No team has had a more unorthodox offseason than the New Orleans Pelicans. After lucking into Anthony Davis last year, they seemed poised to build slowly through the draft, which has become the preferred method for small-market teams. When Nerlens Noel slipped to them at No. 6, the dream of a “Thin Towers” seemed alive. However, instead of hoarding picks and stockpiling players on rookie deals, they dealt Noel and their 2014 first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jrue Holiday.
Combine the Holiday trade with the acquisition of Tyreke Evans and it’s clear New Orleans is trying to accelerate the rebuilding process. From a basketball perspective, it’s a somewhat odd decision for a 27-win team with a 20-year-old franchise player. Upon closer inspection, though, there is some method to their madness. There’s a model for what the Pelicans are doing, but it doesn’t come from the NBA. New Orleans is trying to be Kentucky South.
Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans feels like the type of team John Calipari would put together in Lexington. While Davis and Evans are the only ones who actually played for Calipari, the Pelicans are equipped to bring his style of play to the NBA. They have three guards who can create offense off the bounce, a versatile big man who prefers to play on the perimeter and an athletic edge on almost every team they will face.
There’s been a lot of concern about whether their trio of perimeter stars can co-exist, but it’s a little overblown. The main worry is floor spacing, but Holiday (a career 37 percent shooter from 3) and Gordon (36 percent) are proven long-range shooters. And while Evans is an inconsistent shooter, he improved dramatically last season, with a career best 34 percent from three. More importantly, their minutes will be somewhat staggered to keep the pressure on opposing defenses for 48 minutes.
A starting backcourt of Holiday and Gordon will create a lot of match-up issues around the NBA. There aren’t many teams who start two legitimate stoppers on the perimeter. Against the Pelicans, there will be nowhere to hide a poor perimeter defender. Either Holiday, at 6’4 200 with a 6’7 wingspan, or Gordon, at 6’4 220 with a 6’9 wingspan, will have a huge edge or there will be cross-matches all over the court, which New Orleans can exploit in transition.
If Evans comes off the bench, he should be the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year. The dysfunctional situation with Sacramento has made many forget how talented he is. He’s a powerfully built 6’6 220 guard with a 6’11 wingspan and a great first-step. Even when defenders concede his jumper, it’s almost impossible to stay in front of him. His ball-stopping tendencies will be less of an issue on a second team, where his ability to score and pass make him a one-man offense.
Having that many shot-creators will take a lot of pressure off Davis, who is a better finisher than creator. In his one season at Kentucky, he thrived as a hyper-efficient release valve, a role he can play in New Orleans. A 6’11, 220 hybrid big man with a 7’5 wingspan, Davis can move without the ball, eat up space in one step and finish from all over the floor. He averaged 13 points on 52% shooting as a rookie and he should be even more efficient next season.
Upfront, they gave up Robin Lopez to acquire Evans, but that opens up playing time for Jason Smith. Smith is no great talent, but his game meshes with the Pelicans stars. At 7’0 240, he is a jump-shooting specialist who took 75 percent of his shots outside of the paint last season. Smith and Davis’ ability to shoot the ball will open up driving lanes, and as Davis grows as a rebounder and defensive player, he should make up for some of Smith’s shortcomings.
The defensive end is the big worry for New Orleans, especially without Lopez to anchor the defense. With so many young players in new roles, there will be a lot of issues, at least initially. Smith isn’t a rim protector, but the Pelicans have the athletes on the perimeter to keep their men in front of them. That’s where their style of play becomes important. They should be trying to force turnovers and speed up the tempo as much as possible.
Most of the excitement around Davis stems from his defensive potential. He has a historically unique combination of length and foot-speed, allowing him to be an absolute menace both on the pick-and-roll and as a help-side defender. As a 19-year old rookie, Davis averaged 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals a game. Over time, as he learns the nuances of NBA defense and adds weight to his frame, he should be able to play as a small-ball center, giving Monty Williams a ton of lineup flexibility.
The Pelicans have done a good job of filling out the rest of their rotation as well. In Ryan Anderson and Anthony Morrow, they have two of the best shooters in the business. Both should make a killing spotting up for transition 3’s, a favorite tactic of Calipari’s teams. Al-Farouq Aminu has never lived up to his draft spot, but his length and athleticism make him a useful player. Greg Stiemsma is another body upfront, giving them more bulk to defend the low post.
The other main concern is their lack of flexibility going forward, but they already have a pretty complete team. In comparing it to what they could have gotten in the draft, people are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. On paper, Davis, Noel and a high 2014 pick is a potential juggernaut, but a front office who took Austin Rivers in the lottery is probably better off forgoing the draft. If they do get lucky with the ping-pong balls in 2014, the pick they traded has Top-5 protections.
Of course, plenty could go wrong. Gordon hasn’t been healthy or happy in his two seasons in New Orleans, a shadow of the guy who looked like a future star for the Los Angeles Clippers. If he can’t improve on last season’s numbers -- 42 games played and 32% from 3 -- his max contract will be an albatross on their salary cap. But while Gordon has been in the league for six years, he’s still only 24. He has plenty of time to turn his career around.
That might be the most underrated part of the Pelicans plan. They’ve been acquiring veterans, but they’re all young veterans. Holiday is 23, one month older than Damian Lillard. Evans is 23, Anderson is 24 and Davis is only 20. As they get older and become more familiar with each other, they should only get better. New Orleans has one of the most exciting young cores in the NBA, no matter what you might think of the unusual way they assembled it.