Are the Pelicans ready to become a regular playoff contender or destined to return to the lottery for the fourth straight year?
The Pelicans have gone all-in.
With a roster revolving around All-Star Anthony Davis, the Pelicans made a flurry of moves that indicate the franchise is in win-now mode. In an already deep Western Conference, are the Pelicans ready to become a perennial postseason threat?
Coaching – 15/25
Just five years ago, Monty Williams was one of the most sought after assistant coaches in the league, at the time coaching under Nate McMillan for the Portland Trail Blazers. He inherited a franchise with a talented roster led by Chris Paul and David West, in his prime. Formerly the Hornets, the team was unable to retain the services of West, who signed with Indiana, and Paul, who was traded to the Clippers after the initial trade offer with the Lakers fell through. With a roster devoid of elite talent, the New Orleans franchise tumbled into the lottery.
Much of the decline New Orleans faced was not Williams’ fault, though he remains a coach who has a 128-184 career record, including an 82-148 record over the past three seasons. Fair or not, this is a make-or-break season for Williams. With only one playoff series under his belt as a head coach, one has to wonder whether Williams is the right man to lead the Pelicans in the right direction.
Free Agency & Trades – 18/25
The Pelicans have made a concerted effort to acquire players that will lead to wins in the short term. Last summer, the team signed Tyreke Evans to a four-year, $44 million contract and traded a pair of first-round picks (draft slots ended up being Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton) for Jrue Holiday. Adding to last year’s roster, Omer Asik was acquired from Houston for a future first-round pick, protected at both ends of the first round. The franchise sits above the salary cap for the 2014-15 campaign.
If the Pelicans make the playoffs in 2015, the past two offseasons will be considered a success, as reaching the postseason has been the primary goal. Missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year will likely lead to turnover of the coaching staff and front office, as the expensive investment the team made in Holiday, Evans and Asik will not have paid off. New Orleans has sacrificed future assets, including three first-round picks, over the past two seasons, and making the playoffs is the only vision executives have in mind.
Draft – 8/25
Is 8/25 too generous? The Pelicans have placed very little emphasis on the draft over the past two years, as Anthony Davis was the last first-round pick the team made. Russ Smith was acquired for the draft rights to NBA Developmental League leading scorer Pierre Jackson and could make a reasonable impact as a rookie. Smith had an outside chance of landing at the end of the first round of June’s draft, and he could play a backup role from the beginning, especially if Austin Rivers plays more as an off-guard.
Looking to the future, the Pelicans have traded their 2015 first-round pick with protections at both ends of the first round as mentioned earlier. Seeing as New Orleans will likely finish between 10-20th best in the league, New Orleans could be without a first-round draft pick for a second consecutive year. The effects of drafting Davis with the number one pick hold this grade from falling lower than 8/25.
Current Player Core – 21/25
Even though New Orleans lies to the east of the Mississippi River, the franchise finds itself in the treacherous Western Conference. Anthony Davis could establish himself as a top-five player in the league this season, and he will likely be a 20-point, 10-rebound player while leading the league in blocks. For a franchise looking to take the next step, Davis is immensely helpful.
The supporting cast in New Orleans is capable of helping the team make the playoffs in 2015 as well. Jrue Holiday is only two years removed from an All-Star appearance, and Tyreke Evans is a former Rookie of the Year. A frontline of Davis and Asik will likely block more shots than any other starting frontcourt in the league and control the glass in most games.
The question about Davis’ supporting class does not center on talent, as the team has many capable scoring options, but rather on how well they fit together. While Asik will help Davis on the defensive end, he is nearly useless on the offensive end. With no ability to create his own shot, Asik is forced to score solely off of putbacks. He will be used to set screens primarily.
Tyreke Evans is a versatile stat-stuffer, though his inability to shoot from 3-point range limits his ability to play next to Davis. Only a 22-percent shooter from beyond the arc, Evans is better suited as a sixth man, albeit as an $11-million-dollar player. His game is reminiscent of Evan Turner and is useful only with select personnel. The team would be wise to start Ryan Anderson instead, if he can prove to stay healthy.
Anthony Davis Effect (+10)
The team has a budding superstar who could become a top-three player in the league. What more needs to be said?
Franchise Outlook – 72/100
The Pelicans do not grade well when looking to the future because the team has worked so hard to be a playoff team in the present. Whether or not the team is good enough is the million-dollar question. If Davis becomes a superstar and a top-three player in the league, he could likely carry a team to the playoffs on his own, which would improve the outlook of the franchise. While he is oozing potential and showing he can be a major player on the international circuit, it is important to remember that he is still only 21 years old.
New Orleans ended with a record of 34-48 last year, finishing the season by losing eight of ten. If 49 wins is required to make the playoffs (Dallas’ number as the No. 8 seed last year), one has to wonder whether the team did enough to pass other fringe playoff teams, such as Memphis, Phoenix and, maybe, Denver. A 15-game win increase is needed just to be in a position for the eighth seed.
Realistically speaking, this is a make or break season for the Pelicans, and the success of the 2014-15 season could significantly affect the franchise’s future, for better or for worse.