After the first eight games of the 2017-2018 NBA season, reading national storylines about the New Orleans Pelicans may seem like déjà vu for longtime fans of the team. Whether it be about the lack of wing players, the absence of surrounding talent around Anthony Davis, the overall inconsistency of the team, or nearly half the team being injured, many Pelicans fans may feel like they’ve seen this team before, like nothing has really changed since last season.
But something big has changed! And I’m not just talking about the integration of the unstoppable driving force that is DeMarcus Cousins. One big but slightly overlooked alteration to the roster compared to years past: the intangible poise brought in by the addition of NBA veterans.
I first thought about this after the Kings game, after which, without Jameer Nelson or someone like him, the Pelicans could have easily been winless at 0-5. He was picked up off the waiver wire to become a surprising sparkplug who was essentially one of the biggest reasons for the first two Pelicans wins.
But I’m not here to talk extensively about what Jameer Nelson has done for the team, especially since Locked on Pelicans writer Fernando Ritzman did just that in his article on Wednesday (check it out!). In addition to that, it’s also because it wasn’t just Jameer who won those games for the Pelicans. Over the years and through recent offseason additions, this roster has quietly become filled with not just basketball veterans, but also talented NBA vets who know how to keep composed and win games.
Now, after watching games against the Grizzlies, Magic, and Warriors where everything fell apart in the second half, such a statement about poised veterans could seem completely unbelievable or just plain false. But let’s look at how some things have changed:
Not counting the late-season, low-usage additions of Jarrett Jack (11 years) and Omri Casspi (7 years), those were the 6 players with the most NBA experience on the roster for this season and last season.
There’s an obvious difference with how the Pelicans front office approached the roster this season compared to last season and the years before it. Ever since Dell Demps became the general manager for the New Orleans franchise, his plan for the roster has usually been to try to acquire younger veterans with a lot of potential who could be developed together: Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Robin Lopez, E’Twaun Moore, and Solomon Hill, just to name a few. While a lot of roster spots went to other kinds of players, the core players usually fit the “young vet” role.
Seriously, go back through the years since Chris Paul left. Who was the best 10+ year veteran from that time until the end of last season? There are only four choices: John Salmons, Nate Robinson, Kendrick Perkins, and 2 games of Jarrett Jack. That’s four in six seasons compared to four on this season’s roster alone. Reducing the threshold to 8+ years only adds Chris Kaman, Melvin Ely, and Roger Mason to the mix, so that’s not much better.
Now, the number of years someone has played is somewhat arbitrary, but the type of experience they bring is definitely important. Thirteen years of James Jones sitting the bench certainly isn’t going to bring as much value as 10 years of Kevin Durant. However, it’s all still valuable. Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen won a championship together in Boston. Ian Clark comes into this season fresh off winning last year’s title with Golden State. Nelson and Josh Smith have yet to win a title, but both bring valuable regular season and playoff experience, and Nelson especially has shown he knows how to handle and win an NBA game.
Why all the old vets?
The Pelicans, if everything comes together the way the team wants it to, are ready to win. Pairing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in the frontcourt means that the Pelicans are a legitimate playoff contender, even in the stacked Western Conference. Furthermore, this season is Davis’s sixth in New Orleans and Jrue Holiday’s fifth in his ninth total year in the league. Cousins is in the final year of his contract and his eighth year in the league (after seven seasons without a playoff berth, the longest such streak among active players).
The “young vets” that general manager Dell Demps has been acquiring have grown up. And without a playoff berth this season, Demps and head coach Alvin Gentry could have their jobs in jeopardy. The Pelicans are in win-now mode, more so than they’ve ever been under the Pelicans moniker, and as their slogan says, their plan was to “Do It Big.”
Did this actually help the team?
With a 3-5 record after eight games, it’s totally understandable to be asking if anything has changed from seasons past, or if this team will actually be better than those that missed the playoffs. But things are different, and that will become more apparent as the season goes on and more players come back from injury. Rondo and Nelson are arguably the best point guards the team has had since the Chris Paul trade, and the only truly viable floor generals the team has had in a long time (sorry, Tim Frazier). The composed game management from Nelson has so far probably been the most tangible veteran asset that most fans can appreciate, but I did say at the start of this article that I wanted to focus on the intangibles!
Rajon Rondo’s injury was a huge blow to the team because of how it shifted the makeup of the depth chart, and especially because we saw a glimpse of what could’ve been in the first half of the first preseason game against the Bulls. But he’s still a strong veteran presence in the locker room and during games, often being seen on broadcasts talking to players and coaches, involved in plays even though he’s not able to actually be on the court yet.
Tony Allen is another example. The offseason signing of Allen was generally well-liked by fans not just because he’s a recognizable name as an NBA veteran, but also because of why his name is well-known. Dubbed “The Grindfather” in his days with the Grizzlies, he was a huge reason behind Memphis’s “Grit ‘n’ Grind” mantra, and he brings that mental toughness and smothering defensive mentality to the Pelicans. As of the Minnesota game on Nov. 1, it seems like the coaches finally trust him enough to get major minutes, which could end up proving to be a good decision for the team. The Pelicans probably don’t get as close as they did against the Timberwolves without Allen’s aggressive play in the 4th quarter.
Beyond what those individuals have been bringing to the team, it’s been interesting to watch how the team has been able to respond in different situations. In the games against the young Kings and younger Lakers, the Pelicans gave up huge runs and looked to be down and out. But for the first time in many years, I saw a New Orleans basketball team persevere, lock down on defense, tighten up on offense, and secure a victory. Twice!
The Lakers and Kings certainly aren’t the best tests of strength and will most likely finish near the bottom of the standings at the end of the season, but that’s twice that this new, veteran team has overcome significant adversity to close out a game strong and pull out a win. That’s more encouraging than any other trend I’ve seen this season, because that’s the kind of experience that will help win games, especially playoff games.
The team is 3-5. If you want to be mad about that, then there are certainly many valid reasons to do so. The team has played inconsistently at times and frustrated many fans including myself. But it’s important to remember that as much as the Pelicans may act like the ever-frustrating previous teams from New Orleans, the 2017-2018 roster is much smarter and more experienced than before. They’ve shown as much in a few games so far this season, and as players come back from injury, it should become more apparent how successful this team can be by the end of the season.
Agree? Disagree? Think I’m reaching for positives in what you think to be a disappointing season so far? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!