After a couple years of some miserable basketball, the New Orleans Pelicans are making strides at becoming a force in a Western Conference that is going through a myriad of changes.
One year after drafting Anthony Davis with the first overall pick, the Hornets brought in a couple of Eric Gordon’s former AAU pals in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. We’ve seldom seen a team go the route of reuniting old AAU teammates, but the moves could pay immediate dividends.
The Western Conference is going through a boatload of changes pretty much all around. The San Antonio Spurs are a year older (although we’ve been saying this for a handful of years now), the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t pay Kevin Martin enough to come back, the Denver Nuggets lost a few key rotational players, the Utah Jazz decided to start over, the Los Angeles Lakers lost Dwight Howard and the Dallas Mavericks, just a couple years removed from winning a title, are desperately snatching up anyone who will sign on the dotted line.
With a lot of the teams near the top of the West losing a little talent, we’ve seen just as much improvement from the squads that just last year found themselves in the middle of the pack. The Golden State Warriors brought in Andre Iguodala (although I’m not sure if they’re any better after losing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry); the Los Angeles Clippers brought in coach Doc Rivers, solidified their wing positions and added overall depth; the upstart Houston Rockets added a franchise center to the equation (that phrase sounds familiar, doesn’t it?); the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer; and the Portland Trail Blazers actually have NBA players coming off their bench now.
With all this player movement, there’s a lot of wiggle room out West. There’ll be a few cellar dwellers in the clueless Phoenix Suns, the permanently disappointing Sacramento Kings and the understandably rebuilding Utah Jazz, but other than those three, there’s a lot of parity. The fight for the bottom two spots in the West—behind the Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors—will be a really fun one to watch.
The million-dollar question for the Pelicans now is this: Will reuniting Holiday, Gordon and Evans bring out the best in them? Of the three players, Tyreke Evans is by far the most polarizing, but this is the same guy who we were mentioning in the same breath as Oscar Robertson when he posted 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game in his rookie season. Evans is the kind of guy that can look disinterested at times, but I’m not of the belief that he doesn’t play hard; his dynamic skill set just makes it hard for the players around him and his coaches to consistently put him in situations where he can succeed. Evans bounced around from point guard to the 2 to small forward the last few years in Sacramento, with his scoring numbers decreasing slightly each year.
Holiday, Evans and Gordon all must have had sensational AAU careers with all three players starring on college powerhouses (UCLA, Memphis, Indiana), which makes me think that the Pelicans were wise to reunite the trio. With Evans’ ability to create shots for others, Holiday’s knack for penetration, and Gordon’s sweet stroke, the three could make some real noise together.
The idea of the three of them all playing 82 games is another story, though. Evans hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency, missing 54 games in his first four seasons, but his chances of staying healthy are exponentially better than Gordon’s. Gordon has played in only 51 games the last two seasons (out of a total of 148, not 164 due to the lockout shortened 2011-12 season). The Pelicans dished out big money to the young shooter after obtaining him in the second Chris Paul trade (the one that commissioner David Stern liked better than the first one) and now, they’re dealing with the consequences. I give them a lot of credit for deciding to build around Gordon with the additions of Evans and Holiday, instead of doing their best to dump the guy, although I’m sure they gave that a shot, too. If Gordon can stay healthy, we’re potentially looking at playoff team with a lot of room to grow, but that is still a big if.
Aside from Holiday, Evans and Gordon, the team also has a young, transcendent defender in Anthony Davis. Judging by the team’s moves, it looks like the second-year big will be playing a lot more 5 this season, as the team shifts to a smaller lineup after the departure of Robin Lopez. However, if Greg Oden comes to town and can stay on the court, that all changes, but the chances of that are probably closer to none than slim. With a starting lineup of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Ryan Anderson and Davis, the team has a very intriguing combination of talents; a slashing point guard who’s unselfish, a pure shooter/scorer, a jack-of-all-trades 3, a stretch 4 and a great defensive center who can rebound at a great clip and will one day be a solid scorer.
On the negative side, the team doesn’t have much frontcourt depth. As the season approaches, I expect them to bring in one or two more big bodies, but it seems likely that they’re waiting for Greg Oden to decide where he’ll take his gimpy knees before they pull the trigger on anything. If they do decide to play a smaller, quicker lineup, the energetic Al-Farouq Aminu could get some minutes at the 4, while the incumbent Jason Smith will probably get the nod over newcomer Greg Stiemsma for the backup center job.
Also, Austin Rivers looked like a total bust last year, which makes me think that Brian Roberts will get more minutes than Doc’s son next season. Roberts, a 26-year-old rookie last year, is a little undersized at 6’1″ and 180 pounds, but has a great 3-point shot to go along with his abilities as a floor general. Rivers on the other hand, shot a putrid 37 percent from the floor last season and doesn’t have a position. I’m not sure that Rivers will ever be a successful combo guard off the bench, but if he does, his game will be reminiscent of Jerryd Bayless’. While the team hasn’t given up on Rivers completely, their offseason moves prove that they don’t project him as a starter at either guard position anytime soon.
In theory, a nine-man rotation of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, Davis, Roberts, Aminu, Smith and either Anthony Morrow or Rivers doesn’t sound too shabby, but it’s not a sure thing either. That being said, the team deserves some credit for upgrading their overall talent level, while creatively reuniting some old AAU buddies. Instead of waiting for Austin Rivers to turn a corner that you need binoculars to almost see and hoping that Anthony Davis becomes a dominant scorer, the team took a proactive approach.
There’s no doubt that New Orleans’ management has done everything in their power to the right pieces next to Gordon and Davis, but now it’s time to see if Gordon can play anything near a full season and if Davis can continue to evolve. The team has a boatload of talent; now they just need some luck.