For all the news the New Orleans Pelicans have made locally — from the name change to the slew of offseason moves and the new court — it can be easy to lose sight of where the team stands in the national conversation.
Despite missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, New Orleans has stayed relevant due to Anthony Davis' breakout stardom. Davis was named MVP of the U.S. National Basketball Team at this summer's FIBA World Championships and Sports Illustrated named him the team's "most indispensable two-way player." Adi Joseph of USA Today ranked the Pelicans eighth in its "watchability" rankings based mostly on Davis' skills; ESPN Insider's Amin Elhassan ranked the Pelicans the best young NBA team because Davis is "the best player on the planet under 25" and the folks at Basketball said there is no doubt he's going to be "an absolute superstar" and will only get better.
Subtract Davis from the conversation, though, and talk of the Pelicans is almost nonexistent among national basketball watchers. ESPN's Grantland, which was founded and is edited by basketball-obsessed Bill Simmons, barely mentioned the Pelicans in this year's NBA season preview. Other outlets mention New Orleans with a series of questions. Can they stay healthy? Will Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans be able to share the ball, especially with Davis emerging? Can Monty Williams and Dell Demps avoid getting fired if the team fails to succeed?
For Pelicans fans, though, the most important questions have to do with the team's salary cap (the team currently is more than $6 million over the cap). Grantland's Zach Lowe recently brought up one of two elephants in the team locker room: guard Austin Rivers. As Lowe writes, Rivers "has basically been a disaster." With Rivers' rookie contract expiring in two seasons, the Pelicans have to decide if he's worth the nearly five million dollars he'd earn in that span or if they'd be better off trading Rivers to try to get back under the cap.
The Rivers situation seems salvageable. Lowe has plenty of praise for Rivers' ball-handling and distribution skills but maintains the third-year guard must improve his shooting percentage significantly to justify his salary.
The other, much richer, elephant in the locker room is Eric Gordon. Acquired in the trade that sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers, Gordon has played in less than half of New Orleans' games in the three years he's been here — while getting paid nearly $15 million a year. Moreover, Gordon doesn't seem to like playing in New Orleans. Unfortunately for both Gordon and the Pelicans, his massive contract and injury history make trading him a non-starter.
Sobering salary cap news aside, most pundits seem at least optimistic about the Pelicans' chances this season (so long as the team stays healthy). ESPN's Bradford Doolittle listed New Orleans as a team that could surprise many with over 50 wins and a playoff berth, a mark matched by Basketball Insider's best case scenario for the team.
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