While 2014 NBA playoffs are now well underway, and the New Orleans Pelicans are enjoying them from their couches.
The Pelicans were expected to at least compete for a playoff spot after their aggressive offseason, highlighted by the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. The season did not go nearly as planned, however, as the Pelicans finished 2014 with a record of 34-48, just seven games better than the previous season. Their struggles could be attributed primarily to injuries – Ryan Anderson played in just 22 games, Jason Smith in 31, Jrue Holiday in 34. Anthony Davis also missed 15 games and the oft-injured Eric Gordon missed 18.
Another major problem was the team’s defensive struggles. Defense was a problem last year and was thought to be remedied by the additions of Evans and Holiday, more athletic perimeter defenders. Instead, the Pelicans gave up over 102 points per game, good for 20th in the league.
As disappointing as this season was, it was not without its bright spots, the biggest of which was the much-improved play of Anthony Davis. Davis put up team-highs with 20.7 points and 10 rebounds per game to go along with a league-leading 2.84 blocks per game and looked like the superstar franchise player he was expected to be. He was flat out robbed of the Most Improved Player award, which went to Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns. There was some cause for concern when Davis missed games towards the end of the season due to back spasms. Back injuries, especially to big men like Davis, are always something to be wary of, even if they are minor ones.
Another positive that may have flown under the radar was Austin Rivers, the Pelicans forgotten other first round pick in 2012. Had it not been for the injury to Holiday, Rivers likely would not have seen much action, if any at all. He took advantage of his opportunity an improved tremendously from his disastrous rookie year when he was arguably the worst player in the NBA.
What can the Pelicans do to get better for next season? They have holes to address at the small forward and center positions, but only have a limited number of options to address them as it stands right now. The Pelicans are projected to owe close to $54 million in guaranteed salary for 2014-2015, pushing them right up against the salary cap. Unless they can sucker another team into taking on Eric Gordon’s burdensome contract, they won’t be able to do much in free agency.
While trading Gordon is extremely unlikely, it should not be dismissed as totally impossible. If contracts like the previously untradeable Joe Johnson’s can be moved, anything can happen. Even if the Pelicans did have the cap room, the 2014 free agency class does not present very many appealing solutions. It’s a weak class, and many impact players would be out of their price range.
Another route they could take is the 2014 NBA Draft. Unless the Pelicans’ first round pick lands in the top 3 via the draft lottery process, it will go to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the Jrue Holiday trade, leaving New Orleans without any picks. However, the Pelicans may have the resources to trade for another team’s draft pick. The 2014 draft was initially thought to be one of the best we have seen in recent memory. Once the top prospects had to get on the court and actually play games, it was revealed to be a deeper than usual draft, but not the super draft everyone was predicting. Because of this, teams slotted in the middle or late first round may be open for business in dealing their picks. The Pelicans could offer up a combination of Brian Roberts or Austin Rivers with the rights to Pierre Jackson, their 2nd round pick in 2013, in order to secure a pick within that range. This draft class is short on centers, as most usually are, but there should be a few small forwards to choose from such as Kentucky’s James Young or North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren.
While the Pelicans debut season was easily forgettable, it is not cause for despair. The team has the talent and youth to contend for the next 10 years, provided that it can stay off the injury list. Here’s hoping for better things in 2015.