The pieces are the same, and the path to success is more challenging in a fortified Western Conference.
Yet the expectations for the New Orleans Pelicans continue to grow.
An offseason removed from its first playoff berth in four seasons — ending via an unceremonious sweep in the first round at the hands of the eventual NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors — media, fans and players have high hopes for the Pelicans despite a daunting division, a stacked conference and a static roster.
New Orleans finished 45-37 and earned the No. 8 seed on a tiebreaker last year. The most significant newcomer is likely backup forward Alonzo Gee, who averaged 4.5 points last season.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas sportsbooks set the opening line on the Pelicans’ win total at 48.5. Several national media members have picked New Orleans as one of the league’s sleeper teams with a chance to tilt the NBA landscape.
But where does the improvement come from?
One obvious place to look is on the bench, where Alvin Gentry and his up-tempo, free-wheeling offense replaces Monty Williams’ grinding, grueling pace. But even that doesn’t fully account for it.
To see the seeds of progress, look into the layers below the names and statistics on the roster.
General manager Dell Demps displayed a distinct belief in continuity and the shared growth that results from on-court chemistry and off-court closeness. He retained nearly all of the team’s free agents and declined to pull the trigger on any trade that would shake up the rotation in a significant way.
Eleven of the top 12 scorers return from last year — including every contributor from the team’s stretch run, when it reeled off an 18-11 record to earn a playoff bid on the season’s final day.
Midseason acquisitions Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham and Norris Cole each lifted the Pelicans in a distinct area, ensuring the roster was better in April than it was in November, making for an unorthodox type of free agency.
“It’s just great to come in this locker room and we all know what we’re capable of,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “We have such a good group of guys, and we all know we can count on each other and we’ve all been kind of learning our roles together. I think you saw the difference it can make in the last few weeks of the season, when we had a pretty clear goal in mind to get to the playoffs and we played the best we did all season, when we needed it most.”
The benefits of continuity are more than just anecdotal. In the past five years, 26 of the 40 Western Conference playoff teams returned players from the previous season’s roster who accounted for at least 70 percent of the minutes allocated in the ensuing run to the playoffs.
New Orleans returns 88.4 percent of its minutes played last year.
“Going into the offseason, one of our goals was to bring back the core of this team, and we have done that,” Demps said. “We think the guys knowing each other and learning a new system will expedite that process. We are just ready to put it on the floor and see how good we are with everybody coming back together.”
But not all of those returning are created equal. Anthony Davis broke into superstardom last year (earning his first All-Star start and a first-team All NBA selection) but only now carries the weight of expectations.
While Davis is the franchise’s driving force, signing a five-year extension the minute he was permitted to, he’s now going to be responsible for this team’s successes or failures. With soaring hopes comes the responsibility and scrutiny that Davis appears ready to take on.
“Getting to the playoffs just makes you want to get back there, and getting swept just makes you want to fight even harder to get another chance,” Davis said. “I know I need to be assertive and need to take on some things that maybe I didn’t think I was in a position to do my first few years in the league. I know who we have here and know this group is ready to win at a different level.”
Yet the Pelicans aren’t putting a number on where they expect to be, nor are they placing an emphasis on seeding. The goals, while heightened, are still opaque.
The reliance on growth and development around a young superstar, rather than high-profile free agents or blockbuster trades, isn’t a unique formula for success in the NBA. But this season will show whether this path is a sustainable one to eventually compete for an NBA championship — or whether the Pelicans will need to do more in future offseasons.
For now, they just want to start the journey.
“We just have to find a way to try to compete and win enough games to get into the playoffs,” Gentry said. “Obviously when they start, it doesn’t matter if you’re not in the top four (seeds) because you’re going to have to win a game on the road anyway. That’s the way we look at it. We just need to get there.”