LOUISVILLE, Ky. — New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams is prioritizing defense and rebounding this preseason, and they will get an opportunity to work on both in earnest Saturday night in the exhibition season opener against the NBA runners-up, the Miami Heat, at the KFC Yum Center.
Last season, the Pelicans finished last in the NBA Southwest division with a 34-48 record, a season in which they averaged 99.7 points per game, 18th in the NBA, and allowed 102.4, tied for 16th. Both are areas of ongoing work as the games begin in the Bluegrass state, where Anthony Davis, Darius Miller — both former University of Kentucky stars and Russ Smith, a rookie out of Louisville — played their college ball.
“We run off of misses,” Williams said. “Our defensive rating last year didn’t allow us to run as much as we can. We think we have a team that can get more stops and more rebounds. We would play good defense for 15 seconds, then we would give up an offensive rebound for a layup or a three and nullify the good defense in the first 15 seconds.
“If we can get the rebound and run, now you’re talking about pace of play, and that’s the stuff we want to do. Our guys can get up and go, and A.D. is probably the best in the NBA at running the floor, so we’ve got to get stops. Our defensive rating has to go up.”
The opener is the first of three preseason games for New Orleans on the road — Monday, the Pelicans travel to Atlanta and they play Washington on Wednesday in Jacksonville, Florida. Swingman Tyreke Evans will not play in any of these games as he continues to battle a hamstring injury. Williams said Anthony Davis and Omer Asik, an offseason acquisition from the Houston Rockets, will play only sparingly, if the play at all.
Davis is hoping to play, particularly since the game will be played just one hour from the University of Kentucky. While the game is being held in Louisville, on the home court of UK’s bitter rival, Davis has no doubt many will cheer him on.
“It’s great to be able to come back here and play,” he said. “I’m definitely hoping to play.”
Williams said he may ease Asik into the lineup during the early preseason games to allow him to get into shape to play a full game. The team was hard hit with injuries last season and some are continuing to get well from them, Williams said, so another priority during the preseason is health.
“Two years ago, he played a ton, and then last year (his playing time) went down,” Williams said. “It takes your body awhile to get back into shape when you don’t play as much. In the summertime, it’s a different game. They play 45 minutes, and he’s playing 25 of those, so he’s got to get to the point where he can play 30 minutes a night. That’s a different kind of conditioning.
“Our situation is different, because we have so many guys coming back from various medical procedures. Omer and A.D. (Davis) played a lot this summer, and so I have to moderate the amount I play them. We probably will see a lot more guys on the floor playing in different rotations. We don’t want to overdo it in the first couple of games.”
That may allow rookie guard Russ Smith to see some action on the court where he played college basketball. The U of L rookie said he is not certain what to expect yet in terms of playing time.
“I expect something between 15 minutes and a DNP (did not play),” he said, laughing. “It’s great to be back to a place where I have so many good memories.”