It was the kind of public unveiling that proved to be a bit of an inkblot test.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ preseason-opening 113-109 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night served as an introduction to the 2017-18 season, and those inside the Smoothie King Center could’ve seen it as a glimpse into the team’s potential greatness or its potential hazards.
It all depended on the perspective. For stretches, the Pelicans were a blazing offensive force that couldn’t be slowed down, and at times, the sloppiness overwhelmed the level of talent on the floor.
Instead of concerning himself exclusively with the scoreboard, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was able to focus on a variety of factors more important than tallying a victory in a preseason game.
First and foremost was the chemistry among the Pelicans’ “core four,” which matched up against a real opponent for the first time. Free-agent acquisition Rajon Rondo joined Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday for prolonged stretches, and the quartet showed off some stretches of lethal offensive highlights.
New Orleans scored a whopping 46 points in the first quarter alone, finding wide-open looks at the low block and beyond the 3-point arc, while making nine different trips to the free-throw line.
The Pelicans shot 70 percent from the field, and four players made five 3-pointers in the quarter.
The full combination wasn’t always participating at the same time, but even in pairs or trios, they managed to create an abundance of defensive mismatches, leading to easy baskets.
One second-quarter stretch highlighted the possibilities. Davis swatted a Bulls layup, allowing Rondo to snag the rebound. Cousins ran the floor with him, receiving a pass at the block to draw two defenders before quickly flipping to Dante Cunningham for an easy dunk.
That was the pretty. There was also plenty of ugly.
Even though the Pelicans starters played a full complement of minutes, the Bulls opened the second half on a 22-7 run as New Orleans’ ball movement disappeared and the tempo slowed into a series of halfcourt sets.
Chicago won the third quarter 26-16, and as Gentry began to pull his starters in the fourth, the rebuilding Bulls took advantage and pulled out a victory.
Throughout the night, the Pelicans suffered from issues on defense. Miscommunication, which can be expected in a preseason opener, left the Bulls with several wide open 3-pointers and layups, as Pelicans’ teammates were left pointing at each other to identify the breakdown.
Overall, it was an important development stage in the Pelicans preparation for the season. It showed the lofty heights that are within reach when four former All-Stars collaborate on the floor, while simultaneously displaying how fragile the framework is as they enter one of the most pivotal seasons in franchise history.
And it was all on display Tuesday night.
The NBA’s abbreviated preseason schedule limits the Pelicans to just five exhibition games.
And one of those is against their season-opening opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies. So Gentry already admitted he doesn’t intend to play starters against them, essentially tightening the preseason down to four appearances.
So the process in these was accelerated. It showed up when Gentry opted to give heavy minutes to Davis (33), Cousins (33), Rondo (30) and Holiday (30), trying pinpoint precisely which tandems work best together.
Those exact rotations won’t be known until a full film study takes place, but there’s certainly questions remaining to be answered.
“I don’t want to run them into the ground, but we do need to have rotations and everything down,” Gentry said. “This is one of those times where you hate not to have seven games to do it in, but if you had seven games you’d be complaining about how it’s too many preseason games. So, they can’t win either way.”