Pelicans aiming for return to NBA playoffs

The 2013-14 Phoenix Suns were the NBA’s biggest surprise, nearly doubling their win total from 25 to 48, despite being picked by many analysts to finish dead last in the Western Conference. The 2014-15 New Orleans Pelicans would love to make a Phoenix-like rise in the standings this winter, but given the competition in the West, that may not guarantee a playoff berth. After all, despite their stunning 23-win improvement, the Suns missed out on qualifying for the postseason, one game behind the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks (49-33).

That’s one reason why New Orleans GM Dell Demps said at Media Day on Monday that while reaching the playoffs is a goal for the Pelicans, it’s not necessarily an either-or gauge of the upcoming season’s success.

“We want to make the playoffs – there’s no doubt about that,” Demps said. “But I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘Hey, it’s a complete failure if we don’t.’ We think that the Western Conference is tough. We think that we have talent. It’s good to have expectations. We have some talented players on our team. But the key is going to be them becoming a team, gelling together and hopefully become that unit where we’re more than the sum of all of their individual talents.”

With a roster that features only two players over the age of 26 (John Salmons, 34; and Omer Asik, 28), New Orleans wants to take the first step toward becoming a perennial postseason threat. The Pelicans have several key components who have not yet reached the primes of their career, headlined by 21-year-old rising star Anthony Davis, as well as five-year veterans Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans.

“I think it’s important for us to have sustained success,” Demps said. “We don’t want to sacrifice everything just to make the playoffs this year. Obviously we want to make the playoffs (now) – there are no ifs, ands or buts about that. But I think the most important thing is that we become a good team and we grow. We don’t want to just make the playoffs, get there and get swept; we want to make sure we are a good basketball team, and that we gel and come together. The West is tough. We accept the opportunity to go compete against the best.”

In pursuit of its first playoff berth since 2011, New Orleans made its biggest offseason splash by acquiring 7-foot center Omer Asik in a trade with Houston. Despite the interior presence of Davis – who led the NBA in individual shot-blocking last season and was 10th in rebounding – the Pelicans finished 27th (of 30 teams) in defensive efficiency and 17th in rebounding margin. New Orleans also suffered through an injury-ravaged campaign in which Holiday and Ryan Anderson combined to miss over 100 games. Davis, Evans and Eric Gordon all were sidelined 10-plus games by injury.

“There are a number of things that have to happen (to reach the playoffs),” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “One is health, for sure. We’ve just got to play consistently better and get better at those areas we weren’t as good last year. Our defense was down, by the numbers. We got better as the year wore on, but there are a number of things that need to happen to be a playoff team. Just having guys healthy, to me, is like a free-agent signing.”

Demps: “We felt like we had to be a better defensive team and a better rebounding team. That’s one of the reasons we acquired Omer Asik. We think he’ll partner up well with Anthony and Ryan and our other bigs. We think we’ll have a very good frontcourt. We think we have some dynamic backcourt players. But it’s going to be important for them to play together, defend and rebound.”

Asked whether there is pressure on New Orleans to win now after a short-handed club went 34-48 last season, Demps said the Pelicans are embracing the chance to compete against the West’s difficult competition. Like with the 2013-14 Suns, analysts are not projecting big things from the Pelicans. For example, ESPN.com’s Summer Forecast tabs New Orleans to finish 10th in the West. Bleacher Report picks the Pelicans 11th.

“If you don’t want the pressure, you shouldn’t be in this business,” Demps said. “We’re trying to put together a group here that can compete and win basketball games. People say that (pressure’s) a negative; I think it’s a positive. I’m a glass-half-full type of guy. I’m looking forward to this opportunity. “We all want to win. We wanted to win last year and we wanted to win the year before that, but it’s a process. We’ll see. We’re going to put this group together; I think they have a lot to prove. The West is tough – there are going to be some good teams in the West that don’t make the playoffs, but we want to be one of the teams that do.”