For any team without one, the goal becomes finding a way to get a hold of one, either via trades or in the draft. Once a team is able to land one, however, everything changes.
For the New Orleans Pelicans, everything changed in the 2012 draft when they landed Anthony Davis. Last season, they watched him emerge as – at worst – the third best player in basketball, and everything changed again.
Coming off their first playoff appearance since 2011, the Pelicans have moved from trying to build a good team around Davis to a team expected to make the postseason from now until whenever Davis leaves The Big Easy. Given that he signed a five-year contract extension worth as much as $145 million, that doesn’t figure to be anytime soon.
Things won’t be easy, though, as an improved and healthier Western Conference will make the Pelicans have to work each and every day to earn that playoff berth. While it would take a miracle for the Pelicans to become the dark horse championship contenders some people are predicting, there are five important things to watch as the Pelicans continue to try and grow around AD.
1. Can the Pelicans stay healthy?
The most important question surrounding the Pelicans is the health of their star players. New Orleans isn’t particularly deep with impact role players, but the “stars” it has around Davis are pretty good when on the court. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case very often over the past few years.
The real key is point guard Jrue Holiday, the former All-Star who has missed huge parts of his first two seasons in New Orleans with stress reactions in his right leg. Making matters worse is that the Pelicans found out this summer that the injury actually goes back three years, as the NBA forced the Philadelphia 76ers to pay $3 million for not disclosing a prior stress reaction in that leg.
When Holiday has been on the floor, he has made a huge difference in a number of ways. He is clearly the Pelicans’ best perimeter defender, has a great chemistry with Anthony Davis and projected at one point as the player besides Davis who had the highest ceiling.
If New Orleans can get 70 games out of Holiday plus that many from Davis and Eric Gordon – neither of whom have ever played 70 games since arriving in New Orleans – it should be much improved from last season. If not, it could be hard to get to the 50-win mark this season.
2. Can the bench continue its play from the end of last season?
The Pelicans started last season with one of the worst benches in the NBA. John Salmons, Darius Miller, Jimmer Fredette and Austin Rivers all were asked to play important roles well beyond what their skills could realistically provide, and the Pelicans lost games because of it.
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Whether that change is sustainable is a real question. Cole shot well above anything he had ever done in his career and is playing for his next contract this season. The Pelicans allowed Pondexter to put off surgery at the end of last season, and it remains to be seen if he will be ready to go to start the season. Cunningham is really a small-ball power forward masquerading as a wing player.
If the bench comes down to normal levels or shows any signs of decline, it would make life much harder on the starters, who don’t need added stress.
3. How much does the big coaching change impact things?
The decision to fire Monty Williams was something that divided many people. While it wasn’t really all Monty’s fault that the situation ended the way it did, it is hard to say that the change resulted in anything other than an upgrade. New head coach Alvin Gentry should improve what was already a top-10 offense and assistant Darren Erman is looked at as one of the best young defensive minds in the league.
Asking the Pelicans to all get better individually seems like a lot, but changing the scheme to improve the team should happen. The first needed improvement is on the defensive end, where the Pelicans finished 22nd last season. Erman needs to figure out the best way to use Omer Asik and Davis as pick-and-roll defenders – having them sit back seems like the best idea – and how to not get torched when Alexis Ajinca and Ryan Anderson are on the floor.
If Erman can figure out those questions out and Holiday stays healthy, the Pelicans have the pieces for a top-10 team in to defensive efficiency. More than anything else they can do, that improvement would give the Pelicans the chance to worry about playoff seeding rather than simply trying to get into the postseason.
4. Question marks at the small forward spot
Both Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham were above-average players for the Pelicans last season despite plenty of reasons for both to not be.
For Pondexter it was about shooting. After struggling to make 3-pointers for most of his stint in Memphis, he arrived in New Orleans and promptly knocked down 43.3 percent of his threes. While the amount of space and time he had to shoot those shots was very different in each spot, any significant jump like the one Pondexter made (he shot 30 and 32 percent in two of his three seasons with the Grizzlies) is prime for regression. If Pondexter can’t shoot over 35 percent from the arc this season, it will create problems for the Pelicans.
Cunningham, on the other hand, just isn’t a wing player. For his career, Cunningham has made just two 3-pointers which leads to massive problems in spacing the floor for Davis and the guards looking to penetrate into the lane. Defensively, Cunningham has survived on the wing, but it hasn’t been easy or textbook. Any loss of athleticism or teams deciding to leave Cunningham when he is trying to spot up can eliminate any chance he has as a small forward and leave the Pelicans in a real bind.
5. How good will Anthony Davis be?
As much as anyone will try and say otherwise, every other question or thing to watch surrounding the Pelicans pales in comparison to this one. Davis already is one of the best players in the entire world to the point that he has been some people’s early pick to win MVP.
While Davis actually winning the award without the Pelicans making an unforeseen jump seems highly unlikely, there is the chance he does develop into the best player in the world this season. Davis has clear room for improvement – especially on defense – and by stretching his range out to the 3-point line. He should show growth this season, just as any 22-year old player does.
Davis will be a source of plenty of highlights this season on both ends of the floor. With New Orleans the appearing on national TV more times this season than last, plenty of folks will be able to fully appreciate him. The Pelicans hope a handful of those national TV appearances are in the postseason.
Matt Cianfrone is the editor at Pelican Debrief on the Fansided Network. He also writes at Hardwood Paroxysm and The Friendly Bounce on Fansided’s HP Basketball Network. You can follow the site on Twitter and like it on Facebook. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_Cianfrone.