By: Drew Gagneaux | Saintsreport.com Staff Writer
May 8th 2018, the New Orleans Pelicans magical season ended in Oakland that night with a 113-104 loss to the Golden State Warriors. This capped an end to a remarkable run for the Pelicans that surprisingly started when Demarcus Cousins went down for the season with a ruptured achillies in a win vs. the Houston Rockets. Next the Pelicans made an A+ move acquiring the sharpshooting Nikola Mirtotic for the cost a 1st round pick and the luxury of shedding the remainder of the terrible Omer Asik contract. Anthony Davis then moved to the center position the remainder of the season and proceeded to go on one of the greatest tears in NBA history. Davis nearly caught up to James Harden in MVP voting by seasons end.
The 2018 off-season brought high expectations to keep this ascending team together but ultimately it was not meant to be. Rajon Rondo, who had a career resurgance and was one of the catalysts for the Pelicans turnaround, left to join LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. In a stunning move Boogie Cousins spurned the Pelicans two year 40 million offer to sign a one year 5.4 million dollar offer from the defending champion Warriors. Cousins felt that joining the Warriors allowed him the best chance of rebuilding his value, because being on such a strong roster he would be in no rush to return from injury too quickly.
The Pelicans responded to these free agency losses with some underrated signings of there own. Louisiana native and former Louisiana Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton was brought in from the Phoenix Suns to help replace Rondo. As a former lottery pick Payton has not lived up to expectations, but also has not had a roster as talented as the Pelicans to play with. The Pelicans hope that Payton can offer some playmaking ability to complement the the talents of Davis, Holiday and Mirotic. Next the Pelicans signed Julius Randle to a 2 year contract luring him away from the Lakers. Randle will step into the power forward position allowing fellow University of Kentucky alum Anthony Davis to stay at the 5 positon where he shined last season. Randle has improved each season in the league and joins the most talented roster he has been apart of since being drafted 7th overall in 2014.
Most recently the Pelicans signed former Brooklyn Nets center Jahlil Okafor to a 2 year deal which is partially guaranteed. This signifies they at least expect Okafor to make the opening day roster. Okafor is another former lottery pick who has not lived up to expectations after being drafted 3rd overall out of Duke University by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015. This maybe Okafors last chance to make an impact in the league, joining his 3rd team in 4 years since being drafted, but like the Pelicans other signings Okafor is joining the most talented roster he has been apart of since joining the league. The team also was able to re-sign back up point guard Ian Clark. Trevon Blueitt was shooting lights out in summer league and earned himself a two way contract heading into the season.
Another underrated aspect of this Pelicans squad is their coaching staff. Gentry deservingly recieved a 1 year extension following the season keeping him around as the head coach through 2020. Gentry has recieved a lot of flack since becoming the Pelicans head coach since taking over after the team fired Monty Williams, but has not had the best roster to work with since he has been with the team.
Gentry took over a team that caught fire in late 2015, squeaking into the playoffs as the 8th seed before being swept by the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the 1st round of the playoffs. Ultimately though, that roster was a mess. Tyreke Evans was a misfit on the roster, Omer Asik was acquired to start the 2014-15 season and Demps could not allow Asik to walk in free agency after to parting with a 2015 first round draft pick for him, so he was re-signed to a five year, 60 million dollar contract. This contract along with the four year 27 million contract handed out to Alexis Ajinca severely hampered the Pelicans ability to compete in the free agency market. In the 2016 draft the team drafted sharpshooting Buddy Hield out of Oklahoma, whom was traded to Sacramento along with Tyreke Evans in the Demarcus Cousins trade. Solomon Hill was signed away from Indiana and E'Twaun Moore came over from the Bulls. Hill has not lived up to his contract up to this point, while Moore has became a more than capable sixth man. In 2017-18 Gentry was able to rid himself of Asik's remaining contract in the Mirotic trade and the Pelicans truly were able to compete with a roster built under Gentry. Davis, Holiday, and Ajinca were the only players remaining from the Monty Williams era. The Pelicans were able to win their first playoff series since 2008 under Gentry last season, and that was with Boogie sidelined for the year.
As important to the offense Gentry is, Darren Erman is the equal on defense. Erman has honed the defensive capabilities of defensive stalwarts in Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday and has turned them into defensive player of the year candidates. Erman has an excellent opportunity to have one of the best teams length wise in the NBA. Payton is 6'4, Holiday is 6-4, Mirotic is 6'10, Randle is 6-9 and Davis is 6-11. I personally expect this to be the primary starting line-up. I also think that Erman can do wonders with Julius Randle, and at least make a capable defender of Mirotic. It will be interesting to see how he impacts Okafor who was more known for his offensive prowess coming out of Duke.
This is personally how I see the team shaping up going into the year:
PG: Elfrid Payton, Ian Clark, Frank Jackson
SG: Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore (6th man) Trevon Blueitt
SF: Nikola Mirotic, Darius Miller, Solomon Hill
PF: Julius Randle, Cheick Diallo, Alexis Ajinca
C: Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor, Emeka Okafor
Now this is just a placeholder for now, and a lot can change between now and the start of the regular season. Ajinca is on an expiring contract and could be sent away in a trade. The team could also look to get rid of of Solomon Hill through trade, buyout or waiving him via the stretch provision. Emeka Okafor, Darius Miller and Frank Jackson could all possibly be waived due to their team friendly contracts.
This is a team that went through major changes, yet still harnesses major talent and potential to be a major threat in the Western Conference in 2018-19.