Projected Starters and New Faces of the New Orleans Pelicans

With DeMarcus Cousins set to become a free agent and Anthony Davis growing tired of coming up short, the Pelicans need to take a significant step forward this year.

There’s no sugarcoating it. This season is a crucial one for the future of the New Orleans Pelicans’ franchise. With DeMarcus Cousins set to become a free agent and Anthony Davis growing tired of watching from home as his fellow superstars enjoy postseason success, the time is now or never for the team to improve significantly. Unfortunately, the already-stacked Western Conference is now even more stacked. The Pelicans—whose roster additions include a volatile veteran floor general, a backup combo guard, and a defensive specialist who offers nothing on the other end—watched as teams like the Rockets, Thunder, and Nuggets acquired established All-Stars. Needless to say, New Orleans will be leaning heavily on its best players, hoping that their on-court chemistry takes the team to new heights. What exactly will the team look like on the court? Let’s take a look at the projected starting lineup and a few new faces that will join the rotation.

The Starters

PG: Rajon Rondo

Rajon Rondo has had plenty of ups and downs over the last few seasons. His Bulls limped to an eighth-place finish in a weak Eastern Conference last year. Once the postseason started, however, the Boston revenge narrative seemed to kick Rondo into another gear. He played inspired basketball on both ends, averaging nearly a triple-double before fracturing his thumb near the end of Game 2. An effective Rondo turned the lackluster Bulls into a team that looked more like the conference favorite than the top-seeded Celtics.

At his best, Rondo is a capable, opportunistic defender and a highly effective playmaker. His presence should make life easier for Jrue Holiday, letting him play off the ball and assume a more aggressive scoring role. As a pick-and-roll initiator, his obvious shortcoming is a non-existent jumper. On paper, the Pelicans don’t exactly have the ideal combination of floor spacers to make up for Rondo’s offensive flaws. Let’s see if that changes once the games start.

SG: Jrue Holiday

New Orleans had no choice but to pay up to retain Jrue Holiday’s services. Armed with his Bird Rights and little cap room to find a suitable replacement, bringing Holiday back was the right move—even if the price was a bit staggering. The Pelicans were just 2–13 in games he missed last season. While staying on the court has been a problem since he arrived, a healthy Holiday is a plus defender who can score in bunches. Still just 27, his best years should be ahead of him. For the Pelicans’ sake, they’d better be. Holiday might be the most important piece in determining what the roster looks like for the 2018-19 season. His development will either give the Pelicans a big three or leave them with a dynamic duo. If it’s the former, that’s all the more reason for Cousins and Davis to consider running it back.

Given the wealth of talent at the guard positions, Holiday is unlikely to crack an All-Star roster, but if Rondo can help him excel off the ball, he could take a big step forward offensively while Davis and Cousins are commanding double teams. The stars are aligned for Holiday to enjoy his best season to date. He just needs to be on the court to make it happen.

SF: Dante Cunningham

Barring injury, four of the five spots in the starting lineup are unlikely to change throughout the season. When it comes to the small forward position, nothing is certain. Solomon Hill, the likely starter, tore his hamstring back in August. For now, let’s pencil in the recently re-signed Dante Cunningham. Throughout most of his career, Cunningham barely even attempted to shoot from beyond the arc. Two years ago, when he finally started to let it fly, he hit 31.6% from deep. Last year, that number skyrocketed to 39.2%. He’s still never attempted more than three per game, but if that progress is in any way sustainable, he’ll be a crucial floor spacer for a team that sorely needs one.

On the defensive side of the ball, Cunningham is no star, but he’s 6’8” with enough athleticism to cover multiple positions. With Cousins and Davis on the floor, he’ll be asked to guard some quick players on the wing. As long as he can close out on shooters, having the two big men behind him should make life a bit easier if he gets beat off the dribble.

PF: Anthony Davis

Despite a lack of team success, Anthony Davis was superb throughout the 2016-17 season. He set new career highs in both points (28) and rebounds (11.8) per game. Davis also finished fourth in the league in PER, alongside the MVP finalists. There are questions about whether or not the Pelicans have the pieces in place to make the most of his potential, but there are no questions about his talent. Davis is a complete stud capable of taking over a game on both ends of the floor. It’s hard to find a flaw in his game. In the “superteam” era that has seen more than one franchise cornerstone leave a team for greener pastures, the Pelicans need to start winning to keep their MVP candidate happy.

C: DeMarcus Cousins

Acquiring Cousins was undoubtedly a risk worth taking. It’s extremely rare for a player of his caliber to become available for the price the Pelicans paid, and the team was right to pounce. Always a skillful force in the post, Cousins made a leap on the perimeter last season, connecting on 36.1% of his three-point attempts. His versatility and size make him a matchup nightmare—just like his frontcourt mate. Cousins can take his man off the dribble, initiate pick-and-rolls, and hit spot-up jumpers. Sometimes, he’s almost too versatile for his own good. He seems to forget that he’s enormous and spends too much time away from the basket. While the pace and space era is here to stay, establishing a dominant big man inside still has its advantages. How Cousins and Davis evolve as a duo will be one of the most fascinating storylines throughout the entire NBA. Alvin Gentry’s imagination should be running wild with ways in which he can deploy his two big men together.

New Faces In The Rotation

G/F Tony Allen

Adding Tony Allen is about more than on-court production. A six-time NBA All-Defensive Team member, Allen was the perfect embodiment of the Grizzlies’ “Grit and Grind” style of play. His attitude and approach are something that every team needs—a guy willing and able to play physical, hard-nosed defense without worrying about his own numbers. It’s no coincidence that Allen’s teams have seemed to make the most out of their talent.

On offense, Allen doesn’t bring much to the table. He’s a poor shooter with no real playmaking ability, but at least he doesn’t try to do too much. At 35, Allen understands his role and will gladly watch the surrounding superstars take control when the Pelicans have the ball. Unfortunately, in today’s NBA, having an ineffective scorer on the wing is unsustainable for long stretches of play. Throughout the season, Allen could be thrust into matchup-specific starting roles to make life miserable for opposing guards and forwards.

G Ian Clark

Stepping out from the shadow of the best shooting backcourt in NBA history for the first time in his career, Ian Clark will be asked to shoulder a bit more of a scoring load for the Pelicans. Last season, Clark hit a respectable 37.2% of his three-point attempts. Of course, the Warriors make life easy on role players, giving them plenty of space to shoot and big leads to protect. With Rajon Rondo providing no threat whatsoever from beyond the arc, Clark’s ability to knock down open shots becomes that much more critical. He should be able to play alongside both Rondo and Holiday, giving Alvin Gentry some flexibility with his rotation.

While Clark is unlikely to take a major leap forward, his small role in Golden State at least brings some mystery. Given more responsibility, could he take his game to a new level and make the Pelicans’ front office look brilliant? Don’t count on it, but his development will be fun to watch.

With an entire offseason to help their best players develop chemistry, the Pelicans know that they need to make a run at the postseason. How the role players contribute will go a long way in determining whether or not that happens. Alvin Gentry may need to tinker a bit before finding perfect lineup combinations, but with Cousins and Davis on board, this will be must-watch basketball.

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