 107-77 – which would figure to have been a boon to Toronto’s chances.

It hasn’t worked that way.

Add up everyone else’s scoring in the series, and it’s Bucks 156, Raptors 96. Rebounding has been one-sided in both games, with Milwaukee controlling things on the backboards. Bench scoring has tilted heavily toward Milwaukee as well.

“We’re just trying to be us,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “We’re not playing any differently, regular season or postseason. We’re just trying to go out there and play Bucks basketball. It starts with our defense. Getting stops. Getting out. Playing in transition. Playing with pace. Sharing the ball and being aggressive and attacking the basket.”

The Raptors don’t have to look at the history books to know this series isn’t over.

All they need to do is recall the 2012 Western Conference finals. Leonard and Green were with top-seeded San Antonio, and Ibaka was with second-seeded Oklahoma City. The Spurs won Games 1 and 2 at home – then lost the next four, and the Thunder went to the NBA Finals.

“We have another chance to bounce back on Sunday,” Gasol said. “That’s all that matters right now. That’s all that matters.”

 

Andre Iguodala sits fourth quarter with “lower leg soreness,” to get MRI Sunday

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DaMarcus Cousins. Kevin Durant.

Now you might be able to add Andre Iguodala to the list of injured Warriors. He only played 18 minutes in Game 3 Saturday night, none after he was taken out with 7:49 left in the third quarter. Asked about that after the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr listed a hockey injury — lower leg soreness — and said an MRI was coming.

If he has to miss time, that would be another blow to the Warriors. Up 3-0 on Portland, Golden State can close this series out without him, but the Warriors are going to need Iguodala and Durant — and, ideally, Cousins — against the Bucks or Raptors in the NBA Finals starting on May 30.

Iguodala made friends and influenced people when he went back to the locker room late in the first quarter, deciding to flip off the hallway camera on his way.

We will see if the League has anything to say about that or lets it slide.

 

Jordan Bell spectacularly missed dunk, but Warriors reaction was perfect

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Golden State was starting to make its comeback, cutting the lead to eight midway through the third quarter when Draymond Green found Jordan Bell for the breakaway dunk and…

Ouch.

What was impressive though was the Warriors reaction. First, Steve Kerr didn’t take him out. Didn’t bench him, instead left him in and with that showed confidence.

Then there was Draymond Green, who was on ESPN’s Mic’d Up, and was heard encouraging Bell.

Then there was assistant coach Mike Brown, who tried to get Bell out of the moment, in a great story relayed by Ethan Straus of The Athletic.

“So Jordan played against my son Elijah,” Brown explained. “My oldest son played at Mater Dei High School in Orange County and Jordan played at Long Beach [Poly]. So they had a lot of games back in the day. So I went up to him and he thought I was serious, because we took the time out. He’s about to walk out of the huddle and I walk up to him and say, ‘Jordan, listen, don’t worry about the dunk. I saw about three or four of them back in the Long Beach days and you bounced back.’ He fell out laughing. He said, ‘Ah, MB, I didn’t do that back then!’ I said, ‘Yea you did! It’s all good, though!’”

It worked. Bell never lost confidence, never stopped playing the way he plays, and soon enough there was this.

With Portland going smaller and counting on their offense more, Bell is going to have a larger role in that matchup. This is exactly how you build up the confidence of a player so he will come through for you in those moments.