DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins is known as one of the most intense basketball players in the NBA. He wants to win. Rajon Rondo once finished a playoff basketball game with one arm after dislocating his elbow. Tony Allen talks about feeling challenged every time someone wants to score on him, no matter how much faster or stronger they are than he is. The Pelicans have surrounded Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday with players fueled to win by the chip on their shoulder. This is going to be a fun season. And it has to be successful for the Pelicans.
Head Coach Alvin Gentry got the team to pick up the pace last year. But this resulted in them falling to the 26th-ranked offense in the league, a huge surprise for a team that had ranked among the top offenses often. Despite having two players who ranked in the top 12 in PER last year (Cousins was ranked 12th, Davis was 4th), the team couldn't build a cohesive offensive system.
Both Cousins and Davis are best when attacking the paint. So, even with Cousins shooting (and making) more three-pointers per game than anyone on the team, at a respectable 37.5 percent clip, it wasn't enough to unclog the paint—not when Davis shot over 70 percent from inside three feet last year.
The Pelicans needed another ball handler, and they tackled this problem by signing point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo has played with Cousins before, spending a year in Sacramento with him. In that 2015-2016 season, Rondo led the league in assists, averaging 11.7 per game. As Cousins said about Rondo, "He sees things before they happen, it is kind of scary." While Rondo's faulty jump shot is well known, he shot 41 percent off catch-and-shoot threes last year for the shooting-deprived Chicago Bulls. If Rondo can play like that (or, like how he did in two playoff games last year, both wins, before he got hurt), then the Pelicans are in good shape.
The big question about the Rondo acquisition is: how effective can Holiday be as a shooting guard? This move was made with the idea of these two guys sharing the court together. Holiday takes most of his shots off pull-ups out of the pick-and-roll. Those shots will be harder when he is guarded by bigger and longer defenders at the shooting guard position. But Rondo is a pass-first point guard, while Holiday is a shoot-first player. Letting Holiday play closer to his mentality may help him play better.
On top of Rondo, the Pelicans focused on adding and keeping the shooting they had. The team brought back Dante Cunningham (who shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc, which led the team) and Jordan Crawford (who shot 38.9 percent from beyond the arc in the 19 games he played), and they brought in Ian Clark, who shot 37.4 percent from beyond the arc for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
But maybe the biggest move was the acquisition of Assistant Coach Chris Finch. Finch coached the Denver Nuggets, getting the most out of the Nikola Jokić and Mason Plumlee frontline. If Finch can get the Pelicans to have the guys run the offense through the high post, the Pelicans would be scary for the rest of the league.
The Pelicans were the ninth-rated defense last year, the most-improved defensive team in the league. Coaches and players said they want to be a top-five defense this year. Cousins is a better defensive anchor than he is given credit for. He has led the league in charges multiple years. He also has lost a lot of weight, which will help him with his pick-and-roll defense. (Cousins, when asked how it feels to lose weight, beautifully responded with a "smaller.")
Pairing him with Davis, who covers so much space (due to his length, agility, and timing), should make for an elite-level defense. Davis was second in the league in blocks last year and can keep up with guards on the perimeter, as well as the best post players down low.
The team signed Tony Allen to replace Solomon Hill, as the latter will miss most of the season. While Allen may not be at his peak (and is not the offensive player Hill is), he is the best defender this team has had since Quincy Pondexter went down with an injury two years ago.
The team led the league in defensive rebounds last year and should only get better with a full year of Cousins and Davis sharing the court. Second-year player Cheick Diallo is expected to play a bigger role this year, too. While Holiday may not be as elite of a defender when covering two, Rondo is also a plus defender. If the team can build cohesion among themselves defensively, they can achieve their goal of being a top-five defense.
The Pelicans had a quieter summer than seemingly most of their counterparts. But unlike most of the teams in the West, they made their big move last year. While the Pelicans were seven games out of the playoffs last year, they were an even .500 with Boogie once the first three games of growing pains were out of the way. Adding former NBA champions Rondo, Allen, and Clark to the roster, the Pelicans are clearly making a playoff push. If Finch can help the superstars create a powerful offense as well, this team could not only be a playoff team, but a scary good one at that.
Everyone on this Pelicans team has a chip on their shoulder. When Tony Allen was asked how he was going to treat going back to Memphis (his former team), he said, "I might need some tissues, or I might go in there like Rambo." I don't think anyone on this team is going to use tissues this year.
Photos by the New Orleans Pelicans & NBA