Less than 24 hours after the 2016-17 regular season concluded with a New Orleans win at Portland, Dell Demps and Alvin Gentry made clear one of the Pelicans’ biggest offseason objectives: Re-signing Jrue Holiday. The eight-year NBA guard and one-time All-Star, who will officially become an unrestricted free agent Friday at 11 p.m. (Central time) for the first time in his career, is among three veterans on the New Orleans roster who can sign with any club this summer, joining frontcourt role players Dante Cunningham and Donatas Motiejunas.
“He is our priority, make no mistake about it,” Gentry said.
New Orleans’ offseason moves will likely swing greatly upon Holiday’s status, because his return or exit will dictate much of the other free-agency decisions the Pelicans will be able to make.
Early last season, the Pelicans struggled without Holiday, starting the campaign 2-10 prior to him making his debut Nov. 18 in a win over Portland. The Pelicans immediately reeled off a four-game winning streak, also beating Charlotte, Atlanta and Minnesota. Overall, New Orleans finished 32-35 in the 67 games Holiday played, but just 2-13 when he did not.
Meanwhile, Cunningham declined his player option this spring, becoming a free agent for the first time since he re-signed with the Pelicans in July 2015. The combo forward was an integral piece to New Orleans’ last playoff team in ’15 and has been a valued defender throughout his Crescent City tenure. Motiejunas finds himself a free agent for the second straight summer; his complicated situation a year ago eventually resulted in an in-season signing with the Pelicans, but not until Jan. 3.
Regardless of how often-unpredictable NBA free agency and this summer play out for New Orleans, there are a few areas where the Pelicans hope to improve upon their performance from last season:
Based on the game’s rapidly changing emphasis on the three-pointer, nearly every NBA team can legitimately call this an offseason need, but it’s a particularly acute one for the Pelicans, partly because they now boast a pair of All-Star bigs who command defensive attention.
“I think we have to be able to shoot the ball consistently, because obviously those guys are going to be able to create double-team situations,” Gentry said of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. “When that happens, obviously you’re going to have to be able to alleviate the double-teams and knock down shots. And not just from three, but also from the perimeter.”
New Orleans finished slightly above average in three-pointers made last season (9.4 per game), but that figure was boosted a bit by taking the 13th-most treys (26.8 per game). The Pelicans were just No. 19 in the league in percentage (35.0) from beyond the arc. A reliance on the three-ball is changing the way the game is played, making it more important than ever to have a stable of players who can connect from long range.
As expected, this category improved following the addition of Cousins in February, but the Pelicans still finished second-to-last in the NBA last season in rebounding margin, with opponents grabbing 4.6 more boards per game (Dallas was the only team worse, at minus 5.9 rebounds per game). It’s very unlikely New Orleans will finish close to the bottom of the league again in this category, because Davis (11.8 rpg) and Cousins (11.0 rpg) are both top-10 rebounders in the NBA, but it’s still an area teamwide that needs to get better.
A portion of the Pelicans’ low ranking last season in offensive rebounds (8.6 per game, again 29th in the league, again ahead of only Dallas) can be attributed to an emphasis on transition defense – as opposed to crashing the O-boards and thus being more vulnerable to opponent fast breaks. But New Orleans was only middle-of-the-pack in allowing transition points, ranking just 16th (gave up 13.6 per game).
It’s often difficult to measure, but after a rough initial adjustment period following the Cousins trade – New Orleans was just 2-6 coming out of the All-Star break – the Pelicans’ on-floor chemistry and cohesiveness seemed to dramatically improve. Now the challenge is to build upon a 10-6 March, which included an 8-3 stretch to close that month (New Orleans was only 1-5 in April, but played the bulk of those games without Davis and Cousins).
“When we first made the trade, you could see that there were some tough stretches at the beginning,” Demps said in his April 13 season wrap-up press conference. “But then, they started to figure it out. We made a couple tweaks, a couple adjustments, and then we were playing at a really good level. I just wish we would’ve had more games.
“I think we have to get creative (this offseason). I think we’re going to have to make some tough decisions, some hard decisions, but we want to do that. We’re going to have to get creative. Putting the right mix around (Davis and Cousins) is going to be important.”