Team chemistry a major factor behind Pelicans exceeding expectations during best season since 2008

by Jim Eichenhofer

Teams near the top of the NBA now seem to be engaged in an arms race each summer, always seeking to add bigger and flashier names to their roster, sometimes believing that alone will equate to desired results. As basketball fans saw in so many instances during the 2017-18 season, however, piling stars upon stars doesn’t always work. Sometimes teams with less on-paper talent and more effective complementary pieces can achieve greater things than their more-hyped, more-celebrated counterparts.

Two cases in point: the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz. While Western Conference rival Oklahoma City was universally applauded in the offseason for stunningly adding two high-scoring, star players to Russell Westbrook – but then ultimately made zero improvement – New Orleans subtracted All-Star big DeMarcus Cousins due to an in-season injury, then compiled its best season in a decade. Utah lost prized free agent and leading scorer Gordon Hayward to Boston last July, yet still made it to the second round, despite various key injuries.

How did the Pelicans and Jazz do it? They were greater than the sum of their parts. Sure, there was significant talent on both rosters, but they managed to surpass expectations, after being projected by many to not even qualify for the playoffs. Instead, they reached Round 2 of the postseason, playing into the second week of May, while more celebrated squads such as OKC and San Antonio had already been eliminated.

New Orleans could’ve easily folded when it dropped to 28-26 not long after Cousins’ Achilles injury, but as Alvin Gentry put it Tuesday, the Pelicans reinvented themselves, in a situation where they essentially had no other choice. The result was a 20-8 surge that lifted them into the playoffs. New Orleans followed that up with a first-round sweep over third-seeded Portland, another West team that entered ’17-18 with higher outside expectations, and had been a superior squad to NOLA in the recent past.

“We’ve been a team that’s suffered a lot of adversity,” Gentry said following the Pelicans’ season-ending Game 5 loss at Golden State. “We always seemed to play ourselves out of it.”

It’s infinitely easier for an NBA team to combat difficult stretches when its roster develops a close bond off the court and is comprised of unselfish leaders, something that was personified by the approach of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo. That team-first mentality coursed through the locker room, and showed up on the court in the form of numerous high-assist games and ball movement that gave every Pelican a chance to succeed. Rondo’s floor vision and pass-first game helped Davis and Holiday enjoy the best results of their NBA career, both individually and team-wise. A handful of other Pelicans described ’17-18 as the most fun they’ve had in pro basketball, the most rewarding season they’ve experienced – or both. Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller were never heavily relied upon by their previous NBA teams to fill a critical role, but the Pelicans received career years from all three, with Mirotic and Moore fitting perfectly at the forward spots in a revamped starting five, and Miller providing valuable punch off the bench as a dangerous three-point shooter.

On paper, New Orleans leaned heavily on a cast of unproven players beyond Davis, Holiday and Rondo, but still managed to outplay several more heralded West teams and produce their best basketball in the spring, including a nine-game winning streak that bridged the regular season and playoffs. The formula was simple: Play together and maximize everyone’s strengths. In an era when numbers and a “fantasy basketball” mindset often dominate the conversation surrounding the NBA and its teams, the Pelicans disproved the notion that they weren’t good enough to ascend to a level greater than just being happy to make the postseason.

To Rondo, part of the explanation for why New Orleans managed to accomplish what others said wasn’t possible boiled down to a few things that can’t be measured, such as a team’s cohesiveness – how well it plays as a group. It’s a process that can take years for teams to perfect, but to the Pelicans’ credit, they drew high marks in that category, despite only having months, not multiple years, to become a tight unit.

“It was part of being a team, sacrificing, coming together, camaraderie, chemistry,” Rondo said as NOLA’s locker room emptied out in Oracle Arena on Tuesday. “That was a big part of our success. When you want the best thing for the next man beside you, it equals success.

“Chemistry I don’t think is valued as much in our league (as it should be) now, the way they break up teams that have been together for a long period of time. But as you see, the good teams like the Warriors have core guys who’ve been together for five or six years now. That’s why I think they’re pretty successful.”

It was a big reason why the Pelicans could say something similar about their ’17-18 season.