42 Sense: Season Ahead

The New Orleans Pelicans tip off the season tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies. At long last, we find the Pelicans in a key season. Each season you’ve heard (elsewhere) how this is make or break for some reason or another. This time I’m telling you: this one is a watershed season. As noted in the prior installment of this preview, the pressure is on, and that pressure will shape the season and beyond. Here’s more.

Off the Court

Gentry and Dell are both in a position where they can basically be let go at any point this season. So, more than ever, a nice start is necessary. Now, in context, this doesn’t mean “start 8-2.” It does mean “don’t start 2-8.” They likely need to stay within a couple games of 0.500, and maybe there’s a little leeway in the first 10 games in terms of record as long as the mood stays up. The injury situation is real, as is the need for Rondo’s passing to reach the highest of heights.

The nice start does help the team with a playoff push, though no more than the same number of wins at some other point in the season, but that’s not the primary driver. The need arises from the fact that more eyes than ever are on this team. The ones locally are optimistic, and the ones across the country are pessimistic. This is the worst possible scenario for a team that is . . . and make no mistake about it . . . 100% dependent on DeMarcus Cousins or a near-Cousins-level player (in terms of “name” and ability) to be here next season. For Cousins, that means a new contract while he is set to become a free agent. Trades or something like that would fit the bill, but the Cousins route is the most likely one the organization will try. With locals turning pessimistic and the national rabble already set to sing “trade Davis” in an annoying chorus (likely with a Boston accent), the organization may go into desperation mode early to show Cousins “how serious they are” by making the only move they can and still maybe win going forward: relieve Dell. However, at that point, the ground has changed, and it will be total chaos. This is a pressure vessel, the temperature is rising, and wins will be needed to keep the pressure contained through the season and beyond. There is no other way now.

The underlying cause of the Cousins need is for Davis to stay with the team beyond his current contract, something I’ve been yammering on about since it was clear he was going to be this good. If the franchise starts losing stars when the trend is that stars attract stars . . . it’s going to be very tough to keep him, and at that point, it will be a few lean years for the franchise. So, working back from Davis, you need Cousins to re-sign, basically. This is why things need to be steady and the playoffs need to be consistently within reach with there being confidence, at least among the players, that they can reach the playoffs. So far, Cousins has only seen the playoffs like a fan. Sending him like a player will positively affect his evaluation of a future in New Orleans. That bubble of positivity has to be maintained given the vipers and vultures posted just in the shadows hissing and stinking like the foul creatures they are.

On the Court

To meet this clear goal, the Pelicans will, as noted, have to win more than they lose (likely 45+ games, so a 0.55 rate at least, but a 49+ games, 0.60 rate may not do it if the West really comes on strong). Also, they’ll have to mix in a couple wins against top teams and avoid more than 0.25 loss rate to the bottom-feeders. Those types of games will affect the human side of things more than other games, but they all show up (about) the same in the final standings.

Earlier this summer and prior to the major moves of the off-season, I wrote about what I saw as the central aspects of the team’s on-court personality this season. This would be a two-man game between Davis and Cousins and surrounding them with adequate passing. In developing this, I pointed to Jrue’s perfect fit on a team that wanted to feature such bigs in decent minutes and how it would leverage the versatility they emphasized in recent acquisitions.

They needed shooting. One way to get that is to get shooters, which they tried to do. Instead, they went with passing, trying to get the shooting by getting better shots for the current and accessible players after failing to land a big fish forced them to accept the hard cap. Again, this all fits together into a coherent whole where the bigs are the main cogs, and it has played out according to this article pretty well over the past four months.

The offense will be a work in progress, and the defense will lack Hill, which may be quite noticeable in some games. The team will feature looks with 1 and 2 featured bigs, and when Davis and Cousins are on the floor with Holiday, it should be a treat to watch, especially if role players can play hero with some wiiide open makes. I expect to see several minutes a game with Davis and Cousins on the bench, at least once they learn to play off of each other in that “beyond the playbook” way. Jrue will have to maintain his aggression, and Davis and Cousins will have to get theirs in the flow of the game. They’ll be taking the harder shots and soaking up some of the glue guy type of work. The role players should be set up to succeed in simple, standard situations.

Relative to seasons past, we need to see guards cutting. On the ball or off, I need to see way more cutting. Davis and Cousins have got to get to the line. The need to feast on bigger players that can not deal with their game and put the opposing front court onto its heels. Getting to the line is not only highly efficient, it gives those little breaks in real time to allow the featured bigs to spend more game time together.

In all of this, the overall play has to be one that can compete with top teams. That means, they need decent defense and better than decent offense or vice versa. However, if they go the defense-first route, I still think they need some X-factor offense potential somewhere. Given their make-up, the team will likely have to go the decent defense route, which should be on the table even with Hill’s absence. The “3 > 2” crowd focus on out-of-context and over-generalized work about the value of attempting 3-pointers if they even think (many just echo mindlessly). The Pelicans will need to focus on making 3’s at an average rate without taking an exceptional number. They’ll have to get their offensive efficiency from the line, from shots near the rim, and from offensive rebounds. The Pelicans focused on defense to the point of abandoning all but the most direct offensive rebounds in the past, but this has to change to play with the big boys in the League. They can not out-Warrior the Warriors, as I’ve said many times. They have to get the efficiency in other ways, and rebounding is where they have leverage to do so at the per-possession level. Since they abandoned offensive rebounding in the past, focusing on it could have a bigger-than-expected effect.

Somewhere in there, add in that the bigs need to get League accolades, hopefully All-Star nods. This requires stats and wins. So, you see that it all points back to the same couple of things.

Before Rondo comes back, the equilibrium may settle in another way, but I would hope not. They need to stay versatile and focus on letting their best players get them in winning position. The rest of the game needs to be actively tailored around that on a by-run basis.

It’s going to be a loooong season if they are hovering around 0.500. It’s going to be a looooooooooong decade if they stay too far below for too long.

Let’s rock.

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