The buzz has been building since draft night, when the New Orleans Pelicans acquired point guard Jrue Holiday in a trade with Philadelphia.
It continued with the acquisition of guard Tyreke Evans and rookie center Jeff Withey in a three-team trade with Sacramento and Portland. Then came the free-agent signings of center Greg Stiemsma and guard Anthony Morrow as General Manager Dell Demps totally reshaped his team.
Several weeks of workouts and pickup games have the players saying they may have something special here. Next, Coach Monty Williams and his staff begin in earnest molding all of those new pieces into what is expected to be a team that will contend for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
Training camp begins Tuesday, and the preseason opener is Saturday at Houston. The regular season opens Oct. 30 vs. Indiana in the New Orleans Arena.
“Obviously, there is much work to be done, but we’re excited,” Demps said earlier this offseason. “We feel we have a good group of young players who can take us to the next level and give us something to continue building toward.”
But there will be challenges, and time is of the essence. Cohesion is the main objective for a team that likely will have five new players in its top eight.
For now, the starting five appears to be Holiday and Eric Gordon at guard, Evans at small forward, budding star Anthony Davis at power forward and Stiemsma at center. That leaves sharpshooting forward Ryan Anderson and Morrow coming off the bench, perhaps with second-year guard Austin Rivers or small forward Al-Farouq Aminu.
Williams was texting plays to Demps as soon as the team added Holiday, the GM said. Now it’s time to begin putting together an offense that is expected to feature Holiday driving to the basket, running the pick-and-roll and opening up shots for teammates. Williams also said he wants to push the pace.
Still, having more scorers means more players will desire the ball. That’s where the new offensive system — with all of its expected intricacies — comes in.
Actually, that may be the easier part. Defense — Williams’ staple — could be another matter, even though the team is more athletic.
“Last year, we felt we had veteran players, and we just assumed as a staff that they knew certain things,” Williams said. “We had to go back and do a lot of teaching.”
That mistake will not be made in this training camp, which — considering the new faces, the team’s potential and Williams’ high standards — likely will be the toughest many of the players have experienced.
“It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of hard work,” Williams said.
He has plenty to work with.
Holiday has showed he can control a game on defense with his on-ball pressure. Davis is an excellent shot-blocker and rim protector. Gordon showed he is a good on-ball defender. Stiemsma is a physical defender, and Withey was a standout shot-blocker in college at Kansas.
Although the Pelicans’ lineup appears nearly set, how it turns out could have a residual effect on the rest of the lineup.
The big battle is expected at center between Stiemsma and Withey. Entering his third NBA season, Stiemsma is aiming to be a starter for the first time — and he has made that known.
“That’s the mindset I’ve got going into camp,” he said. “Somebody is going to have to take (the starting job) away from me.”
Withey left Kansas as the Big 12 Conference’s career leader in blocks. If he beats out Stiemsma, that could give the Pelicans an effective trio in the middle — with center/power forward Jason Smith joining them — that could prove key in the franchise’s goal of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Shooting guard could become a battle ground, too. Gordon has a history of injuries and, with his $14 million annual salary, it seems all but certain that he will be traded. If Evans shows he is a good fit, that may hasten Gordon’s departure — perhaps in a trade for a bona fide small forward. Williams has indicated he sees Evans as a shooting guard foremost.
“(But) I’m not hesitant to play him at small forward,” Williams said.
Backup point guard
Rivers, who was selected with the 10th pick in the 2012 draft, seems to be the likely choice as the backup point guard. But he struggled as a rookie before showing promise near the end of the season — and then he suffered an injury. He did play well in the Las Vegas summer league.
Then there’s Brian Roberts and rookie Pierre Jackson. Roberts is more of a combo guard, but he made strides last season as a point guard and is a good perimeter shooter. To make the team, he will have to hold off Jackson, who’s more of a pure point guard that creates for others and showed in college at Baylor that he is a lethal outside shooter.
Williams has said he will throw a wild card into the mix: Evans played point guard in college at Memphis and with the Kings, when he was chosen Rookie of the Year for the 2009-10 season.
This was considered New Orleans’ glaring weakness last season, and the Pelicans allowed starter Al-Farouq Aminu’s contract to expire. But when the team could not sign a top small forward, Aminu was re-signed.
Also in the mix are second-year player Darius Miller and Lance Thomas. Miller needs to improve defensively, and Thomas is a college power forward still learning how to be an NBA small forward.
Eleven roster spots appear all but secure. That leaves six players — Miller, Thomas, Roberts, Jackson, forward Lou Amundson and forward/center Arinze Onuaku — competing for one spot.