Things promise to be different this season with the New Orleans Pelicans. From the start.
And that likely will be the beginning of the most exciting season in recent years for the city’s NBA team, which has an overhauled roster that is expected to contend for the Western Conference postseason.
The Pelicans open the season Wednesday night at the New Orleans Arena against a formidable foe, the Indiana Pacers, who reached the Eastern Conference finals in the playoffs last season.
After that, the early part of the season is one that — certainly compared to the start of the 2012-13 campaign — could enable a young team, with six new players to build chemistry and confidence.
“You’d like to get off to a great start because it continues the momentum we’ve had from the preseason (going 7-1),” coach Monty Williams said. “And this is a team that will get better in increments as the season goes along.”
Guard Brian Roberts, entering his second year in New Orleans, remembers last season, when 16 of the team’s first 21 games were against opponents that had made the playoffs the previous season. New Orleans went 5-16 in those games, including a seven-game losing streak that started with the sixth game. It later went on an 11-game losing streak that began with the 17th game.
“I remember that we had a streak where we couldn’t get a win,” Roberts said. “It was tough on us. It kind of weighed on us, because we were a young team and had never gone through that before, most of us.”
As the Pelicans tip off 2013-14, their first 20 games feature 10 teams who made the playoffs last season, including two games against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be hard-pressed to reach this season’s playoffs.
A good start, in a refurbished, upgraded arena, likely would build fan support — which is usually not as rabid as it is after football season — and further play into the Pelicans gaining momentum.
“Getting off to a good start is going to be big for us with a new group of guys and a whole new buzz around the Pelicans,” Roberts said.
And it appears the Pelicans have the roster not only to do that but have a season that could end with the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2011.
Aside from all the talent added, second-year power forward Anthony Davis appears poised for a breakout season. He is now a more capable scorer, featuring a consistent jump shot not seen in his rookie season, and a wiser defender.
And it is a team as close to being in the image of Williams, a defensive guru, as any he has had in his previous four seasons with the team. His philosophy is one of aggressive, consistently effective defense, which leads to easier scoring opportunities more often.
“We are athletic from top to bottom, and I think it makes us a little faster, a little quicker on our closeouts, being able to press a little more,” said small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who is known for his defense. “It’s just the little things like that that can make a difference between two and three baskets. We have a lot of length on our back line and even on our front line. We could really be explosive on defense.”
Williams said that for the first time since Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, Jrue Holiday gives the Pelicans a point guard who can pressure ball-handlers well.
Holiday said he can’t wait to see the team’s defense, with Aminu and lengthy Anthony Davis at the forwards, when he pressures the ball.
“They have already shown that they can get into the passing lanes and make steals,” he said.
The deeper, more athletic lineup also gives Williams more options as far as matchups and strategies, such as smaller lineups.
And that’s where the fun starts. Turnovers lead to lobs and dunks, feeding into a team’s momentum. At home games, that gets the crowd involved, magnifying the effect.
And this remade Pelicans team also has improved shooting, with the addition of Anthony Morrow, a 42 percent career 3-point shooter, to go with Ryan Anderson, who finished second last season in 3-pointers made. Holiday, Roberts and Eric Gordon also are capable 3-point shooters.
In the preseason, the Pelicans shot 44.8 percent on 3-point attempts.
“We expect to shoot well (on 3-pointers),” Williams said. “We have a lot of guys who can shoot.”
Three-pointers on the fast break can be most exciting. More important, it can be very difficult to defend. Morrow, who began his career with a hot-shooting Golden State Warriors team, has seen the effect up close.
“In my opinion, it’s probably the best 3-pointer, just statistically being able to walk into it,” Morrow said. “The crowd’s into it, especially when you’re at home. When you have your guys on offense running down, they have an advantage on the offensive glass in case you miss.
“In terms of momentum, it’s one of my favorite 3s to make.”
It can also make no lead safe for opponents and let the Pelicans close out teams late, which New Orleans had trouble doing last season. That could equate to more wins.
However, the best thing about this team is its depth. Last season, injuries compromised a lineup already thin in talent. The bench of small forward Tyreke Evans, guards Roberts, Morrow and Austin Rivers, power forward Anderson and centers Greg Stiemsma and Arinze Onuaku has been noticeably upgraded from last season. That should lead to fewer low-scoring quarters that killed the team’s chances to win last season.
“We look at it like we come at teams in waves, with that first group able to start us off well,” Roberts said. “And that second group, we’ve got a lot of talented guys on the bench.”
The guards, which include starters Holiday and Eric Gordon, head the firepower, Morrow said.
“They all can get to the basket, which opens up things for everybody,” he said.
The big question mark with this team, however, is whether it will be able to rebound well enough to contend, particularly in the Southwestern Division, where San Antonio and Memphis have big front lines and Houston has the best rebounder in the league in center Dwight Howard.
Starting center Jason Smith has shown he can rebound in limited minutes off the bench, but he is unproven as a starter playing extended minutes. Meanwhile, Stiemsma didn’t prove in preseason play that he is up to the task. Asked if the Pelicans can be a competitive rebounding team this season, Williams said he didn’t know, and that it will take a collective effort to get it done.
“We don’t have a number of guys who can just flat out rebound, outside of Ryan and AD,” Williams said. “Those two can. (Aminu) is good from his position, maybe one of the best. I think for us to be a good team, our guards have to rebound. If Eric (Gordon) and Jrue can get three, four, five a game, that helps our team out. So we’ll see.
“The key for us is keeping teams out of the (lane). It’s hard to rebound when you’re giving up paint points.”
And it certainly would make it tough to win in the Southwest. Last season, three — San Antonio, Memphis and Houston — of the division’s five teams made the playoffs, with Dallas and New Orleans staying home. This season could see four go.
“Our division is a beast,” Williams said. “It’s like the NFC East used to be in football. …
“That’s not a knock on any other division. Around the league, there’s so much parity. In the West, for sure, there’s going to be a number of teams who are going to be thinking they can get one of those (playoff) spots.”