Did any team have a more intriguing offseason than the New Orleans Pelicans? They needed to improve drastically, after finishing 17th in the league in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency. In the end, they churned out a team that jumped into the conversation for playoff contention. The first move was swapping the 6th overall pick – a pick that became Nerlens Noel – to Philadelphia for all-star point guard Jrue Holiday. The next addition was Tyreke Evans. The Pelicans offered Evans a four-year, 44 million dollar offer sheet, and it resulted in a three-team trade involving Sacramento and Portland. The Pelicans received Evans and rookie Jeff Withey, Sacramento received Grieivis Vasquez from New Orleans, and Portland received Robin Lopez and draft picks.
After all of those moves, the biggest question for the Pelicans is the starting lineup, how to balance the minutes, and who to team with who. In that department, the Pelicans have plenty of interesting players to set the starting five. Jason Smith offers the Pelicans a center who can defend opposing centers and play in both the pick-and roll (64.2% on shots at the rim) and pick-and-pop game (47% on shots from 16-23 feet), Ryan Anderson allows New Orleans to space the floor (38% from three in 2012), and places Anthony Davis at the center position. Plus, they can throw in Al-Farouq Aminu, who, while not offering the scoring ability of Anderson and Smith, is an excellent rebounder, finishing with 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. Aminu led all small forwards in defensive rebounding rate (26.3), per Hoopdata.com
Whoever gets the final rotation spot should be an excellent fit next to Anthony Davis. But, what will be the determining factor for this team’s success is the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans.
At first glance, the defense should be much improved with the duo of Holiday and Gordon manning the backcourt. Holiday is a larger, lanky defender, who’s speed allows him to be a factor in the passing lanes. Eric Gordon on the other hand, has the ability to be a pitbull when he’s motivated on the defensive end. Both are good on-ball defenders, and could shut down perspective offensive players. When you combine their defensive talents with Anthony Davis’ gigantic wingspan and shot-blocking ability, it’s tough to envision New Orleans finishing in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency for a second straight season.
On the offensive end, both Gordon and Holiday offer the ability to handle the ball, and also shoot the three. Eric Gordon has shown the ability to shoot the ball effectively, but since his arrival to the Crescent city, Gordon has been a below-average three-point shooter, shooting 25% in his injury plagued 2011-2012 season, and 32% last season. Part of this decline is because of his health, as Gordon has missed 97 of a possible 148 games. However, another part of this decline could be due to a lack of explosiveness in his game, forcing him to settle, and miss, more jumpers over the past two seasons. A healthy Gordon offers New Orleans an offensive weapon that would complement both Holiday and Anthony Davis, as well as a tenacious perimeter defender that could make he and Holiday, one of the best tandems in the league.
As for Holiday, he was a prolific three-point shooter last season, and has been for most of his career. He shot an above-average percentage in every three-point area but one. With his three-point shooting, he can offer New Orleans someone who can operate the offense, or concede the ball-handling duties to Gordon or Evans, and become a deadly knockdown shooter. While his three-point shooting is a trait to this offense’s success, his ability to distribute the ball will be key for New Orleans. He had a great season passing the ball (9.0 assists per game with a 36.5 assist rate), but he also had a problem giving the ball up, averaging 3.8 turnovers per game. As I mentioned earlier, he and Gordon can also become a solid defensive backcourt, if Gordon can get right. Regardless of Gordon, the defensive improvement from Grievis Vasquez, who was a defensive turnstile at times, to Holiday, should result in a few more wins.
Finally, we have Tyreke Evans. After his rookie season that nabbed him the Rookie of The Year award, it seemed as if Evans became complacent in Sacramento, falling into line as the franchise player, for a team destined for the lottery every season. Even as it seemed like Evans didn’t care on the surface, he actually improved as a player, becoming more of an off-the-ball threat with his cutting and off-screens work. He was, and still is, excellent at finishing at rim, finishing 63% of his field goal attempts at the rim last season. Still, the issue is his shooting away from the rim. Last season, Evans shot under 27% on shot attempts from three-to-nine feet, 40% from 10-to-15 feet, and 31% from 16-to-23 feet.
The Pelicans will be looking to jump from a disappointment last season, to a playoff team. Health, mainly Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon, will be a concern. The second is the minutes spread out among the roster. If Eric Gordon is back to 100%, the idea of he, Evans, and Holiday could be a scary wrinkle in New Orleans’ arsenal. Either way, the Pelicans will be one of the more intriguing teams this season.