Last season, the Pelicans took the leap out of mediocrity. Now, questions abound about whether the franchise can lift itself from one eyeing the playoffs to one on the path to a championship.
As the season opens Tuesday night at NBA champion Golden State, there are far more questions than answers, but with Anthony Davis in tow and a new up-tempo system surrounding him, many eyes will be on the Pelicans as they aim to reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Here are five storylines to watch as the team’s highly anticipated season tips off:
1. Taking the leap
Anthony Davis is a superstar. There’s no more waiting or expecting or underground current of support.
He’s a first-team All-NBA performer and a video game cover boy, and his face is plastered on the side of the Smoothie King Center.
His next task is pulling his team into title contention. That will take more than the gargantuan numbers he put up last season.
Along with repeating those statistics, he’ll have to take on a leadership role that the NBA’s all-time greats have adopted en route to legendary status. Davis said he’s ready to accept it, and coach Alvin Gentry believes him.
But he’ll have to show the Pelicans are a contender by winning big games in key situations, and that’s the toughest task of all.
2. Locking in
The message is as direct as the scheme: Simple is better.
That’s the strategy of Pelicans defensive coordinator Darren Erman, who has been tasked with overhauling New Orleans’ porous defense. The Pelicans surrendered the most field goal attempts within 5 feet in the NBA last season, and some players have spoken about the complicated scheme playing a role in the futility.
Now, there are no complications to worry about. Erman’s system features three calls (a far cry from the 15 or more New Orleans employed last year) and is based on instinct rather than scheme.
If simpler is better and the Pelicans can reach their goal of becoming a top-10 defense, then their path to the playoffs should be an easy one.
3. Who’s healthy?
On opening night, at least six players will be on the injury report.
Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Norris Cole, Quincy Pondexter, Alexis Ajinca and Luke Babbitt are expected to miss at least some time. That’s three starters and three contributors off the bench.
If it’s a sign of what’s to come, it will be difficult for New Orleans to keep pace in the loaded Western Conference, which required 45 wins to reach the playoffs last year. But at this point, none of the injuries is expected to last into January, meaning if this is the end of the rash, then the Pelicans should be ready to kick into gear for the second half of the season.
Health is a concern everywhere, but for the Pelicans, it has shaped each of the past three seasons and is already the team’s biggest topic.
4. Pace and space
The Pelicans are going to score a lot of points. Even if things don’t necessarily bounce their way, by simply employing Alvin Gentry’s wide open system, New Orleans will find a way to routinely crack the 100-point barrier.
Whether that leads to wins is a different question.
Not only does Gentry encourage his team to run off steals and blocks but also after made baskets, defensive rebounds, jump balls and anything in between. While that typically leads to big points, it also requires supreme effort on the defensive end.
It will be up to Gentry to ensure the Pelicans are ready to run on both ends of the court so the triple-digit offensive outbursts stand up.
5. Filling the bandwagon
Season tickets are selling at a near-record pace. National television appearances have never been more abundant.
Now, is the city ready to wear blue and red, the way it does black and gold? While the Pelicans’ fan base has grown in the past two seasons, there’s still a long way to go before this franchise enraptures the city’s sports public like its older brother on Airline Drive.
This season should serve as a good barometer. With Davis, a high-tempo offense, national exposure and a likable group of players, there shouldn’t be an issue capturing fans’ affections.
But the Smoothie King Center was half-empty for many weeknight games a year ago, and now the fans will be under the watchful eye of national television to see whether New Orleans is ready for big-time basketball.