The NBA’s Fastest Team Races to Keep Its Star Player
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Can the speedy New Orleans Pelicans lock down their big man?
By Matt Foley and Sean Culligan
Anthony Davis is goading Clint Capela toward the middle of the paint. For a moment, Capela feels the opening, his eyes wide, readying for a rim-rattling dunk. But as the Houston Rockets center prepares to leave the floor, Davis’ long arms swat the ball upcourt.
Six seconds later, Davis flushes a pass from Jrue Holiday through the hoop. It’s one of a number of split-second plays that the New Orleans Pelicans All-Star both starts and finishes in this 131-112 rout on opening night, as the Pelicans unleash their high-octane brand of basketball on the NBA. And it’s not just Davis leading the charge. New Orleans’ other über-skilled big man with a guard’s mindset, Nikola Mirotic, drained six quick catch-and-shoot 3-pointers en route to a 30-point night, while guards Holiday, E’Twaun Moore and Elfrid Payton pushed the pace. Rockets fans expecting to see a revamped title contender left the Toyota Center with fears that a new pacesetter may replace Houston near the top of the Western Conference.
During the 2017–18 season, the New Orleans Pelicans averaged 102.7 possessions per 48 minutes — the fastest in the NBA.
This year, the Pelicans are playing even faster. Why? Because they have to.
With Davis in his seventh season, his team’s anxiety surrounding his looming unrestricted free agency in 2021 is mounting. There’s a growing sense around the league that, unlike many modern NBA superstars, Davis is looking for reasons to stay with the franchise that drafted him. Still, there comes a time when a top five player grows more comfortable with the idea of changing his scenery. By enlisting the services of Klutch Sports Group — the agency that represents LeBron James, among others — Davis has signaled that the time is now. New Orleans knows building a sustainable contender is key in keeping its star player in the bayou. The team has long been capable defensively, but now it boasts the brand of fast-paced, efficient offense dictating the modern game. So far, it’s working.
“We made great strides last season,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said in Las Vegas this summer. After finishing sixth in the West, New Orleans shockingly swept Portland in the first round of the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors handled the Pelicans in the second round. Still, “we felt like we established an identity,” says Gentry. “We’re going to defend and we’re going to play fast.”
This time last year, Davis was paired with another stellar big man, DeMarcus Cousins. With two All-Stars in the frontcourt, New Orleans was scary, but there was a looming sense that theirs was an outdated style of basketball. Then, in late January, Cousins went down with a torn Achilles. Rather than slumping, New Orleans picked up the pace. The Pelicans averaged nearly 105 possessions per 48 minutes without Cousins, finishing with that league-leading figure of 102.7. Rather than combating a small-ball league with a bruising frontcourt, Gentry found a way to maintain his team’s toughness while also spreading out the floor.
That trend has continued. After losing Cousins and point guard Rajon Rondo to free agency, the Pelicans added young yet experienced replacements in Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton. The Pelicans are averaging a whopping 107.5 possessions per 48 minutes. Davis has seemingly realized his superpowers, and a total of five Pelicans are scoring in double figures.
Still, with the pace at an all-time high, New Orleans ranks just 15th in the league at 12-12. According to Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch, playing fast fits this roster — but it’s also a necessity in the modern NBA. “It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not this early in the season,” says Finch. “But, I’ve always thought that you should play with pace. It leads to efficient shots. Whether that happens in six seconds or 20 seconds doesn’t matter.”
So far, it has mattered. NBA teams are averaging 112.1 points per game this season, up from 106.3 last year and the highest average since 1971. New Orleans (117.8) is second in the league in points per game, with no team under 100. Fans of exciting basketball can thank a crop of coaches who have learned to give their supremely gifted players freedom. “The best thing a coach can do is implement a structure and then get out of the way,” says Finch. With athletic big men capable of running the floor and creating offense, and guards keen on sharing the ball, defensive rebounds turn into drained 3-pointers in six seconds or less.
“What’s cool is today’s players are embracing playing this way,” says Finch. “Basketball is morphing back to positionless basketball — the way it was originally created.”
So, is that freedom enough to keep Davis in New Orleans? The Pelicans’ hot start will eventually cool, and the team projects to finish somewhere between third and sixth in the Western Conference. They’ll be hard-pressed to reach the conference finals, and Davis surely realizes how moving to a larger market could benefit his brand. Still, continued progress — and the promise of a $240 million maximum contract — could convince the soft-spoken superstar to stay.
One thing’s for sure: New Orleans had better keep pushing the pace.