The upcoming New Orleans Pelicans season really started February 16, 2014.
That was the day Anthony Davis, roaring through his sophomore season, stepped onto the newly renamed Smoothie King Center (SKC) court for his first NBA All-Star Game appearance.
No matter that the season was still at its midpoint, or that Davis was a last-minute addition to the All-Star lineup — a nod to New Orleans as host city and a replacement for an injured Kobe Bryant. The Pelicans' season was essentially finished, derailed by a cascade of injuries and frustrations, but Davis' appearance was a nod to the obvious.
Just 21 years old, and surrounded by a still-rough amalgamation of journeymen for hire, young strivers and oft-injured veterans, Davis is the real deal, a scoring powerhouse who moves effortlessly across the hardwood and through the air, and whose career trajectory, like Chris Paul before him, may only be hindered by being in New Orleans instead of Miami or San Antonio or Los Angeles.
The Pelicans are obviously much more than just Anthony Davis, but have moved to build a team to stand around him, to feed him the ball and ease the strain on his 6-foot-10-inch frame. If they make AD's life easier, the reasoning goes, by feeding him and supplying him and supporting him at both ends of the court, something amazing might occur.
Goaltending / Full-Court Press / Shot Clock Violation
The Pelicans have built a team to win now — to the point some have said the organization has sacrificed its ability to make moves in the future, trading away draft picks and locking in players — some aging — to big contracts. However, the pressure to win, win big and do it soon, is overwhelming. Davis' rookie contract runs out soon, and other players are aging or are on short-term deals.
The Pelicans organization is now overseen by New Orleans Saints executives who have been conditioned over much of the past decade to expect and demand immediate results and top-tier performance. Owner Tom Benson leveraged the purchase of the team into a $54 million renovation of the SKC, brought the players from the Alario Center into a stunning new practice facility in Metairie, sank an enormous amount of capital into a rebranding campaign (and an unfortunate, widely derided mascot, who got a reboot) and spent freely to bring in high-caliber talent. Even if the moves may have not made much sense in years past, this is now a very talented squad, many of whom have had a couple of years to learn to play together.
Injuries plagued the Pelicans last year — some right at the start, and others when they were just starting to gel as a team and run hot. Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and the ever-fragile Eric Gordon all missed some, most or nearly all of last year. But that was last season. With the exception of Tyreke Evans, who is nursing an injured hamstring but is expected to be ready for the season opener, the Pelicans are looking healthy, seasoned and strong. Many players, including hot-handed Anderson, came into camp early this offseason to hit the weight room.
Monty Williams' coaching style promotes internal competition and earning a spot on the roster, no matter a player's history or raw talent, which will promote a deeper bench and, fans can hope, ease the strain on the starters over the long 82-game season.
The Western Conference is brutally competitive, and the Pelicans were the only team in the Southwestern Division last year to finish under .500. The division includes completely dominant San Antonio, who won the 2014 Finals. The Pelicans will have to step up their effort and finish better than their 4-12 divisional record if they hope to secure a playoff spot.
Much like that other team across Girod Street, the Pelicans have been dismal visitors. Last year the Pelicans were 22-19 at the SKC, but only 12-29 on the road. Unlike in football, every single game doesn't carry overwhelming weight — even great basketball teams are expected to lose around 20 games over an 82-game season, and there are individual and team ebbs and flows as the months pass. But the truism remains: teams that can't win on the road just aren't contenders.
Gordon, in a story that has been told to death, never really materialized or fulfilled the great promise of his potential. However, this is the first time Gordon hasn't been suffering from, or recovering from, an injury since coming to New Orleans in 2011, and he will almost certainly be the Pelicans' starting point guard. In camp he's been in tough competition with another guard who showed more promise on paper than on the court — Austin Rivers. The two have been matched up and fighting it out in camp and the preseason. Also look for swingman Evans to possibly make a play for the starting guard position as soon as he's healthy.
Despite the front office's best efforts, basketball remains an also-ran in South Louisiana. Attendance is difficult to determine — the team releases the number of tickets purchased for a game, rather than how many people pass through the turnstiles, making attendance announcements shaky at best and patently absurd at worst. But even at capacity (just over 18,000) a Pelicans sellout is a fraction of the home crowd of a Saints or LSU football game. And even diehard hoops fans find it difficult to trek downtown three or four times a week.
However, the team and the state have sunk tens of millions of dollars into refurbishing the Smoothie King Center, and this year, for the first time, the Pelicans have secured television broadcasts for every single game: 77 on Fox Sports New Orleans, and five nationally broadcast games (three on NBATV, and one each on ESPN and TNT). This year may be the perfect opportunity to capitalize on a shaky Saints squad and steal some interest.
There are still plenty of questions about this still-young squad. Who will emerge as the locker room leader? Can Monty Williams coach to the team he has, rather than squeeze the players into his system? Will Anderson recover from personal and professional woes to wow again from behind the 3-point arc, and will All-Star Jrue Holiday return to form after missing most of last season with a leg injury?
The mere presence of offseason acquisition Omer Asik at center presages a completely new look for the Pelicans' defense — he'll dominate the paint and free up Davis for even more open looks on the other side of the court. Davis spent a long summer of international play right alongside Coach Williams — will that translate into wins, or into The AD Show and frustrations from other players? Who will emerge at small forward — veteran John Salmons or the emerging Darius Miller?
The Pelicans now have plenty of talent, real depth at most positions, young energy, seasoned veterans and an outright superstar in Davis. If the team can stay loose and maintain its rotations, there is no reason why it won't be able to hang with stronger teams and wear them down with solid defending. Prediction: Expect to see the Pelicans make a playoff run this year, maybe even into the second round.