After postseason success, Pelicans look to keep pushing

All-Star Anthony Davis talks about leading the New Orleans Pelicans back to the postseason. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

The Golden State Warriors shocked the world when they added to their basketball monopoly this offseason by signing All-Star Center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year $5.3 million dollar deal, despite having a $40 million two-year deal previously on the table from the New Orleans Pelicans.

The West is wild. Shortly after, the world would come to learn that LeBron James would join the Los Angeles Lakers, a headline that is still dominating the storylines of the NBA.

Lost in the shuffle seems to be the Pelicans, who just experienced their best season with All-Star Anthony Davis, finishing with a 48-34 regular season record and first-round postseason sweep of the Portland Trailblazers before falling 4-1 in the next round at the hands of the repeat World Champion Warriors. The Pelicans, who found their consistency without Cousins, who suffered an Achilles injury halfway through the season, seem to have discovered their identity and are looking to move forward at full speed without looking back.

“Our goal is to play at an even faster pace than we did last year,” Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry said in his opening statement on Media Day at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center. “I think defensively, obviously, we added some guys that can help in that department right here. We have two of the best five defenders in the league so we’re going to be solid in that area.”

In the second half of last season, shooting guard Jrue Holiday and Davis established themselves as two of the best two-way players in the league. Davis fished third in MVP votes behind James Harden and LeBron James, and Holiday was named to the 2018 NBA All-Defensive First Team.

In discovering their identity, the Pelicans found their niche in pushing the pace. They finished last season as the league’s fastest team and will look to make pace permanently a part of their brand.

“I think you got to be consistent, you know, asking the guys to run on every possession,” Gentry said on how the Pels’ pace can be even faster. “The really good running teams are the teams that run even when you think there’s not anything there and you create something at just the pace that you play at.”

To fill the hole left by Cousins, the Pelicans quickly signed former Laker Julius Randle to a two-year $18 million deal. Randle, a former frontcourt lottery pick out of Kentucky, is noted for his passing and ball-handling skills. His skillset helped the Lakers finish as the league’s runner-up in pace.

Gentry expressed an excitement for Randle, noting his that playmaking ability will give them some of the things Cousins could do and help start fast breaks.

One other position that was left vacant this offseason was the departure of point guard Rajon Rondo, signing a one-year deal with the Lakers worth $9 million. The Pels will bank on the now blossomed leadership of Davis and Holiday to run the show along with free agent signing and Gretna native, Elfrid Payton running the point. Gentry also noted that Payton was second in the league at finishing at the rim after Russell Westbrook and that this will be his first season playing in the open court with an elite big like Davis.

“Elfrid brings a dynamic where, him and Jrue in the backcourt, to me is the best defensive backcourt in the league,” Davis said.

Gentry did not want to commit to confirming who will be a part of the starting lineup on opening night, but rather that it would be something to evaluate in camp and practices. In the postseason, the Pels started a frontcourt featuring Davis and Nikola Mirotic. There was mention of a possible “super” frontcourt lineup in the works featuring Davis, Randle, and Mirotic on the floor at the same time but this experiment is also something that will be evaluated in practice and possibly preseason.

“I think anyone of us can play the three, four, or five,” Davis said. “It’s a big line up, with Jrue and Elfird in the backcourt…I think it’s a cool idea.”

Other notable additions for the team include veteran Jarrett Jack, who makes his return to New Orleans, and center Jahil Okafor. Okafor, who was originally the third overall pick by Philadelphia in 2015, described Holiday as the most elite guard he has ever played with.

Small forward Solomon Hill said that when he returned last season he was never 100 percent, but said that he felt like his hamstring was twice as strong at this point entering camp. Reserve center Alexis Ajinca still has not been medically cleared to play but hopes to return soon. Rookie Frank Jackson has also been medically cleared for camp with no restrictions.

The Pelicans will open their season schedule tonight at 7 p.m. in Houston against the Rockets.

Editor’s Note: This piece previously appeared in Gulf Coast News Today, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

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