In late April, clouds of uncertainty circled the Pelicans, without a clear statement from the team’s ownership on who would be directing the future or a message to fans about how the franchise would move forward after two consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs.
A month after their final regular season game, Pelicans owner Tom Benson and president of basketball operations Mickey Loomis produced a joint statement ensuring they’d allow coach general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry to remain in charge as the 2017-18 season got started. While the statement was far from a ringing endorsement, it allowed the Pelicans’ brain trust to go to work on the task of building an immediate playoff contender.
And the message was clear: There’s no margin for error. Win now, or else.
That edict will be in mind when the team hosts media day Monday, and officially opens training camp at the Ochsner Performance Center on Tuesday afternoon.
“Obviously, we are in a result industry,” Gentry said in June. “It’s been that way from the time I took a job in 1988 in the NBA. I understand that, and obviously there are circumstances that go along with that, which determine sometimes if you’re having a good season or not having a good season. But, at the end of the day it becomes a results industry. It’s about what have you done for me lately. I understand that totally.”
From the start of the offseason, the team’s clear objective was to build a playoff-caliber roster, capable of winning big this season, and do it by featuring All-Star big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in starring roles.
The first step was to add an assistant coach who has experience in accentuating a skilled frontcourt. Enter Chris Finch, a former Houston Rockets assistant who helped turn the Denver Nuggets into the NBA’s best offense in the second half of last season. Gentry believed Finch can unlock some of those same traits to boost the Pelicans out of the offensive doldrums it suffered through a year ago.
“There’s no basketball reason why this shouldn’t work,” Finch said in July. “It’ll only be human reasons. Everyone seems to like each other, so that’s a great start. If we can’t figure it out, it will be a human dynamic and we’ll have to solve that one. But I don’t anticipate that to be the case either.”
One critical human dynamic quickly turned in Finch’s favor.
Cousins dropped a noticeable amount of weight, hiring a personal chef and working himself into what Gentry called “phenomenal shape”. A leaner, lighter Cousins allows New Orleans to play up-tempo and changes the dynamic of what’s possible when he’s paired alongside Davis.
With a new offensive system and a rejuvenated star in place, the next question was: Who will surround them?
The Pelicans opened free agency by achieving their stated priority, locking down Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $125 million contract extension, ensuring the team’s core remained unchanged.
“You could see the potential there, and you could see it coming together with those three guys,” Demps said at the time. “This is a major part of building into who we want to be. They’re all important pieces, and we have them all back.”
He wasn’t stopping there.
Despite being strapped by the salary cap, operating on a handful of allowed exemptions under the luxury tax ceiling, Demps and his front office waited patiently for the rush of free agency to slow to a trickle before making a series of impactful moves.
Most notably, the Pelicans convinced four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo to take a significant pay cut and sign a one-year $3.3 million deal, shoring up the point guard position. Rondo and Cousins famously built a friendship during the 2015-16 season in Sacramento, and the big man recruited Rondo to give the Pelicans a dose of ball-handling, probing passing and veteran savvy at a discount.
“We wanted a guy to pair with Jrue because we like his ability to score and play off the ball some,” Gentry said. “We think (Rondo) is a leader.”
Then, the Pelicans went overseas, bringing Darius Miller back to New Orleans after a pair of standout seasons in Germany. The former second-round pick was waived by Demps in 2015, but became an NBA commodity after converting 44 percent of his 3-pointers for Brose Bamberg in EuroBasket.
After three Pelicans seasons as an afterthought, Miller will be a relied-upon outside scorer this time around and signed a two-year, $4.3 million contract to redeem himself.
Demps rounded out the backcourt by grabbing former Golden State point Ian Clark on a veteran’s minimum contract, adding a reliable ball-handler and career 36.4 percent 3-point shooter, who can play in a variety of lineups and has an NBA championship ring.
Clark, Rondo and Miller replaced Quinn Cook (waived), Quincy Pondexter (traded) and Tim Frazier (traded) as the Pelicans attempted to upgrade their depth around Davis, Cousins and Holiday on a budget.
But just when it appeared Demps finally had a foundation and a rotation he was comfortable with, a familiar theme crept back into the fold.
Starting small forward Solomon Hill tore his hamstring while playing pickup basketball in Los Angeles, likely keeping him out for at least six months and leaving a gaping hole in the Pelicans’ lineup. Then rookie guard Frank Jackson re-injured his right foot during preseason training, requiring his second surgery of the summer and sidelining him for three months.
Once again, Demps was able to find veteran talent on a bargain prices to fill the gaps.
First, he signed longtime Memphis Grizzlies defensive stalwart Tony Allen to a one-year contract at the veteran minimum. The 6-foot-4 guard has been named to the NBA’s all-defensive team six of the past seven seasons, including a second-team selection last year, and is capable of filling Hill’s role as a ball-stopper on some of the league’s premier wings.
Then, just months after Dante Cunningham opted out of a $3.1 million final year of his Pelicans’ contract, Demps brought the forward back for a $2.3 million salary, barely sneaking under the luxury tax floor while maintaining the team’s defensive versatility and adding a likely starter.
It was a roundabout way to fill out a roster, but the Pelicans believe enough pieces are now in place to reach the postseason. There are superstars at top, savvy playoff-tested veterans in the locker room, shooters on the bench and flexibility in the rotations.
There are no excuses left.
Either this version of the Pelicans is good enough to reach the postseason and contend in a rugged Western Conference, or the team’s power structure is likely to look much different when next offseason rolls around.
Now, they just need to tip the ball off.
“It is time to turn the page,” Gentry said in June. “I agree with that. It really is, because if you look at our team it’s going to be a different makeup. When you add a guy like DeMarcus to the mix, it changes a lot of the things that you can do, consider or even think about offensively. And we’re trying to maintain where we were defensively and even get a little better to get into the top five instead of the top 10.
“Offensively, I really think bringing Chris in here is going to help. He’s a guy that has dealt with two big guys in Denver and I think he’s going to be really good with some suggestions and things that he can add to what we can do offensively. I think you’re going to see us be a lot more consistent on both sides and I’m excited to see where it goes.”