Pelicans

Ranking the 7 Seasons of Pelicans Basketball

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Believe it or not, it has only been seven seasons since New Orleans rebranded and adopted the name ‘Pelicans.’ It feels like an eternity ago that they debuted their white home uniforms against a feisty Paul George-led Pacers team. New Orleans lost by five in their home opener, but morale was high. 

Fast forward seven seasons and New Orleans’ performances are mixed. Two playoff appearances and four (soon-to-be five) lottery finishes marred a decade where the Pelicans were going to spread their wings. The varying results make it somewhat hard to rank, but here we are.

7. 2018-19

This one hurts. A conference semifinal appearance the year prior sparked much optimism. A 22-28 record heading into late January infuriated superstar forward Anthony Davis as he infamously informed New Orleans he was not returning and wanted a trade.

The ploy was simple; Rich Paul, Davis’ new agent, was trying to get him to Los Angeles with LeBron. Rightfully, New Orleans fans were hurt. Their franchise cornerstone, who repeatedly mentioned he wanted to be a Pelican forever, handcuffed the franchise. To make matters worse, the NBA forced New Orleans to start and play Davis.

Games were tense. Fans booed Davis, the sidelines were miserable, and the product was unbearable at times. It all worked out well for New Orleans, but the 2018-19 season that was full of expectation brought nothing but pain and despair.

6. 2015-16

The season that followed a breakout campaign for New Orleans brought nothing but hardship. Front office tension between Dell Demps and Monty Williams led to Williams’ firing, despite Williams being a favorite with all players, fans, and media. Demps brought in former lead Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry to improve the team. Gentry was the mastermind behind the Phoenix Suns that lost in the 2010 Conference Finals, and appeared to be an intelligent selection.

Coach Gentry prepared to help the Pelicans make a jump, similar to the Warriors and Steve Kerr. Unfortunately, injuries defined the season. Davis, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday combined to miss 195 games.

Also, Demps’ poor player-management began to hamstring the team. Notably, in the offseason, Demps offered Omer Asik a jaw-dropping five-year, $58 million extension. Along with Asik, Demps signed two centers in Alexis Ajinca and Kendrick Perkins. The signings went against the primary philosophy of Alvin Gentry – pace. All three – in particular, Asik – struggled with the speed and ferocity the Pelicans tried to play with.

The 30-52 record accurately portrayed the season. The weak identification of the talent needed to take the team to the next level began in 2015.

5. 2013-14

The Pelicans’s first season in New Orleans was meant to signify a change in culture. Their previous Hornets’ seasons brought one 50 win campaign and only one Conference Semifinal appearance. The season started brightly. In the off-season, New Orleans traded for then all-star point guard Jrue Holiday and signed versatile guard/wing Tyreke Evans via a sign-and-trade.

The aim was to pair Davis with three guards that could all handle the ball (Evans, Holiday and Gordon) and play crunch time. On paper, the Pelicans made sense. A closing line-up of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Aminu/Anderson, and Davis was perfect for the NBA then.

A 15-16 start was positive. The team struggled at times to mesh cohesively, but the chemistry was building heading into 2014. Unfortunately, like most seasons in the Anthony Davis era, injuries hit. An injury cost Jrue Holiday his season, and the Pelicans faltered, losing the next eight games and their momentum for the season. The team could not get to even five games under .500, and, in their first season as the Pelicans, they fell to a 34-48 record.

4. 2016-17

Demps’ All-Star weekend trade for DeMarcus Cousins shocked the league. The deal was a sign the Pelicans were going all-in on Davis playing power forward and trying to overwhelm teams with size. To Demps’ credit, he saw no path for New Orleans to beat teams like the Warriors by playing small. The addition of Cousins was a needed jolt of energy.

New Orleans finally had a second star and a piece that could complement Davis. Cousins brought elite rebounding and passing skills as well as shooting ability to space the floor. The issue, though, was that the trade came while the Pelicans were drowning. The absence of Jrue Holiday to begin the season hindered the team mightily. An 0-8 start sealed their playoff fate as they were unable to string together more than four wins in a row.

The trade allowed the team seventeen games to get acquainted and develop basic chemistry heading into the season. Jrue, DeMarcus, and Anthony played quite well together, posting a +5.2 net rating. A lost season brought optimism as the Pelicans looked poised for a breakout in 2017-18.

3. 2019-20

The excitement for the Pelicans’ 2019-20 season was palpable. Winning the Zion lottery and a total overhaul of the front office saved the franchise. Gayle Benson, to her credit, brought in heralded General Manager David Griffin to bring success. The offseason saw only positives for New Orleans. Griffin signed JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli, drafted Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Didi Louzada, and traded for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and Derrick Favors

The overhaul did what Dell Demps didn’t. Griffin added personnel that perfectly fit Alvin Gentry’s style, and the results were telling. Unfortunately, Zion Williamson‘s injury prolonged the restart of the franchise. Before his debut, New Orleans’ endured a franchise long losing streak. The losing streak bonded the team somewhat unexpectedly. Following the streak and the eventual appearance of Zion, the Pelicans found their identity and played great offensive basketball. 

Considering Zion’s delayed debut, New Orleans’ cohesion was incredible. The starting line-up posted a +26.3 net rating, best amongst starting lineups since Zion’s debut. New Orleans was surging into the playoffs before COVID-19 halted sports globally. The 2019-20 season, although #3 on my list, is a sign of a bubbling dynasty.

2. 2014-15

New Orleans’ first season in the playoffs was spectacular. The race for the eighth seed was tense. New Orleans’ held the tie-breaker over Oklahoma City thanks to Anthony Davis’ game-winner.

A final-day matchup against the Spurs determined their fate. At home, New Orleans scrapped past by five points, sealing their maiden playoff appearance. 

Throughout the season, New Orleans had many notable wins, especially against the Los Angeles Clippers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team was relatively healthy for the first time too. Only Holiday missed ample time (42 games). Anthony Davis ascended into the conversation as a top-five player, leading the league in blocks, player efficiency and made two-point field goals, per Basketball-Reference.

In the first round, the Pelicans played a tight four-game sweep to Golden State. Game two and three were winnable, in particular game three, where Steph Curry single-handedly saved the Warriors. The short stint in the playoffs was a sign of the future. Monty Williams did an outstanding job developing the team, molding it into a pesky group destined for more significant accomplishments. 

1. 2017-18

New Orleans’ second playoff appearance as the Pelicans was its most successful, making it undoubtedly the best season overall. New Orleans recovered from Cousins’ season-ending injury to finish in the six seed with a 48-34 record. 

The late-season trade for Nikola Mirotic propelled the Pelicans. Gentry, for the first time as New Orleans’ coach, had a stretch big capable of defending centers. New Orleans was capable of playing at the fastest pace in the league, with Rajon Rondo and Holiday proving to be the perfect blend of guards. 

Their first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers was ideal. Portland struggled in the regular season to guard Davis, and defensively, Jrue Holiday was able to contain Damian Lillard. New Orleans took a surprising 2-0 lead in Portland and never looked backed, sweeping the series. 

A second-round matchup against eventual champions Golden State was going to be tough. New Orleans had chances in game two to steal a road victory, but could not, losing the series 4-1. (Although one can’t fault Davis’ effort).

The season brought a big ‘What If?’ Management built the roster to buck the current small-ball NBA trend and it was working well in its first season. The Cousins injury derailed the idea, but 2017-18 will go down as the best Pelicans season for now.

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About Vance Abreu

An Australian trying to make it big in Toronto, Canada. Weekly articles about the Pelicans journey to a NBA championship

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