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How New Orleans Pelicans Can Build a Contender Around Anthony Davis

this is a discussion within the Pelicans Community Forum; Anthony Davis' rapid rise through the NBA superstar ranks has put the New Orleans Pelicans in a simultaneously powerful and problematic position. Lofty expectations are a reality with him at the center of on-court happenings. Already a superstar, Davis' status ...

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Old 12-30-2014, 08:30 PM   #1
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How New Orleans Pelicans Can Build a Contender Around Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis' rapid rise through the NBA superstar ranks has put the New Orleans Pelicans in a simultaneously powerful and problematic position.

Lofty expectations are a reality with him at the center of on-court happenings. Already a superstar, Davis' status demands the Pelicans get—and remain—on the track toward contention, somehow, someway, with minimal margin for error.

History is littered with disgruntled megastars of franchises who couldn't get it right. Most recently, there was Kevin Love. Before him, there was Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and even LeBron James. The Pelicans franchise itself experienced similar hardship with Chris Paul, so it's imperative it gets this right.

Which begs the question: How in the world are the Pelicans going to do that?

By taking the one route they've yet to explore—that which leads through Davis' mounting mystique and the free-agency gains it could help yield.

Accepting Reality

Rebuilding and retooling through the draft is out. Never mind that the Pelicans have treated recent draft picks like trade fodder. Davis is already too good for them to hope for a top, fortunes-turning selection.

Despite the loss of Eric Gordon and a skeleton rotation that stretches only six impact players deep when healthy, the Pelicans already rank 10th in offensive potency, pumping in 106 points per 100 possessions. When Davis is on the floor, they're even better, posting an offensive rating of 107.3, the equivalent of fourth place in efficiency.

There's also this tidbit from Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, who came up with a Factor Adjusted Team Similarities (FATS) metric to help with win-loss projections:

Although the Pelicans' 26th-ranked defense is an abomination—truly incredible considering they employ both Davis and Omer Asik—rare is the team that's elite in one area while pinning itself to favorable lottery territory.

Consider this: The Pelicans have the worst record of any top-10 offense this season, and they're playing .500 basketball. Last season the Minnesota Timberwolves owned that honor, and they still won 40 games. In 2012-13, it was the Los Angeles Lakers, who secured 45 victories.

Only twice in the last 10 seasons, in fact, has a team finished in the top 10 of offensive efficiency and won fewer than 45 percent of its regular-season contests: the 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics and Toronto Raptors.

Winning 45 percent of games results in fringe playoff contention, tethering teams to unenviable positions of mediocrity in which they're too good to rest hopes on top-five or -seven picks but too bad to make a postseason appearance.

Undoubtedly recognizing this, the Pelicans both wisely and haphazardly tried to expedite the process. They traded their 2013 first-round pick (Nerlens Noel) and top-five protected 2014 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. Then they acquired Tyreke Evans.

This past summer they kept the theme going, dealing their protected 2015 first-rounder to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Asik. Given the Pelicans' current record, their pick will fall in the stipulated sweet spot, awarding the Rockets a low-end lottery pick to futz around with.

Not one of those acquisitions has promised unconditional playoff contention. Injury bugs have hit New Orleans hard over the last couple seasons, but mostly, the West is just too deep.

Nor have those draft picks already developed into regrets. Noel sat out all of 2013-14 and is posting a below-average player efficiency rating (10.5) for the tanking Sixers this season, while that No. 10 pick the Pelicans shipped to Philadelphia turned into Elfrid Payton.

Aside from Payton, the best New Orleans could have done at No. 10 would have been Doug McDermott. That's it. And neither of them would have moved the needle enough to vault the Pelicans into guaranteed postseason territory.

Now, with their draft options moot because of trades and Davis' superstar leap, the Pelicans are forced to look elsewhere.

A Different Route

Trades and free agency are seldom a huge part of small-market rebuilds. Teams that don't play in prominent locales often bank on draft-pick development and in-house progression (see: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, etc.).

The Pelicans will without question have to take the path less traveled. They've already tried in a way by going after Holiday, Evans and Asik. But now they have no choice.

Brokering a blockbuster trade might not even be a choice. The Pelicans are thin on both draft picks and burgeoning talent. Austin Rivers is their most intriguing prospect, and well, you know, his 39.2 percent career shooting clip and 9.2 career PER won't anchor a star-grabbing deal.

Gordon's and Anderson's expiring contracts, along with Evans and Holiday, will be the Pelicans' most valuable trade chips heading into this summer. Can some combination of those players net them a star sidekick? If so, who?

Joe Johnson?

Free agency already looks like the more effective avenue. Though they already have nearly $53 million on the books for next season, the Pelicans should have some wiggle room under the projected $66.5 million salary cap for 2015-16, depending on how they handle Asik's foray into free agency.

Even more flexibility should be available the summer after, when the salary cap is expected to erupt in the aftermath of the NBA's new TV deal.

Yet, while an anticipated cap boon provides opportunity, it promises nothing. As Jared Dubin wrote for The Cauldron:
In the end, it’s certainly possible that things work out just fine for the Pelicans, even despite all this. Players like Davis almost always ensure contention eventually. But it’s worth talking about how they’ve gotten where they are, and how it affects their future.

This doesn’t look like a squad that will help get Davis deep into the playoffs any time soon, and considering they’ll be going yet another summer without a first-round pick, the first real opportunity they’ll have to improve the roster is the summer of 2016. Nearly every team in the league will be flush with cap space that year due to the expected jump from the incoming television money, and Davis, if he hasn’t extended by then, will be faced with a choice of accepting a qualifying offer or signing in restricted free agency.

Davis is the selling point the Pelicans can use to pitch free agents—some of whom would normally gloss over a team like New Orleans—and overcome competition. He'll be eligible for an extension this summer, and players coming off rookie-scale contracts tend to stay put for at least a few years.

What market-surfing star wouldn't consider playing beside a top-three superstar who's not even 25?

Very few. Or so the Pelicans should hope.

Tricky Situation

None of this is reassuring. And, for the record, it's not premature either.

Now is the time for the Pelicans to worry about winning, about assembling a contender, because Davis, at only 21, is worried about the same.

"It doesn’t matter," Davis said of playing in Chicago, his hometown, for the first time in his NBA career, per CSN Chicago's Mark Strotman. "I don’t really care about that. I just want to win. I could hang 50, and if we lose it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything."

There comes a point when stumbling upon an unprecedented talent matters little, when the fact that Davis is putting up video game numbers and on pace to break the single-season PER record isn't enough.

And at that point—or rather this point—the Pelicans must understand they're building around more than Davis' skill set and ability to coexist alongside future draft picks that aren't coming.

They're building around his superstar status and its appeal to players they don't yet have.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate as of games played Dec. 29, 2014. Salary and draft-pick information via HoopsHype and RealGM.

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