When the basketball calendar flipped to May, the New Orleans Pelicans were still playing, which was a milestone for the franchise and obviously Anthony Davis. He reached the playoffs for only the second time in his career and advanced to the semifinals for the first time. In the regular-season stretch run and the postseason, he showed what we’ve been deprived of seeing: A basketball force who elevated his own MVP-level game when it mattered most. The Pelicans displayed a breezy, wide-open style after center DeMarcus Cousins suffered a mid-season Achilles injury, a reinvention that worked. But Cousins and guard Rajon Rondo bailed as free agents this summer, which left New Orleans searching to plug those holes.
The Pelicans benefited from the Lakers' financial housecleaning, as New Orleans grabbed free-agent forward Julius Randle ... Jahlil Okafor, the former No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft, inked a free-agent deal, too ... Rondo was a big piece of the equation last season and his absence might be felt, at least initially … Elfrid Payton brings youth to the point guard spot but is still honing his jumper ... Young swingman Ian Clark re-signed after a career-best season in 2017-18 ...
1. Payton's (new) place. The Pelicans’ guards took Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to the woodshed in the first round when New Orleans swept Portland. With Rondo gone to the Lakers, the Pelicans could use a breakout season from Payton. But this environment is all new to Payton, who played for losing teams in Orlando and Phoenix.
2. Gotta keep getting stops. The Pelicans ranked 14th in Defensive Rating at 105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, which must improve if they hope to return to the playoffs, much less the Western Conference semis. Their best D consists of Davis bailing out beaten teammates. Problem is, this issue wasn’t addressed in the summer.
3. No rest for Niko. Forward Nikola Mirotic (15 points, 9.6 rebounds in the playoffs) was a welcome addition as the Pelicans acquired him from the Bulls in early February. He supplied stretch offense, ran the floor well and was a presence on the glass. Of course, he’ll now be asked to do that for a full season in New Orleans.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Can Okafor save his career? That question shouldn’t even be asked of a former No. 3 pick who’s only 22, but here we are, after he crashed and burned in Philly and then Brooklyn. Okafor played only 28 games last year. He was knocked for maturity and defensive issues and fell out of favor with teams that were starved for talent, which is a red flag. Not surprisingly, he got a chilly reception on the open market this summer before the Pelicans threw him a life preserver. He’s a big guy with decent offensive skills. He’d better seize the chance or his next stop will be China.
Anthony Davis | 28.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg
A certified top-five player and Kia MVP candidate who has remained healthy the last two seasons.
Jrue Holiday | 19.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6 apg
Will handle the ball more with Rondo gone and was superb in the playoffs.
E’Twaun Moore | 12.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
Designated 3-point shooter (42.5 percent) is coming off his career-best season.
Julius Randle | 16.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 0.5 bpg
Developing 23-year-old will be asked to play some center ... is he undersized there at 6-foot-9?
Nikola Mirotic| 14.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.4 apg
A solid stretch four brings some underrated rebounding desire, too.
Elfrid Payton | 12.7 ppg, 6.2 apg, 4.3 rpg
He’ll get a chance in New Orleans to prove his worth after stagnating in Orlando and Phoenix.
Solomon Hill | 2.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.8 apg
A disappointment so far at $12 million per year. He must stay healthy and find a role.
Ian Clark | 7.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.5 apg
Had moments in the playoffs, but the Pelicans are still waiting on a breakout season from him.
Are the Pelicans firmly in the second tier of solid teams in the West? It appears so. Even with the defections of Cousins and Rondo, this team appears to have found its personality. Yes, there are questions about Randle and Payton and whether Moore can take the next step, but the blueprint has been laid with stretch shooting. Above all, Davis should be enough to help them go 47-35 and maybe on another trip to May. He’s that good -- and he could be in line for his first Kia MVP. It’s his turn.