Pelicans open training camp with familiar optimism, new faces

Is this the same 'ole Pels, or is there real reason for hope?

Seth Dunlap
September 25, 2018 - 7:32 pm

As the final horn at Oracle Arena sounded, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday quickly walked off the court and towards the locker room.  The Pelicans, but captivating, playoff run had been snuffed out by the defending NBA champs and it was time to ponder what the future would look like for the franchise.

The two centerpieces of this Pelicans franchise would be back.  Barring any unforeseen trades, so would late-season starters Nikola Mirotic and E'Twaun Moore.  Elsewhere on the roster, certainty was more elusive.  DeMarcus Cousins was a free agent.  So was Rajon Rondo.  Nobody was sure what would happen with Solomon Hill, who was a disappointment coming back from injury but was nevertheless one of their more reliable bench contributors down the stretch.  

While some optimistic fans were eager to believe this team was finally ready to break through as a serious Western Conference contender for years to come with the dynamic duo of Davis and Holiday, most long time New Orleans basketball watchers were much more pragmatic. 

The NBA has always been a fickle mistress here.  Embedded in the heart of the football-crazed South, most fans have been apathetic, at best, in their support of the Pelicans.  There have been times before when it seemed like a basketball breakthrough was eminent for the city.   

Chris Paul and David West dazzled in 2007-08, carrying the then-Hornets to the Western Conference Semifinals, giving the Spurs everything they could handle before succumbing in Game 7.   

A 21 year old Davis guided the Monty Williams coached Pelicans to the playoffs in 2014 but were summarily swept by the Golden State Warriors, who were en route to their first of three championships over the next four seasons.

The Warriors would win that fourth title this past year, sending the Pelicans packing after Game 5 in the Conference Semifinals.  While New Orleans galvanized every bit of basketball fandom in the city after a 4-0 sweep of the Blazers in the opening round of the playoffs, the gap between themselves and the Warriors seems insurmountably wide after their series.

So once again basketball fans in the city have come full circle.  The flickers of hope for this franchise remain, but fans are expecting the worst.  How could they not?  The pessimistic, or as they like to call themselves, the realistic fans, won’t let themselves fall into the trap of hope yet again. 

It’s like those fans who watch the first season of ‘Game of Thrones’ countless times and always root for Ned Stark.  This time, they convince themselves, Varys will show up and offer a way out of the dungeons.   It isn’t until Ser Illyn Payne’s axe takes Stark’s head that viewers are thrust back into the reality that ‘Thrones’ looks, and feels, the same as it did the first time you watched it.  Captivating, brutal, and heartbreaking.

That also describes pro basketball fandom in New Orleans.  Captivating, brutal, and heartbreaking.   So why should this year be any different?

There’s objective analysis of this team -- realist’s view, if you will – they’re better on paper than last season.  They could be deeper, and better fits for Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo system, at every position on the roster.

Poaching power forward Julius Randle was a coup for general manager Alvin Gentry.  Randle, who turns 24 this season, was one of the most efficient big men in the NBA last season, scoring 16.1 points and grabbing eight rebounds per game while averaging just over 26 minutes per contest.   He also shot a torrid 55.8% from the floor, and is a terror in the fast-break offense which should make him a great fit in Gentry’s system.

New point guard Elfrid Payton brings perhaps more questions than answers with him from the Suns.  Payton, 24, has been serviceable in his career, averaging 11.2 points and 6.2 assists per game.  Yet he lacks the proven, veteran leadership that Rajon Rondo did.  Also, like Rondo, he’s a liability from long-range, shooting just 20% on 3-pt attempts last season, while averaging 29.8% in his career. 

Payton will be surrounded by much more talent here in New Orleans than he was in Phoenix last year, or Orlando before that.  Perhaps he blossoms next to Davis in the backcourt. 

That uncertainty is one of the reasons the Pelicans had to resign Ian Clark in free agency.  Clark played both the point guard and shooting guard spots in the playoffs last year, and will once again slot in nicely to the Pelicans rotation.

The team also took a flyer on center Jahlil Okafor, getting him from the bargain bin late in the offseason.  Okafor, a former lottery pick, flamed out on Philadelphia and Orlando.  However, he’s only 23 years old, and provides the kind of low risk, high reward upside that has a chance to be one of the best value-signings of the offseason, should things work out.

The Pelicans’ biggest need may be at swingman, and they’ve tried to address that in bulk.  New Orleans has brought in Garlon Green, Troy Williams, and Kenrich Williams to compete for roster spots and possibly for minutes in the regular rotation.

Perhaps the biggest wild-card this season is their 2017 second round draft pick, Frank Jackson, who impressed during summer league.  There are also viral videos making the rounds of Jackson working out with Holiday.  Any Jackson-as-a-savior storylines should be treated with heavy skepticism, but we at least know the franchise hasn’t given up on the former Duke product.

So here we are, earlier than usual with this new wacky NBA calendar, back for another Pelicans roller coaster ride.  It’s difficult to have any real optimism for immediate, championship-level success outside of Golden State, but perhaps these aren’t the same ole Pelicans this city has endured for nearly two decades now.

Training camp has already opened, and the preseason start with a game against the Bulls this Sunday.  Buckle up.



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