If all of you New Orleans sports fans are feeling down over the Saints’ struggles and need something to cheer you up, look no further. The NBA season tips off Tuesday night, and the New Orleans Pelicans open against the Orlando Magic.
Last season was supposed to be the Pelicans’ breakout year, but a series of crippling injuries quickly derailed their playoff hopes. Indeed, their five best players – Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon – played a total of just 13 games together in 2013-2014.
While injuries are impossible to predict and a season of good health is not guaranteed, a repeat of last year’s bad luck does seem unlikely, so we can probably expect good things from this team. Although most experts do not have the Pelicans in the playoff picture, largely because of the Western Conference’s depth, they are generating some buzz as a potential dark horse contender.
In addition to keeping their best players healthy, the Pelicans must also improve on the defensive end to make their playoff hopes a reality. Specifically, they need to defend the paint around the basket. And they found the perfect remedy with their offseason acquisition of center Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets. Asik fell into a marginalized role when Houston signed Dwight Howard in 2013, allowing New Orleans to buy low on him for a 2015 conditional draft pick. Asik averaged 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game as the Rockets’ starting center two years ago, out producing the Pelicans’ center trio of Greg Stiemsma, Jeff Withey and Alexis Ajinca in 2014. He’s known as one of the best interior defenders in the NBA and will be a perfect compliment to Anthony Davis.
The Pelicans can also count on improvement from some last year’s roster. Davis is quickly blossoming into the franchise player everyone expected, averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds while leading the league in blocks. If he continues his ascension, there’s no telling what he could soon be capable of. One player whose improvement went under the radar last season is backup guard Austin Rivers. After arguably the worst rookie season in league history, Rivers looked like an NBA player in 2014. He improved his stat line across the board and nearly doubled his efficiency rating. His field goal percentage actually started with a “4.” This is a critical season for Rivers and could determine his future with the team.
There is still one unresolved issue lingering from last year: the small forward position. The Pelicans moved on from Al-Farouq Aminu after determining he was not a viable starting option, but they still do not have a definitive answer there. Tyreke Evans is probably their best player who can hold the small forward spot, but it’s likely Monty Williams will want to keep him in the sixth man role. Newly signed John Salmons will probably “start” for the team, but won’t play the majority of the minutes there. He doesn’t bring much of an all-around game, but he can knock down the three-point shot with accuracy. Williams has the option of platooning Salmons with Luke Babbitt, another good shooter.
The most likely scenario is that the Pelicans will heavily utilize three-guard lineups. They have a lot of depth at the guard positions and this would allow them to use most of their guards effectively. Evans can play as another shooting guard alongside Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon while also acting as the primary ball handler in the second unit with Rivers and Jimmer Fredette.
The wild card in all of this is Eric Gordon. His injury history is well-known and has the team and fans constantly holding their breath. He has to stay healthy at least for the majority of the season for the Pelicans to have a chance. For what it’s worth, Gordon has said he’s in his best shape since he arrived in New Orleans in 2011. We can only hope.
Last year may not have gone as planned, but there are plenty of reasons to be excited for this season. The Pelicans can certainly make some noise in the NBA. And that would be great because New Orleans definitely needs some good sports news right now.