The New Orleans Pelicans were parting ways after voluntary workouts in Los Angeles when Anthony Davis told first-year coach Alvin Gentry and General Manager Dell Demps that he was ready for a few days of relaxation at home.
“So we said, ‘You’re going back to Chicago, huh?’ ” said Gentry, who visited L.A. during those workouts but was limited by NBA rules in what he could do with his players. “(Davis) said, ‘No, I’m going home. I’m going to New Orleans.’ That right there made all of us happy.”
Davis’ commitment to the franchise and the city were apparent in an offseason in which he signed a five-year, $145 million contract extension and helped organize those workouts. He wasn’t alone.
The Pelicans had near-perfect attendance at voluntary workouts and a huge player turnout for the Las Vegas Summer League, despite having no active roster players participating in games.
But for all the offseason dedication, the Pelicans have been limited in what they could accomplish these past four months. When training camp opens this week, they really get to work.
“Obviously we couldn’t do anything organized,” said Gentry, the former Phoenix Suns coach who comes to New Orleans after a season as associate head coach for NBA champion Golden State. “And so just to be able to have them not out there working individually, a two-on-two or something like that, but to be able to have an organized practice where you can have five guys out there, I think everyone’s ready for that.”
That starts this week. The Pelicans will hold media day Monday before departing for The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for the start of training camp Tuesday.
As camp opens, here are some storylines to watch for a team looking to improve on last season’s 45-37 record and first-round playoff exit:
1. A new look
Last season, the Pelicans ranked 27th in the NBA in pace, but Gentry will look to push the tempo this season, playing a style he favored in Phoenix and which helped the Warriors to the title last season.
“I think that guys really like playing that way,” Gentry said this week during a speech to the 3-Point Club of New Orleans. “I think fans really like seeing that type of basketball. So we’re gonna try to get the ball up and down the floor, we’re gonna try to play extremely fast and we’re gonna try to score a lot of points.”
That means more possessions, more running and altered roles for key players, including Davis, who will be given more freedom to step outside the 3-point line in addition to post-ups and pick-and-rolls.
Davis said he remembers what Gentry did in Phoenix but that “the league has changed” since then. So he didn’t spend the summer studying old Suns video. Instead, he’ll learn along with the rest of his teammates in the coming weeks what’s expected in the new system.
The Pelicans are eager for the lessons.
“This is the style for our team,” Davis said. “We got a lot of guys who like to just go and play in the open floor.”
2. Defensive commitment
Though offseason talk frequently centered on offensive pace, the Pelicans have more questions to answer on the other end of the floor.
New Orleans allowed 32.6 field-goal attempts per game inside 5 feet of the basket, a league high. The Pelicans’ opponents shot 45.6 percent, 11th-worst in the league and fourth-worst among teams that reached the playoffs. And opponents’ 104.7 points per 100 possessions ranked ninth-highest in the NBA.
“In order for us to be really, really good, we have to be great defensively,” Gentry said. “As we go into training camp, we’re gonna emphasize defense as much as anything.”
That means assistant coach Darren Erman, a defensive specialist with Golden State and Boston, will do his share of teaching when camp opens as well.
“I’ve kind of got a feel for what he wants to do with this team defensively,” Davis said. “It’s amazing. I feel like we’re better defensively already, and we haven’t even started training camp.”
3. Healthy Holiday?
Perhaps no player will be monitored more closely in training camp than point guard Jrue Holiday, who will be limited early as he looks to bounce back from a lower leg injury that cost him 42 games last season.
Holiday, who will be limited to about 10 minutes per game when the Pelicans open the preseason Oct. 3, will be permitted to practice but will be monitored for fatigue and limited to one practice a day. He’s unlikely to practice on back-to-back days.
“To me, I think he is maybe the second-most-important guy on our team from a standpoint of what we want to do and how we want to play,” Gentry said. “A healthy Jrue was good enough to make the All-Star team. I just think if we can get him healthy — not just from an offensive standpoint, but defensively — he makes us a really good basketball team.”
Of note when Holiday sits in training camp: How do the Pelicans run the point without him? Those duties could fall to reserve guard Norris Cole, or New Orleans could put the ball more often in the hands of Tyreke Evans.
4. How’s your health?
Holiday’s is the most critical health issue facing the Pelicans, but it’s not the only one. In his speech to the 3-Point Club, Gentry focused on health and how key it will be in the Pelicans taking a step forward.
“We wanted to bring back the team intact to see how we could fare with a healthy team — a healthy Jrue Holiday, a healthy Ryan Anderson, being in a situation where we try to keep Anthony healthy the whole season instead of him missing 14 games,” Gentry said. “I just thought that if we could bring this team back and keep them healthy, they had a chance to be a special team.”
So far, it’s a mixed bag. Davis and Anderson are good to go. Center Omer Asik is ready to go after suffering from back spasms earlier this summer, and center Alexis Ajinca’s offseason Achilles injury was “not anything to be alarmed about at all,” Gentry said.
But Holiday’s minutes will be limited, and small forward Quincy Pondexter, coming off knee surgery, isn’t ready for action yet.
“You can’t rush him back, but he’s on schedule to be fine, and probably looking at November, the middle of November,” Gentry said.
5. A spot to fill
The Pelicans enter camp with 13 roster spots — Ajinca, Anderson, Asik, Cole, Davis, Evans, Holiday, Pondexter, Luke Babbitt, Dante Cunningham, Alonzo Gee, Eric Gordon and Kendrick Perkins — secured. That leaves five players competing for one spot.
NBA veterans Jeff Adrien and Chris Douglas-Roberts; rookie Bryce Dejean-Jones; New Zealand standout Corey Webster; and former Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick, who played four games for Minnesota last season, will be in camp with an eye on making the cut.
“I’m excited to see that competition in camp,” Demps said. “They’re all good players.”