"Hey, A.D., we're coming right back here."
Alvin Gentry, then an assistant coach to the Golden State Warriors, was celebrating with his team in the locker room, besieged by well-wishers and television cameras. The Warriors had just won the 2015 NBA Finals, cruising through the regular season and the playoffs with a fast-paced, run-and-gun offense and a deluge of perimeter threes.
Some say it was Gentry who got the Warriors there. The trophy was being pressed into his chest by Steve Kerr, Golden State's head coach. But Gentry stopped to speak to Anthony Davis. He already had eyes on the future.
Hired by the New Orleans Pelicans in May to replace former head coach Monty Williams, Gentry is the key to New Orleans' basketball future, the next logical evolution in a system designed to cultivate and grow along with Davis — an incredible basketball talent who, at 22 years old, has just begun to come into his own.
The Pelicans have doubled down on the on-court talent to surround and support A.D.; have retooled the coaching staff to create plays for the other shooters on the squad; are reconceptualizing and simplifying their defense; and are building plays to players' strengths, rather than trying to force them into an uncomfortably slow system.
But is it enough to take a shot at the highest level in the hyper-competitive NBA Western Conference? Can a ragtag group of injury-prone journeymen battle it out over a grueling 82-game season, fighting through long stretches and disappointments and huge momentum swings from late autumn all the way through June?
Let's look at some of the major differences and similarities of the team as the 2015-16 season begins.
Anthony Davis fear the brow
Anthony Davis is the Pelicans franchise, an incredible once-in-a-generation talent, and the front office has done everything it can to build a team and system around him. Coaches and trainers are hired and fired based on where Davis is in his development. Players are picked up and waived based on how they fit into the progression of Davis' game. Tickets and banners and bobbleheads and jerseys are printed, hung, bobbled and sold against Davis' acrobatics, jump shots, dunks and blocks.
And for good reason.
Last season Davis racked up an impressive string of statistical accomplishments. The eighth in overall scoring with 1,656 points. The No. 1 overall shot blocker, with 200 balls swatted away. The seventh overall in free throws made (371). The fourth overall in total buckets made (642), and seventh overall in field goal percentage (the number of non-free throw shots sunk, over the number of attempts). Davis recorded a double double (double digits in two offensive categories, like points and rebounds) in 42 out of the 68 games he played.
Those numbers shot through the stratosphere during the playoffs. In last season's four-game first-round series against the Warriors, which possessed the league's best defense, Davis notched 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and three blocks per game. He made 89 percent of his free throws.
"He's the best prospect since LeBron James came into the NBA, and this is going to be his fourth year and he's poised to make a sort of a bigger leap, have another breakout season, and be in the MVP conversation the entire year," says Jake Madison, a writer with the ESPN-affiliated Pelicans blog BourbonStreetShots.com. "Just going to watch a player this special and this transcendent, you can see it."
During the offseason, the team signed Davis to the longest-term contract it could, at the maximum amount of money they could pay him: about $145 million over five years (the full value of the contract, based on a salary cap tied to television contracts, won't be known until next year). Barring a trade, that means Davis will be in New Orleans for at least four years, and he has the option to stay for the fifth year or become a free agent.
"In the NBA, you give these guys these deals when they're this good, without question," Madison says.
During the offseason, Davis worked with trainer Jason Sumerlin to add even more muscle, weighing in now at 253 pounds (and just 10 percent body fat). That bulking up is the result of a deliberate multi-year plan by the Pelicans to develop Davis' body slowly along with his on-court skill set.
Davis also has been working on his long ball, practicing 3-point shots over and over again. Though he's already very successful at long jump shots, Davis has made only three total 3-pointers in his three years in the league; expect that to change dramatically.
The excitement over — and expec-tations for — Davis reverberate far beyond New Orleans. The Pelicans will play the Warriors on opening night on TNT and will be featured on many more nationally televised games this year.
- Photo by Derick Hingle
Center Kendrick Perkins has appeared in 143 playoff games.
Alvin Gentry positivity and speed
New head coach Gentry, fresh off a championship win as an assistant with the Warriors, is poised to become a transformational figure for the New Orleans franchise, as he also has been with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns.
Gentry is a turnaround specialist, moving into transitional teams and recalibrating them. He's a proponent of a fast-moving, run-and-gun style of play that rewards fans with showy buckets in transition, lots of alley-oops and dunking, plenty of points, and a feel-good sensibility — in direct contrast with former head coach Monty Williams, who was let go last season after being swept in the first round of the playoffs by Gentry and the Warriors.
Williams' methodical and defense-focused (some might say plodding) plays didn't fit the high-scoring quick-tempo style of the roster pieces General Manager Dell Demps had been building around Davis.
"It's really going to be fast-paced and a fun style of play," guard Eric Gordon told Jim Eichenhofer, a Pelicans public relations rep. "I think it's going to be fun for everybody, from players to coaches to fans."
Fun is the key element here. In contrast to the serious Williams, Gentry is known for his enthusiastic, bright personality, his joking demea-nor and positive attitude with players and the media.
"You bring Alvin Gentry as the new coach, but you keep the same team that went to the playoffs last year, I think it's pretty smart," says center Alexis Ajinca, who was re-signed by the Pelicans in July to a four-year, $20 million deal. "You have a chemistry here."
Darren Erman thinking man's baller
On the other side of the ball, the Pelicans have brought in Darren Erman to turn around the defense. Like Gentry, Erman is known for his up-tempo sensibility and style.
"I think that the new system will enable guys to play a little faster. A little more ball movement," Demps says.
Unlike former coach Williams — who prided himself on being a defense-first coach, but who couldn't coax good defensive performances from his players — Erman is known as one of the brightest defensive minds in the league, garnering respect from coaches and players for his work ethic and dedication to the minutiae of the game.
Erman comes to the Pelicans with baggage — he was fired from Golden State last year for secretly taping coaches' meetings, amid internal strife among coaches, players and the team's front office. He was picked up quickly by the Boston Celtics to work under Doc Rivers as the Celtics' director of NBA scouting, then promoted to assistant coach.
With Erman on board, Boston improved defensively, upping the pace of its game from 15th in the league in 2013-14 to fifth in the league last season — exactly the type of improvement the Pelicans hope to emulate. (During the same period, the Pels dropped from 22nd to 27th in pace.)
"He's always energized. Like, at 7 in the morning he's like, 'Greatness doesn't sleep.' And I'm like, 'Erman, man, I'm going to sleep,'" Davis says. "But he's just bringing that energy. When you bring that much energy as a coach, especially on defense, it makes the people around you, the other players, want to play defense."
- Photo by Derick Hingle
Ryan Anderson starts the season healthy, having recovered from neck and knee injuries.
New year, same roster
The Pelicans re-signed or retained nearly every player who finished last season, including centers Omer Asik and Ajinca, Gordon, Norris Cole and Jrue Holiday, and forwards Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Ryan Anderson.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Davis says. "It makes it a whole lot easier than having new guys in and trying to figure out how this guy plays."
For the first time in many years, the Pelicans are mostly healthy. Anderson has rehabbed from serious neck and knee injuries and shed 20 pounds during the offseason. Gordon came through lingering knee and ankle problems only to suffer a major shoulder injury last year — but he chose rehab rather than surgery, and ended last season playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Starting small forward Pondexter still is recovering from a surgery on his left knee. Pondexter played through excruciating pain last season to help drive the team's playoff run. Despite not being able to play, he still organized voluntary offseason workouts along with Davis.
"The message out of Airline Drive, where (the Pelicans are) headquartered, whether you want to buy in or not, is health, continuity and Alvin Gentry," WDSU sports anchor Fletcher Mackel says. "So what they are saying is, 'We feel like we have the pieces, we just needed a new chess master to kind of arrange them in a way that works better.'"
What the Pelicans were lacking was experience, especially in the playoffs. The team brought on guard Norris Cole as they made a playoff run last year; Cole won championships in 2012 and 2013 with the Miami Heat. But he wasn't enough to sustain a young franchise — or help Davis mature into the rigors of the postseason. This year, keep an eye on Kendrick Perkins, a bruiser of a center who spent years with the Celtics and the Oklahoma City Thunder, and who has appeared in 143 total playoff games, including 129 starts. Perkins will have to compete for minutes off the bench, but he'll bring some clutch experience to the locker room and the defense.
The lingering stress fractures in Holiday's right leg remain the most serious concern for the Pelicans at the start of this season. The former All-Star came to New Orleans from the Philadelphia 76ers via a draft-night trade back in 2013, but the 76ers failed to disclose his difficulties beforehand. Holiday has reinjured the leg time and again since, sitting for huge stretches of time. He will be on a minutes restriction for the foreseeable future, and the league has ordered the 76ers to pay the Pelicans $3 million for their lack of disclosure.
"Holiday has missed almost a full season over the past two years," Madison says. "He hasn't been able to play with these guys and develop this chemistry with them — especially at point guard, where he needs to know where his guys like to get the ball and needs to work on getting the ball in those spots. You can't do that unless you're playing games."
The Pelicans have an eye for showmanship as well. They've picked up Alonzo Gee, one of the league's flashier dunkers. The 28-year-old Gee came out of the D-League (the NBA's version of AAA baseball).
What to expect
Just as there are ebbs and flows in a basketball game, there also are in a season. Even the best teams are expected to lose 20 or so games, so it's important not to get discouraged if things look bleak one week.
The Pelicans are in a tough mathematical spot — in the most difficult conference, and the strongest division. Every team in the Pelicans' division went to the playoffs last year (though playoff seeding doesn't have anything to do with divisions, it's the eight teams who finish with the best records in each of the eastern and western conferences).
Look for the team to open up the 3-point shot. Davis has been learning to step back behind the arc, and Gordon will find himself with a lot more freedom to run and gun and build on the great shooting rate he started last year after returning from his injury. Word is Anderson has his hot outside touch back, and even Luke Babbitt was brought back as a late outside threat further down the rotation. Gentry's Splash Brothers (Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) rained down 3-pointers last season, and a few more deep balls make all the difference.
"At the end of the day we want it to be tough, to push ourselves and go against great competition every night," Davis says. "We know that every night we have got to come out and play, because out of 15 teams in our conference, all 15 have the chance to go to the playoffs. Everybody has gotten better, everybody improves, so it just makes our job a lot harder. We're up for the challenge."
"We want to take that next step," Demps says. "We want to become one of the elite teams. We want to compete for championships. That's the goal for us."