Canis Hoopus, the excellent SBNation blog devoted to the Minnesota Timberwolves, is running a series of posts looking at every team in the league, focusing on their immediate past, the present and next season. Our fearless leader, J.R. Wilco, asked me to do something similar, focused on the Southwest division first, but doing so from a decidedly Spurs-centric perspective. As you know, the SW is likely the toughest division in the league, boasting three contenders and two playoff hopefuls, and the Spurs will play 16 of their total 82 games against the four other teams that comprise it. Let's start by looking at the team projected to finish with the lowest record and work our way up.
The Pelicans went through a short rebuilding process after Chris Paul demanded a trade and at this point are aiming to forgo rebuilding, and get on the game winning. While the playoffs are a distant but not unattainable possibility, it will take a huge leap to get there. The team formerly known as the Hornets finished last season with a 27-55 record, and they were one of the worst teams in the league, but they were game throughout the season, and didn't just succumb to tanking.
They had very little in the way of talent, as injuries robbed them of their would-be stars. Guard Eric Gordon was injured for most of the two past seasons and has only played 51 games with his new team. Anthony Davis, anointed as franchise savior, took a while to get going and also struggled with minor injuries throughout the year. He still managed to put up some impressive numbers but the raw 20-year-old couldn't be the Duncan-esque force he was projected to be in his first season.
Other than those two, the Hornets had a few solid role players -- Greivis Vasquez, Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez -- that would have been fine contributing pieces on a contending team, but weren't able to do enough on their own to plug the gaping holes New Orleans had. Their biggest weakness was perimeter defense, where they featured the too-slow Greivis Vazquez, a completely overmatched Austin Rivers and a slew of journeymen that didn't have the tools to lock down anyone. Their best defender, Al-Farouq Aminu struggled mightily to contribute points and space the floor, so they couldn't have him on the floor without surrendering offensive firepower.
With some really promising pieces, but not much in the way of actual cohesive talent to build on, the Hornets finished 14th in the West and were awarded the sixth pick in the draft.
The Hornets changed their name to Pelicans, a change I endorse for what it's worth.
At the draft, the Pelicans were sitting at six and watched the prospect that was considered the be the consensus number one pick before that night fall to their laps. GM Dell Demps jumped at the chance to nab the injured Nerlens Noel and flipped him and the Pels' 2014 pick (top five protected) to the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.
The move put the Pelicans in win-now mode, as it's hard to see how they could out-tank teams like Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Charlotte and Sacramento with a starting lineup of Hoilday, Gordon, Aminu, Anderson and Davis. It also made Vazquez expendable, which enabled Demps to work a sign and trade with the Sacramento Kings for Tyreke Evans. The Blazers, as the third team involved, received Robin Lopez and Terrel Harris and sent second round pick and Jeff Withey to New Orleans.
After their big move, Demps tried to work on the fringes to improve the roster. The Pelicans re-signed Aminu and inked free agents Anthony Morrow and Greg Stiemsma. Along with the Spurs, New Orleans also showed interest in Greg Oden and had some money to throw his way before being jilted as he chose Miami.
Here's the current Pelican's depth chart:
PG: Holiday - Rivers - Roberts
SG: Gordon - Evans - Morrow
SF: Aminu - Darius Miller
PF: Anderson - Jason Smith - Onuaku
C: Davis - Stiemsma - Withey
The Pelicans still are pretty weak at small forward, unless Aminu makes a giant leap forward in his development this off-season. The former lottery pick is a good defender and rebounder but his lack of offensive polish makes him a poor man's Luc Mbah a Moute. In all likelihood, coach Monty Williams will heavily feature a three guard lineup with the 6-6 Evans at SF, next to Holiday and Gordon. They also seem to be banking on Davis to bulk up enough to man the center position for long stretches and anchor their defense.
Still, this team is markedly better than last season's, at least on paper. Gordon should be healthy by training camp and when he was healthy he was one of the best -- if not the best -- young shooting guards in the league. Evans shined during his rookie season, averaging 20-5-5, but his development seemed to stagnate. With the addition of Holiday, Evans could prove to be deadly in the lower pressure sixth man role, and if he ever develops a consistent outside shot, stardom is not out of the question. A defensive core of Holiday, Aminu and Davis could make the Pelicans a much improved defensive team, even if they struggle a bit to score.
They are a bit thin up front, with the loss of Robin Lopez, who was better on offense than defense last season, contrary to popular belief. While the Hornets will miss that inside scoring presence and passing, if Davis makes the type of progress everyone thinks he should, and if he can stay healthy this year, they will have the perfect player to pair with the sweet shooting Anderson. Aminu can slide to the four, where his lack of shooting doesn't hurt the team as much, and if they get some good minutes from Smith and Stiemsma, they could be good enough to keep anyone from lamenting the loss of their 2014 pick in the Holiday trade.
How do they match up with the Spurs?
Pretty well, actually. It's hard to predict anything about the Pels at this point because they have a lot of new pieces, but the Holiday-Gordon backcourt could be one of the best in the league as soon as next season if -- and this is a big if -- Gordon can reprise his former play. Shooting bigs are often a pain for San Antonio, and New Orleans has arguably the best of the bunch in Anderson. Paired with a good offensive rebounding small forward in Aminu, they could cause some trouble on the glass. Their lack of length in the perimeter shouldn't hurt them as much against San Antonio, since it's very possible the Spurs will go with three-guard lineups of their own.
How successful New Orleans can be will depend on a lot of variables, and a whether the team can find answers for a lot of the questions surrounding the way their pieces fit. But the most important factor will surely be Anthony Davis. If Davis can live up to those Kevin Garnett/Tim Duncan comparisons and become a full-fledged franchise player, the Hornets are on their way to contending. But without that top five player, their ceiling seems to be playoff team with only marginal chances to contend. Luckily for them, they have a young core, so they have some time to wait for Davis to figure it out.
As far as next season goes, the Spurs are still clearly superior to the Pels, especially inside, and I would predict a sweep in the season series if not for the fact that San Antonio will face them on two SEGABABAs after playing potential playoff teams the night before . So I'll call it 3-1.
For more on the New Orleans Pelicans, visit The Bird Writes. Previously, they were At The Hive, and they really know their stuff over there.
Next up, the Dallas Mavericks.