The aftertaste was sour, but Anthony Davis wants another bite.
The Pelicans forward scarcely got to savor his NBA playoffs debut a season ago. Swept out of the postseason in the first round by eventual champion Golden State, Davis and the Pelicans got only the smallest sample.
“Just getting that feeling and that taste of being there — the atmosphere, the pace of play, the arenas, the hype around the game, TV — you just want to be there again,” Davis said Monday at Pelicans Media Day.
The core of last season’s 45-37 Pelicans team returns, and though New Orleans made few personnel acquisitions, the arrival of new coach Alvin Gentry and his up-tempo style, the continued maturation of Davis into one of the league’s top players, and that touch of playoff experience give the Pelicans hope not only to return to the playoffs, but to settle in for a while.
“We made the playoffs last year, and we didn’t win a game,” General Manager Dell Demps said. “And obviously we don’t want to just get back there and win a game, but we want to obviously get back to the playoffs and we want to win a series and go to the next series. We want to compete for championships. That’s the goal for us.”
That goal is within reach, but it’s a lofty one.
Last season, all five teams in the Pelicans’ Southwest Division reached the playoffs.
Eighth-seeded New Orleans had the worst record of the lot, five games behind No. 7 seed Dallas.
But even as some of the power players in the West got stronger — San Antonio added forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers bolstered their depth, Oklahoma City returns a healthy Kevin Durant — the expectation is for the Pelicans to make a climb.
The Pelicans are “without a question” anticipating improvement, forward Ryan Anderson said, and they’re not alone.
A Sports Illustrated formula based on win shares — a stat quantifying how much each player contributes to his team winning during the season — projects the Pelicans climbing a spot to the No. 7 seed in the West, and human predictions are even kinder. New Orleans ranks eighth among 30 teams in preseason NBA power rankings from ESPN and NBA.com. CBS Sports ranks the Pelicans 13th.
“You don’t want to come in as the underdog,” Demps said. “You want to come in with people thinking that you’re gonna be pretty good. So now we feel like we haven’t accomplished what people think that we can. So we still have to go out and prove it.”
The first step is adjusting to Gentry and a new system that will look to push the pace and create more possessions. It’s a system in which Davis should thrive, and his continued growth is key to the Pelicans’ belief they can make a leap.
“You’re out there with him, we’ll probably have the best player on the court most nights, with the exception of when we play the Cavs (and LeBron James), maybe,” forward Luke Babbitt said. “That’s a confidence booster.”
Gentry’s high-octane system should suit the skills of guards Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, and new assistant coach Darren Erman will oversee a defense that Davis said can make a jump into the top-five best in the league.
Still, there are question marks.
Point guard Jrue Holiday will be on a minutes restriction, probably until January — Evans likely will start at the point, with Norris Cole backing him up — and swingman Quincy Pondexter likely is out until November after offseason knee surgery.
And despite all the roster continuity, with returning players accounting for 88.4 percent of the Pelicans’ minutes played last season, there will be a learning curve in Gentry’s style.
“We’re still a team that’s building,” Pondexter said. “I think people around us might be getting too excited, too hype. The season isn’t won on paper, and it’s not won in the beginning of the year. It’s won through a lot of hard work and learning.”
There are lessons to be learned, Pondexter said, from the Golden State team that ended the Pelicans’ season a year ago. The Warriors lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2013. A year later, they were bounced in the first round.
The Pelicans plan to improve. They intend to get a bigger taste of the playoffs. But their next step is part of a long-term path to success.
“Obviously we want to get back to the playoffs, but we really want to see if this team is good enough,” Demps said. “I think they are. We believe in this group. We’re playing in a tough division where every team in our division made the playoffs last year, and yet we came in last. We want to take that next step, and we want to become one of the elite teams.”