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Pelicans look to improve combinations surrounding franchise player

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

If there were any doubts remaining that 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis is the focal point and centerpiece of the New Orleans Pelicans’ long-term plans, those were obliterated during the second half of 2013-14, when the first-time All-Star went on an All-NBA tear. The second-year pro delivered some of the most dominant performances in team history, cementing himself as the Pelicans’ best player and making observers around the league wonder if he’ll soon be a bona fide NBA superstar.

Davis’ status as franchise player is now clear. What’s less certain for the Pelicans – and something they’ll tackle in earnest this summer – is how to best surround the 21-year-old with the talent and combination of players to emerge as a dangerous squad in the fiercely-competitive Western Conference.

During his season-ending press conference Thursday, New Orleans Coach Monty Williams compared the Pelicans’ current perspective to his time in the San Antonio organization, when the Spurs annually debated how best to complement future Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan.

“We had the same thing in San Antonio,” Williams said. “Everyone had the same goal: We were trying to put the best team around Tim Duncan possible, so that we could maximize who we thought at the time was maybe the best power forward in the history of the game. We’re in that mode right now. Who can we put around Anthony Davis to maximize this opportunity we have, with who we think is a top-five, elite player in the NBA?”

Some of the excitement entering the inaugural Pelicans season focused on the team’s explosive five-man unit of Davis, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday, but while leading injury-riddled New Orleans (34-48) in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals, Davis crystallized the pecking order. Williams has emphasized that the other Pelicans recognize that Davis is Option 1A.

“We’re playing through AD (on offense), and so everybody’s going to have to adjust to that,” Williams said. “I’ve made that known for the last few months. He’s going to be the guy we play through. We have an anchor that we can play through, an All-Star, a guy that commands double teams, a guy that puts pressure on teams in transition, can handle the ball, shoot the ball. That should make everyone else’s jobs easier. He’s proven that he can carry a team. To be able to do that at the age of 21, that’s astounding in my book.”

Even with Davis averaging a league-leading 2.82 blocks per game, the Pelicans finished just 27th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, allowing 110.1 points per 100 possessions. Williams indicated that it’s important for New Orleans to provide Davis with a sidekick in the paint, able to ease the burden on Davis and allow the All-Star more room to operate. While Davis’ shot-blocking numbers were impressive, some of his opportunities to swat came from the Pelicans playing poor defense against penetration. That problem was exacerbated when high-level defender Holiday was sidelined in January and missed the rest of 2013-14.

Williams specifically mentioned a February two-game road trip in which New Orleans was dominated by Charlotte and Washington on the interior.

“Al Jefferson goes for (33 points),” Williams said of a Feb. 21 loss to the Bobcats. “The next day, Nene goes for big numbers (30 points, seven rebounds). Those are tough games to swallow, because you’d like to have somebody in the middle on a night-in and night-out basis, so that you don’t have to help as much on defense. The best defensive teams are ones that have a guy at the center position who can hold his own.”

A center with the ability to score would also help Davis, because it wouldn’t allow opponents to consistently throw double- and triple-teams at him.

“That (center) has to be able to play both ends of the floor,” Williams said. “So that AD can go at some of these power forwards (one-on-one, instead of having to score against multiple defenders).”

Although the team’s “Big Five” headed by Davis showed promise in its 12-game run together from Nov. 16-Jan. 3, the group still needs tweaking and to improve significantly on the defensive end, according to Williams. It’s another area the Pelicans will try to address in the offseason.

“If you look at the numbers with those guys defensively, it’s not a five that’s going to get it done consistently,” Williams said. “But it is a five that can cause a lot of trouble for other teams. To be honest with you, the sample size with those five guys is really too small to evaluate. Those guys are lethal on one end of the floor, but we have to be better on both ends. That to me is where our improvement has to grow this summer.”