New Orleans general manager Dell Demps has exhibited an unquestioned patience. Following the trade of Chris Paul and losing David West to free agency, the once-competitive franchise was forced to begin from scratch, initially avoiding potential relocation when Saints owner Tom Benson purchased the team, and then attempting to move forward with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012.
Anthony Davis has continued to develop and Demps has placed even more young talent around the defensive menace. The former Hornets and now Pelicans have waited for a year like this, to not only be competitive but successful.
New Orleans enters this season as a potential playoff team or at least a team that will be fun to watch.
The Pelicans should begin providing hints about their future as a contender for the rest of the Western Conference to see.
There’s Davis, a potential Defensive Player of the Year, a healthy Eric Gordon, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, 3-point specialist Ryan Anderson, staunch defender Al-Farouq Aminu, and finally improving Austin Rivers, the son of Doc Rivers.
The Pelicans don’t have a player older than 28 on their roster — and one of those 28-year-olds is third-year center Greg Stiemsma. They are depending on a few youngsters who have been in the league since age 19, such as Holiday, Evans, and Gordon, to lead.
“When we put the group together, that was something that was important to us; of course we have a lot of young guys but we also have guys with experience,” said Demps, a standout player at University of the Pacific. “Look at Jrue Holiday going into his fifth year, Eric Gordon going into his sixth year, Ryan Anderson sixth year. We have guys that are young but yet experienced. I think that’s a sign of the new NBA where guys come into the league younger now. What I am hoping is these guys kind of are through the learning curve and understand the league now and take that next step.”
Davis is the cornerstone of the franchise. A lanky 6 feet 11 inches, he is one of the rare young big men who thrives on defense. The last one to come through the draft with as much splash was Dwight Howard. The Pelicans want Davis to be their force in the paint but he also has to stay healthy and gain muscle to deal with the nightly pounding.
“He’s really committed to getting better, which is exciting,” Demps said. “It’s fun watching the development and the commitment that he has made in the offseason and we’re seeing the dividends in training camp.”
Gordon is only 24 but there may not be a more overlooked player in the league because of his injuries. Out of a possible 328 games the past four seasons, he has played in 169, including just 51 the last two seasons because of knee issues.
He has been declared healthy and will be ready for the season opener, but there is a still level of mystery as to whether he can become the impact player he was expected to be before the injuries. In his final season with the Clippers in 2010-11, Gordon averaged 22.3 points at age 22.
“We’re bringing him along slowly because we don’t want to throw him out to the fire,” Demps said. “We’re ramping him up and getting him ready to play. I think the sky’s the limit for him. Obviously, he can score. He’s been scoring his whole life. I think he’s an underrated defender and can facilitate. He’s one of our better passers. I think he brings an element that’s hard to stop.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him on the court and playing with the other guys and meshing together.”
The problem in New Orleans is the Southwest Division, where they will understandably be picked last by prognosticators. Would you pick the Pelicans over the Mavericks, Spurs, Grizzlies, or Rockets?
“It’s like the SEC in [college] football,” Demps said. “We understand what division we’re in and we accept the challenge. Every night there’s going to be a fight. We’re going to really understand how good we are by playing against these teams. Sixteen of those 82 games will be against those teams.”
There appears to be a comfort level in the organization with Monty Williams, the Doc Rivers disciple who is considered one of the league’s bright young coaches. He has spent the last two seasons playing mentor and big brother, teaching and instructing.
“It’s been interesting during the first three years, the first year we had an experienced, veteran team, he put them in good spots and coached to their strengths,” Demps said. “The next two years we had a lot of younger players that were trying to find their way. Now we’re hoping that with the teaching in the second and third year, we’ll get the fruits of our labors. He was patient and he was teaching guys. It’s hard to win in the NBA when you have young guys.”
Demps is banking that his young guys are no longer young in terms of adapting to the NBA game, and this season the Big Easy fans can view the winter and spring as NBA season instead of the Saints’ offseason.
“We want to be good for a while and putting this team together, we’re hoping they grow together and they establish an identity,” he said. “These guys haven’t had the ultimate success but they taste that they’re close and hopefully they can do it together. It will be fun to watch. We’re excited to see where we stand.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
Celtics search for right mix
The Celtics have dropped five of six preseason games as coach Brad Stevens continues to mix and match rotations, and Rajon Rondo continues to recover from right anterior cruciate ligament surgery. But inside the organization, including president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, there is uncertainty about how the team will fare this season.
The Celtics do not have a legitimate point guard with NBA experience, meaning they will have to rely on rookie Phil Pressey and third-year player Avery Bradley early in the season. There is no legitimate center, and a logjam at power forward. Strangely enough, however, the Celtics could compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference given teams such as Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, and Toronto are improved but not proven.
“I honestly don’t know what my expectations are until I see this team play together,” said Ainge. “We have a brand new coaching staff that’s never worked together. I’m excited about it. I expect those guys to play hard every game and we’ll figure it out as the year goes on.
“Our minute distribution is going to be a challenge for Coach Stevens. We have logjams at certain positions. But this is a time of year where there’s not a lot of deals made to fix that. We tried to make the roster more balanced, but we like each of the players. There’s not enough minutes to go around to keep everybody fed.”
Ainge is banking on building through the draft, trades, and free agency. Only four current Celtics — Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and Vitor Faverani — are signed for 2015-16. The team will have potential salary-cap space for two maximum contracts, as well as nine first-round picks over the next five years.
Tanking would be an interesting but likely futile exercise considering several teams, including Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Charlotte, Sacramento, and Milwaukee, are in the same rebuilding boat, and some in even deeper waters. With two first-round picks next season — theirs and Brooklyn’s — the Celtics will get two solid additions if they keep the selections. But the postseason is a goal for this roster.
“My goal is for this to be a playoff team,” forward Kris Humphries said. “I know you guys will write whatever you want to write and think what you want to think, but we’re out there to compete and make the playoffs. If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think there’s a reason to be here.”
Lee believes that since the Celtics lost Doc Rivers, and traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets, it could provide opportunities for players looking to flourish.
“[The fans’] expectations are still high,” he said. “They still expect us to go out there and compete and that’s the one thing we can do is always give effort. They still expect us to win games and go to the playoffs. We can’t let the fans down. We have to go out there and perform.”
The expectations are tempered with the players. Wallace was acquired by the Nets to become part of a championship club, but they were eliminated in the first round of last season’s playoffs by the hobbling Bulls. Wallace was traded to the Celtics and now must deal with the mental adjustment of just trying to help a team develop.
“It’s very hard; at 13 years in you never want to go to a team that’s starting to rebuild and reprocess — your main focus is getting to somewhere where you can end your career on a championship note,” he said. “At the same point, I’m here. I’m happy to be here, and I’m going to enjoy being here.
“Like I told the guys, if we can improve, a championship is what I would want, what I would want to go out with, but I’ve never won a championship in my life, so my life isn’t based on championships. If I can come here and build with this team and improve with this team and get into playoff contention and push forward from there, then I’d be more happy than on a team that’s won a championship.”
Bogut begins new chapter
Andrew Bogut is quietly entering his ninth NBA season, having battled health issues the past two years that have limited him to 44 games. Bogut has recovered from ankle issues and that ugly dislocated elbow sustained in a collision with Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010.
Now expected to serve as a defensive and shot-blocking stalwart for the Warriors, Bogut has an established role and is trying to stay healthy and return to his previous form.
There has been constant pressure on Bogut since being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, taken ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
He showed signs of being a frontline center in Milwaukee, averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 2.5 blocked shots in 2009-10, then came the dislocated elbow sustained soaring for a breakaway dunk against the Suns.
It took a couple of seasons for Bogut’s elbow to completely heal and it affected his free throw shooting. He then battled chronic ankle issues that have just begun to allow him full mobility.
So this is an important season for Bogut, personally to prove he can play a full NBA season and also for the sake of the Warriors, who want to become one of the league’s elite teams.
“This is as good as I’ve felt since the ankle injury,” said Bogut. “I’ve dropped more weight. This is the lightest I’ve been since my rookie year, so I feel like I’m moving well out there. I feel like I’m smart enough to play with a little bit less weight now, being a veteran. I’m excited for the season, I think my longevity is going to be much, much better. I really have no ailments right now. My body feels great.”
The difference between Bogut in Milwaukee and Bogut in Golden State is he is no longer considered the franchise savior. The Warriors are loaded with young talent, including Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, along with veterans such as David Lee and Andre Iguodala.
“I know my role; I’m the third, fourth, or fifth option on this team,” Bogut said. “I’m fine with that. I’ll have nights where I’ll get touches and nights when I won’t. We have two of the best shooters in the league. We have guys in Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes that are aggressive getting to the basket. We have David Lee, who was an All-Star. So I have to pick my poison with the offense.
“Defensively, I’m in there for 10 rebounds a game and two blocks a game and that’s my focus. We’re as good as our defense is, and I’m a big part of that. So, if we could keep points out of the paint, grab those rebounds, block shots, I think we’ve got a chance to win games.”
The Rookie of the Year race took a hit last week when Portland’s C.J. McCollum and Utah’s Trey Burke both were felled with injuries that will cost them a chunk of the regular season. McCollum, expected to be the Trail Blazers’ starting shooting guard, fractured his left foot and is expected to miss at least six weeks. Burke broke his right index finger and is expected to miss at least a month. That leaves players such as Orlando’s Victor Oladipo, Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams, and the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk as front-runners . . . An intriguing free agent who could help a playoff-caliber team is former UConn standout Richard Hamilton, who was not re-signed by the Bulls. Hamilton has lost some steam from his best days with the Pistons but could be a solid scorer off the bench for a contending team . . . The Heat are hoping that Greg Oden’s left knee swelling, sustained in his first five-on-five practice, is just minor. Miami is slowly trying to work Oden into a role as a backup center but he hasn’t played in nearly four seasons because of numerous knee surgeries . . . Harvard coach Tommy Amaker will hold his annual coaches clinic on Oct. 27. The featured speaker will be former Nets and Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. Local high school and college basketball coaches are invited to attend. The cost for the session is $100 and interested coaches can contact Brian DeStafano at 617-495-3920 or firstname.lastname@example.org . . . The Spurs waived journeyman Corey Maggette and he has indicated he would retire if he didn’t make the club. Maggette left Duke after his freshman season and although he played parts of 14 years and was a solid player he never made an All-Star team and was more known for putting up big numbers for bad Clippers teams.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.