By Michael Rushton, Contributing NBA Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Owner Tom Benson overhauled his team's name, logo and color scheme for the upcoming season, but hopes that just enough tinkering to the roster will get the New Orleans Pelicans back into the playoffs.
The franchise compliments its shift from the Hornets to the Pelicans with a new-look backcourt that now includes All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, while also counting on 2012 top overall pick Anthony Davis taking his game to the next level.
New Orleans is also banking on guard Eric Gordon finally staying healthy for the first time since he was acquired in the deal that sent former franchise player Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers in December of 2011.
"We'll grow together. You see teams like the Spurs, whose core guys have been together for a long time. I feel like that's how we'll be, a good core group of guys who are real young," said Holiday.
New Orleans put the wheels in motion for a roster makeover prior to last season, when it traded both Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to help clear cap space ahead of the recent offseason. And while head coach Monty Williams opted to bring Davis along slowly, injuries to the young forward, center Jason Smith, guard Austin Rivers and, of course, Gordon, led to the club posting its second straight last-place finish.
The Pelicans are just 48-100 over the last two seasons since making the playoffs for the third time in four years in 2011, so New Orleans pounced this offseason in an effort to improve.
"We made the decision last year to trade those two players (Okafor and Ariza) and go with a young group that set us up for the future," general manager Dell Demps said at the end of the season. "We actually had to take two steps back to take two steps forward ... We really want to maximize that opportunity.
The Pelicans felt they did in a pair of trades, getting Holiday from the Philadelphia 76ers for New Orleans' sixth overall pick of the 2013 draft, forward Nerlens Noel, and a protected first-round pick in 2014.
Demps also acquired guard Evans and center Jeff Withey from the Portland Trail Blazers in a three-team deal that cost the Pelicans Robin Lopez, Terrel Harris and Greivis Vasquez when all was said and done.
The challenge for Williams will be finding enough touches for Holiday, Gordon, Evans and Davis while trying to get his club to improve on its defense from a season ago.
2012-13 Results: 27-55, 5th in Southwest Division; Missed playoffs
ADDITIONS: G Jrue Holiday, G Tyreke Evans, C Greg Stiemsma, F Arinze Onuaku, G Anthony Morrow, C Jeff Withey
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Jrue Holiday SG- Eric Gordon SF- Al-Faroug Aminu PF- Anthony Davis C- Jason Smith
KEY RESERVES: G Tyreke Evans, F Ryan Anderson, G Brian Roberts, F Anthony Morrow, C Greg Stiemsma, G Austin Rivers
FRONTCOURT: While the Pelicans loaded up at guard and on the wings, Davis is expected to handle the bulk of the scoring down low. He certainly had his moments last season as he became the fifth rookie in NBA history to record averages of at least 13.5 points 8.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.0 steals and 1.0 assists per game.
With not a lot of other threats to score due to Gordon's absence, the Pelicans felt it when Davis missed games. They were 4-14 in the 18 games he sat out due to a concussion as well as shoulder and knee injuries.
Williams also resisted the urge to throw Davis to the wolves as a rookie and limited him to 28.8 minutes per game. This season, the Pelicans coach expects to put the 20-year-old out for longer stretches.
"Last year, I thought he was trying to do the right thing and please everybody and now he's learning that he's just got to go out there and play. I think his confidence is not at an all-time high, but it's higher," noted Williams.
With Lopez traded, Smith should get the chance to start at center after coming off the bench in all 51 games he played last season. He was a solid contributor, but was plagued by a torn labrum that bothered him for a few months before he was eventually shut down on March 1 for the rest of the season.
Williams' initial plan is to bring Evans off the bench, so Al-Farouq Aminu will rack up the starts again. Aminu re-signed with the Pelicans after finishing his third NBA season with an average of 7.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He grabbed three more boards per outing than his previous season, when he mostly came off the bench.
Aminu will try to build off that, but knows that the likes of Gordon and Evans could eat into his minutes if he struggles.
"Good competition always brings the best out of you and I think it's going to push every single one of us," said Aminu, who was benched for a spell in late December last year and featured better shot selection when he returned to starting in January.
BACKCOURT: In Holiday, the Pelicans have a point guard who can both score and distribute as he averaged 17.7 points and 8.0 assists per game last season while making his first All-Star team. He was the only player in the NBA last season to average at least 17 points and eight helpers a game and ranked fourth in assists.
In Philadelphia, Holiday was counted on to score, but may find himself spreading the ball out with Gordon and Evans on the wing.
"You have two guards who are obviously very, very good scorers. Honestly, I feel like I've just got to be able to get them the ball, get them the ball where they like to get it, where they like to score and where they like to shoot," said Holiday.
The challenge for the 23-year-old will be cutting down his turnovers.
If Gordon is healthy this season, there is no doubt that the Pelicans will improve. He missed the first 29 games last year due to a bone bruise in his right knee and also had offseason surgery on his left ankle. This after he appeared in only nine games in 2011-12.
"The only frustrating part since I've been down here is dealing with the injuries. That's the main thing. I know what I can do and the team knows what I can do. Now, I finally get a chance to make it consistent," said an optimistic and healthy Gordon.
Williams often held Gordon out of back-to-back games to keep him healthy, but will need the 24-year-old to be at full speed this season.
"Eric certainly has the ability to be a guy who can play on both ends of the floors. We tried to be smart with him this summer," noted Williams.
BENCH: Minutes are probably more of a concern for Evans than starts and he should get plenty of time on the court despite coming off the bench.
The fourth overall pick of the 2009 draft by Sacramento, Evans has seen his scoring output decrease every season since netting 20.1 points per game as a rookie in 2009-10. His average of 15.2 ppg last season was his lowest in four seasons, but he did shoot a personal-best .478 percent from the floor, well above his career average of .449 percent.
The 24-year-old also shot a career-high .338 percent from three-point range and Williams said he can see Evans playing the point or either wing spot at times. He just needs to put shooters out there so the 6-foot-6 playmaker can attack the basket.
No player needed the season to begin more than forward Ryan Anderson, another quality bench player who is accurate from long range. Anderson's 213 makes from behind the three-point line ranked second in the NBA, but he also showed improvement last year scoring from closer in.
Anderson, though, had a sorrowful offseason after his girlfriend, reality star Gia Allemand, committed suicide at their home in New Orleans on Aug. 14. The 25-year-old spoke about the tragedy at Media Day, saying it was helpful to be back playing basketball with his teammates.
"I'm really glad that coach asked me to come back when he did. I've been here for a few weeks now, just being around the guys and being back in the gym. Just having some sort of a routine back, it helps a little bit," said Anderson, who added he leaned on his religious faith and that he is helping to create a charitable foundation in Allemand's name.
"I know that there is a huge plan here. I know that a lot of people are going to be helped through this."
The Pelicans added depth with the signings of guard Anthony Morrow and center Greg Stiemsma. Brian Roberts returns and will spell Holiday, while Rivers, the 10th overall pick of the 2012 draft, should benefit coming off the bench. Williams had to thrust the 21-year-old into a larger role last year due to Gordon's injury and Rivers struggled with consistency and turnovers, but eventually seemed more comfortable coming off the bench.
COACHING: Williams is considered one of the brighter young coaches in the game and has gotten a free pass the last few years as the Pelicans transition into a new era.
Williams expects solid defense out of his team, something the Pelicans struggled at last year. The coach said his club needs to get more stops this year as it struggled contesting shots and had to play out of the net as opposed to pushing up the floor after misses.
That will be a test for Williams as he tries to blend some new players into his system.
"We're going to make sure we start from a base and build off that and not assume," said Williams. "In so many ways it feels like year one because we have so many new guys. Even though they know certain things about defense, they have to understand the way we do it and I've got to have a feel for what they do well on defense."
OUTLOOK: By no means are the Pelicans ready to challenge for an NBA title, but this team certainly has the talent and depth to make the playoffs. The group is young and excited to play together, bolstered by new ownership and improved facilities.
Gordon is certainly the X-factor as the Pelicans are a better team at both ends if he his healthy. Though Evans offers insurance as a starter if injuries again bother Gordon, it would impact the depth.
Regardless, the Pelicans should be disappointed if they don't find themselves in the playoff picture.
"That's how you always have to look at it, not just for us but for any team," noted Gordon. "With the type of talent we have, you almost have to look at it like that. But we're still building. We have a lot of new guys and we're all still young. We've still got to build towards that."
10/16 13:04:03 ET