Previewing Pelicans: A quick look at a quick offseason

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Published: December 21, 2020

With a shortened offseason followed by an abbreviated but successful preseason, the young core of the New Orleans Pelicans have turned some heads and raised some eyebrows before the team tips off against the Toronto Raptors on the road to open the regular season on Wednesday. 

The Pelicans looked like one of the better teams in the loaded Western Conference last season just before the pandemic interrupted the season, but a disappointing showing in the “bubble” when the season was resumed at Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, Florida resulted in a final record of 30-42 overall.

Though many young pieces have returned, the Pelicans have a new look, replacing Head Coach Alvin Gentry with Stan Van Gundy, trading away vet Jrue Holiday, and acquiring vet center Steven Adams and guard Eric Bledsoe.

The Pelicans only played two preseason games with starters ramping up their minutes and averaging 30 minutes on the floor, and it resulted in victories over Miami and Milwaukee. Though not too much stock should be put into the preseason, critics are starting to sound high on a young Pelicans squad poised to spread their wings. 

Stan Van Gundy

Immediately Stan Van Gundy brings in a system that demands more accountability from a group of young players that needs guidance. His personal win-loss record of 523 wins to 384 losses brings a winning pedigree to New Orleans, a city seeking more consistency for its NBA product. 

Van Gundy pays attention to detail and defense will be an emphasis for his team. Something that severely lacked during any point of Alvin Gentry’s tenure. 

Under Van Gundy, the offense will not be an afterthought and the Pelicans will still be a team that looks to take advantage of mismatches. But rather than do that through pushing the pace, there is a roster make-up that will allow Van Gundy to assess talent and roll out the best lineups he can exploit on the floor. 

The old guys

Make no mistake, the Pelicans are being led by a youth movement, but there’s a group of haggard old veterans that have been important places before. Guard J.J. Redick, currently 14th on the all-time 3-point makes list, is still in New Orleans and the team has just added Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. 

Bledsoe will be the team’s starting point guard alongside Lonzo Ball. Starting two versatile point guards gives the starting lineup loads of playmaking ability with two ballhandlers in the backcourt. The two also have complimenting skillsets. Ball is proving himself as an outside shooter and Bledsoe is still explosive on the drive at 30-year-old.

Adams starting at center gives this group a physical presence it has never had before. It is not hard to imagine the Pelicans being one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA with Adams and Zion Williamson running as frontcourt mates. These are the two strongest and most physical players in the league. Not only can this team run, but they can also now push everyone off the block with ease. Adams is also a commanding voice in the lockerroom young players will respond to well. 

The young guys

The training wheels are off now and it’s time for them to lead. We are to no longer talk about the potential of certain guys or hope stars land in New Orleans some kind of way. Williamson and Brandon Ingram are the stars. Williamson is coming off of a rookie campaign where he was second in Rookie of the Year votes, despite only playing in 24 games, and Ingram is the reigning Most Improved Player winner and was named a Western Conference All-Star last season. These two know it’s time to roll. 

In the two victories over Miami and Milwaukee, the main thing you saw from both players was confidence and a sense that they belong in the league. Both players played around 30 minutes a game and took the lead every time their number was called. There was no restriction for Williamson and he scored an efficient 31 points in 30 minutes in the final preseason game. 

We also saw guys come to life that can be valuable role players. Van Gundy called swingman Josh Hart one of the most important players on the team for his hustle minutes, versatility, and defense. Center Jaxson Hayes also provided high energy minutes late in games and showed an ability to defend the rim, a vast improvement from last season if it translates to the regular season. 

In a flash, beloved guard Jrue Holiday was shipped out of New Orleans to Milwaukee to make way for the future. That resulted in Adams, Bledsoe, and a first-round pick that became Alabama point guard Kira Lewis Jr. It’s hard to say at this point if Lewis will crack the rotation but depth is everything. It will be a challenge to get a rookie up to NBA speed with no camp and no Summer League, but fortunately for him, speed is his game. In the first preseason game, we saw a limited number of Lewis minutes. Lewis ran the floor, created off the dribble some, and flashed an ability to knock down a couple of open threes. Those were good minutes and his personal destiny is in his own hands.

The Pels open the regular season at 6:30 p.m. central on Wednesday on the road against the Toronto Raptors. They will also face the Heat in Miami on Christmas Day at 11 a.m. on ESPN.

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