With new center Omer Asik joining All-Star power forward Anthony Davis on the front line and the return of key players from last season, the Pelicans appear poised for New Orleans’ first winning season and playoff appearance since 2010-11.
“Omer is a defensive center who rebounds, plays great position defense, has a high IQ and has great drive and character,” coach Monty Williams said. “Getting (point guard Jrue Holiday and forward Ryan Anderson) back will be like signing two free agents.”
For the second consecutive season, the Pelicans enter training camp, set to start Tuesday, with progressively higher expectations.
Asik, obtained in a trade with Houston in July, is the front-line center the team has needed during Williams’ tenure. His arrival comes a season after General Manager Dell Demps brought in Holiday and guard/forward Tyreke Evans as cornerstones to play with Davis.
But the injuries that defined last season already are casting uncertainty on this team. Anderson and Holiday were lost in January to season-ending injuries, with Anderson’s neck issue deemed career-threatening. Evans and Eric Gordon, the starting shooting guard last season, both had knee surgery after the season. And the team announced Saturday that Evans will miss three to five weeks with a strained hamstring suffered in a pickup game; the team hopes to have him for the regular-season opener Oct. 28 against Orlando in the Smoothie King Center.
“Nobody can go back in time and play that out, ‘if we’re healthy,’ ” Holiday said. “You just have to take it this season. Obviously everybody has to be on themselves individually, and when you’re hurt or something goes wrong, we’ve really got to be on our bodies, taking care of ourselves and just praying that nobody gets hurt.”
Anderson has been cleared for contact, but how long will it take to show he’s all the way back after having two herniated disks repaired?
Holiday recently began playing pickup games with teammates, and Gordon is stronger after a regimen of increased weightlifting in the offseason.
Even if each of them is healthy and ready for the opener, Williams said the Pelicans face many of the same hurdles they did last year. Playing in the Western Conference — more specifically, in the Southwest Division — remains a tall order. And there are chemistry and bench play issues that need to be worked out after five players from last year’s team departed.
“We’ve got to figure out how much depth we have,” Williams said. “We don’t know. And our starters have to do a good job of jelling.”
As far as the bench is concerned, the Pelicans will be bigger, which could make them better. But a setback with Anderson — on top of the loss of 3-point shooting ace Anthony Morrow, who signed with Oklahoma City — likely will make bench scoring a concern again.
Last season, Williams said it would take until December for the team to come together with Holiday, Evans and other newcomers. The injuries, which also included former starting center Jason Smith having a season-ending knee injury in January, came when the team was starting to take shape. When the season ended, the injuries to Anderson (60), Smith (51) and Holiday (48) were the lion’s share of the 233 man-games lost by the Pelicans.
Gordon was lost to a left knee ailment for the final 14 games. That opened the door for Evans’ season-ending run of spectacular play at shooting guard. Since then, it has appeared that Gordon will have to come off the bench. The question: How will he respond?
Gordon said he didn’t expect any problems.
“We’re both playmakers, and as long as we’re able to get everybody involved, everything should be fine,” he said. “But that’s something for coach to figure out.”
Other questions heading into camp revolve around whether the team will have a viable small forward and how things will take shape with six guards with a chance to make the roster.
It also will be interesting to see whether Williams begins to tweak his coaching style. Williams said he learned — while working as an assistant during World Cup play from U.S. Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, lead assistant Jim Boeheim and executive director Jerry Colangelo — that he needs to give more offensive freedom to his players. Williams said he began doing that last season with Davis, one of the stars of the World Cup, but that he remains a work in progress in that area.
The roster heading into camp appears set, with approximately eight players vying for two spots. How things shape up with the core players — including injuries, a possible trade and how those fringe players perform — will determine who makes the regular-season roster.