New Orleans ranked 26th in shots allowed within three feet of the rim last year (31 percent of opponents’ attempts), topping only the lowly Celtics, Bucks and Pistons. In fact, the bottom nine teams in the category all missed the playoffs. The reason opponents chose to attack the basket was simple: New Orleans finished 25th in shooting percentage allowed at the rim (66.3) and surrendered the more free throws per field goal attempt than any team in the league. Despite the presence of the NBA’s leading shot blocker, Anthony Davis, there was no fear of taking the ball into the paint. The Pelicans are hoping the addition of defensive-oriented center Omer Asik will change all of that. If he can cut off dribble penetration and stymie putback attempts, which he’s done throughout his career, it will go a long way toward transforming the team’s shoddy interior defense.
There’s only one ball and five Pelicans who feel they can score with it at almost any time. Guards Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans are proficient scorers, but rarely played together last year because of various injuries. For the first time in his career, Holiday will be more relied upon to generate offense through his passing than his shooting, leaving him in a somewhat unfamiliar position. With Anthony Davis under the basket and Ryan Anderson on the wing in crunch time, there should be plenty of space for the New Orleans offense to operate. But it will take crisp ball movement to open up shooters on the wings and in the corners.
New Orleans took the second-highest percentage of two-pointers in the NBA a season ago (80.7) although it converted its 3-point attempts at the sixth-highest percentage (37.3). Expect to see 3-pointers become a focal point this year. The perimeter has been an emphasis in the preseason, as the Pels launched more 3-pointers than their opponent in every game and have the second-best success rate from beyond the arc. Anderson, Gordon and Jimmer Fredette are all prolific perimeter shooters who should be able to get open looks with Davis commanding double teams in the post.
Six Pelicans could start on nearly every playoff team in the NBA, but many question marks line up behind them. If Evans starts, the bench is a mishmash of unproven players around Anderson (who hasn’t played a regular-season game since herniating a disk in his back in January). Young guards Jimmer Fredette and Austin Rivers have had flashes of offensive brilliance in the preseason but aren’t yet capable of slowing down driving guards, and neither is a proven, reliable passer. Natural small forwards Darius Miller, John Salmons and Luke Babbitt failed to earn a starting nod, despite coach Monty Williams’ desire. While center Alexis Ajinça has an NBA frame and a soft midrange touch, he’s prone to unnecessary fouls and allowing smaller post players to rebound over him.
Williams has been given more leeway than any coach in the NBA. He’s coached in six playoff games, now entering his fifth season with the franchise. In a league known for its coaching turnover, the Pelicans have gone decidedly against the grain to stand behind him. An unending rash of injuries to key contributors has been the franchise’s defense for Williams’ poor record, but the roster is built to win now and the pressure is on Williams to succeed, regardless of the medical record. How he handles an unorthodox roster, which lacks a true starter at the wing, will be his first test.