So far, Michael McNamara played the ‘What If’ game, while Mason Ginsberg took a look at best case, worst case, and realistic scenarios using the data at hand to project the season ahead for the New Orleans Pelicans. Then, Michael Pellissier broke down the schedule month-by-month and came up with his own projection. In the final season preview piece, we look at the top ten questions facing this Pelicans team. We tackle the first five today, and then drop the final five (including full record predictions) tomorrow. Enjoy!
1. Give a Grade on the Pelicans Offseason
Michael McNamara: I would give it an A-. It would have been nice to keep Robin Lopez or secure another solid big to give the team 15-18 minutes per night (as opposed to Stiemsma), but other than that I have no complaints. The Pelicans have locked in a great, young core for the next few years at a reasonable price. They have put the perfect players around their future superstar Anthony Davis, and his rate of progression will speed up because of that. Dell Demps has given his team a chance to win 40-50 games this year, which will provide them with the valuable experience of playing in games that actually matter down the stretch. Then, as the team matures in future years, they have the potential to be serious contenders and/or flip assets to put other great players around their superstar.
Michael Pellissier: B+. I really liked Demps’ unconventional approach to fixing short-term problems while still having plenty of room for growth, but the team is a playoff contender, not a title contender. Until the Pelicans make a move or set of moves that puts them into the title picture that season, I feel uneasy giving them any sort of ‘A’ grade.
Jake Madison: B+. Demps took chances and did the best job he could to assemble a talented roster. That right there is more than many other NBA teams did this offseason. If this team makes a playoff run, or simply the playoffs, then this jumps up into the A range.
Mason Ginsberg: B+. If the Pelicans had made the Noel/Holiday trade and stopped there, this would be closer to a C, because I wouldn’t really be sure what their short-term intentions were. Adding Tyreke as well adds another young, talented asset to this squad and shows a true direction, and that made all of it worthwhile for me. I was a big fan of the Morrow addition as well as a younger, slightly better shooting version of Roger Mason Jr.
Jason Calmes: A-. This is comparing their offseason to the offseasons I think they could have had. This is not comparing them to signing LeBron James or irrelevant imaginings . . . only relevant ones. I’m a fan of the Holiday trade as constructed. The Evans deal was most costly in terms of the cap and resources. The Pelicans have more flexibility going forward than they get credit for and signed higher caliber role players than in recent years, which is also a positive sign going forward. They acquired good, moveable contracts in all likelihood (or expiring), and the larger deals are all connected to young, potentially undervalued talent. Leaving the frontcourt with less talent than necessary is a risk at best, and leaving this risk on the books knocks the grade down a click. Ditching the draft pick this season also spares me the inane “tanking” lip-flapping I’ve had to endure for two seasons, so extra credit there!
2. Biggest upgrade on this year’s roster, when compared to last year
McNamara: Most will say Jrue Holiday, but I think going from a hobbled Eric Gordon to a healthy Eric Gordon is the biggest upgrade. Monty has got to love going from a terrible defensive player at the point of attack to one of the top-5 defensive point guards in the league. And while some may say that the upgrade offensively from Vasquez to Holiday is marginally, I believe Holiday gives the Pelicans more options on that end as well. But with all that said, I still think that if the Pelicans get the Eric Gordon that NBA fans saw in the 2010-11 season, that is the bigger upgrade. The guy we saw last year was named ‘Eric Gordon’ but he was not Eric Gordon. The Pelicans got little to no production from their shooting guard position last year, but if that is replaced by a full season of a healthy Eric Gordon, that is the biggest upgrade on the team.
Pellissier: Tyreke Evans. Jrue is a better player, but watching that second unit offense last year was incredibly frustrating. Tyreke’s athleticism in the open court and his ability to attack the rim is a welcome injection of energy into a second unit that could now be a serious asset to this Pelicans squad.
Madison: Holiday. The team’s defense really struggled when Vasquez was on the court last season. Holiday is a strong guard who will be able to fight through screens on the pick and roll while still having the speed to keep up with quicker guards. The puts less pressure help defenders to perfect rotations. Plus, he’s and Anthony Davis are going to rain absolute havoc on the league with the pick and roll.
Ginsberg: McNamara hit the nail on the head here. Holiday is certainly an upgrade at PG and Evans brings the team added versatility on the wings, but the biggest upgrade will be from an injured/hobbled Eric Gordon to a healthy one. The Hornets got next to nothing last year from their shooting guard position when Gordon was out, and even when he returned, he was nowhere near the version of Gordon that the team thought they were getting in the Chris Paul trade. If this preseason is any indication, a completely healthy Gordon will be an immense boost to this Pelicans team, and may be the difference in regards to their playoff chances.
Calmes: Holiday. Holiday is a much more complete player than Vasquez. While Vasquez is a better pure passer than Holiday is, he has significant holes in his game. Holiday brings defense and better 3-point shooting, valued skills on this team. I’m not sure what exactly Tyreke is an upgrade over, and I don’t consider someone being an upgrade over themselves.
3. What is the Biggest Weakness still remaining on this roster?
McNamara: An interior presence when Anthony Davis is off the court. While I am afraid that the team will have stretches where they get dominated on the glass, I think that Aminu and Davis can do enough to keep the Pelicans competitive in the battle of the boards. But when Davis is off the court or guarding somebody on the perimeter, there is nobody else on this team who can keep opposing teams from doing whatever they wish in the paint.
Pellissier: Defensive rebounding. Vasquez was terrible defensively, but he was a plus rebounder, and his departure leaves the Pelicans with only two plus rebounders (Aminu, Davis) on the entire roster. The Pelicans must make a concerted team effort on the defensive boards this season.
Madison: I agree with McNamara. In their lone preseason loss the Pelicans were dominated in the paint by the Miami Heat. If Jason Smith is the team’s starting center that means Greg Stiemsma will be on the court while Davis is sitting. Going against second units will help, but Stiemsma hasn’t given me any reason to think he won’t be a liability on the court.
Ginsberg: Without question, rebounding; especially on the defensive side of the ball. While Robin Lopez’s individual defensive rebounding numbers last season were pretty poor, the team as a whole rebounded far better while he was on the floor (over 3% higher defensive rebound rate with Lopez on the court, per nbawowy.com). The team needs to find a way to account for his size down low, or else opposing centers will have their way on the glass. It’s going to be tough for thin frames such as Stiemsma and Withey to keep some of the stronger big men in this league off of the boards.
Calmes: Defense in the paint. This includes scoring and rebounding. The Pelicans have 3 people that can really join Davis, Anderson, and Smith as big men on the team: Onuaku, Stiemsma, and Withey. Davis, Anderson, and Smith have good skill (to different degrees), but the other three don’t cover their various limitations well. Some subgroup of those three must emerge this season if a roster move is not made. They have to stop or alter the shots, then rebound the misses. They also have to be able to do this job without fouling out. Health aside, this unit is the biggest threat to a Pelicans post-season.
4. What should the goals be for Monty Williams this season?
McNamara: To get this team to play with a pace in the top 15 this season while keeping the turnovers manageable. The fact is that people who have reservations about Monty being able to get this team running are justified. Whether it is as a head coach here or a lead assistant in Portland, Monty’s teams have been in the bottom five in pace every season. Can Williams wonder outside of his comfort zone and allow this team to run, knowing that it will lead to ocassional mistakes? Honestly, he doesn’t really have a choice. He has to let this team run, but it has to be more than just for show. It has to be a regular part of this offense, and the amount of running should increase throughout the season.
Pellissier: Increase the pace and find ways to put together the wealth of talent on this roster. This is the first time since his inaugural season that he has a team good enough to make the playoffs, but chemistry must be built between players, and it is up to him to put the players in the right situations so the team can succeed.
Madison: Fix the defense. I’m not convinced that this team needs to run or increase their pace to be effective. But, no matter how you slice it, the defense was absolutely atrocious last season finishing with the 4th worst Defensive Rating in the league. Opponents simply bombed open 3’s against New Orleans last season. Monty needs to figure out a game plan which gets the defense looking like it did in his first year. Monty is a defensive coach so you know he hates what he saw on tape last year.
Ginsberg: Get into the middle third of the league in defensive rating. At full strength, this team will have plenty of options on offense, adding to a unit that was right around the league average last season. The only way the Pelicans will have a chance to make the playoffs is if their defense is markedly improved this season. Upgrading from Greivis to Jrue should provide a nice boost, but just as important as personnel is the game plan for how to use that personnel. If New Orleans gives up the kind of three-point efficiency that they allowed last season, they will continue to struggle defensively, especially given their lack of strength down low.
Calmes: It’s all about Davis. He has to develop Davis while continuing to convince him that this is a place where he can win a title in the next several years. This means he has to figure out how to maximize the production of a talented backcourt while finding a way to piecemeal a fourth big man together for 20-odd minutes a game, or less if he find a way to get happy with Anderson and Davis playing together. Also, he needs to keep Aminu growing. Fixing the frontcourt this season and having to fix the wings again next season is not the way to make progress towards a title.
5. Where do you believe the Pelicans will finish this season in Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating?
McNamara: Offensive Rating – 9th. Defensive Rating – 18th. While the Pelicans have the weapons to be a high scoring team, they don’t exactly scream efficiency. It is entirely possible that Anthony Davis is the only player who shoots over 50%, But to counteract that, the Pelicans could hit there three’s like they did in the preseason and/or get to the free throw line. Some nights they will look like the best offense in the league, other nights they won’t be able to hit a jumper. On defense, I expect a small jump because of the speed on the perimeter, but they are still one big body away from being an above average defensive team.
Pellissier: I like Mac’s answers here. I’ll echo them: 9th, 18th.
Madison: Offensive Rating – 15th. Defensive Rating – 12th. If Monty can figure out the most effective rotation with his glut of guards and the team develops strong chemistry then there is potential for a very high scoring team. But I think it takes some time and that why I have them at 15th. Defensively, there is no way Monty goes with the same pack the paint strategy that straight up didn’t work last season–and probably caused me to get some gray hairs. Holiday will slow down the point of attack and I think we really start to see Davis shine on the defensive side of the ball. So overall it’s a high improvement.
Ginsberg: Offensive rating – 10th (behind MIA, OKC, LAC, SAS, NYK, GSW, HOU, BRK, and DAL). Defensive rating – 16th. Each of the teams mentioned that I expect to finish ahead of New Orleans in offensive rating all finished in front of them last season as well, and most of those teams got even better. The Pelicans stand to leapfrog the Nuggets, Lakers, Jazz, Kings, Raptors, Hawks, and Trail Blazers, barely squeaking into the top 10. Defensively, I expect them to be right around league average, with eventual top 10 potential in another year or so.
Calmes: 10th in Offensive Rating, 20th in Defensive Rating. I see the Pelicans improving on offense compared to the Hornets’ final season (in New Orleans). I’m not one to try to take a scalpel to the shots in the dark, so top third of the NBA or thereabouts. In terms of defense, I see the team improving, but with that big hole in the paint, I see some sneaky cuts keeping down the defensive rating, so bottom third.
(Check back tomorrow for questions 6-10 in our Season Preview Finale)