Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press
The 2015-16 season wasn't an unmitigated disaster for the New Orleans Pelicans, but little else could've gone wrong for the team. Following that disappointing campaign, the Pelicans are in a great position to rebound in 2016-17.
Below is a look at the Pelicans' most interesting matchups ahead in the new season and a prediction for how the year will unfold.
Season Opener: vs. Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 8 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: 50-1 (via Odds Shark)
Having a healthy Anthony Davis will go a long way toward getting New Orleans back to the playoffs. Davis missed 20 games, and the team eventually shut him down for the year in March.
Injuries in general killed the Pelicans. According to Basketball-Reference.com, head coach Alvin Gentry used 21 players, including Orlando Johnson, Jimmer Fredette and Nate Robinson.
Of course, the team's misfortune came with a silver lining. Falling into the lottery meant the Pelicans were in a position to select Buddy Hield in the first round of the NBA draft. Hield averaged 25 points a game and shot 45.7 percent from three-point range in his senior year with the Oklahoma Sooners.
His scoring is exactly what New Orleans needed to add in the offseason, especially after losing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson in the offseason.
Everything hinges on the health of Davis, which isn't exactly comforting, since he hasn't played 70 games in a single season in his NBA career. As long as the MVP contender overcomes that 70-game threshold, the Pelicans should secure a top-eight seed in the Western Conference.
First Home Matchup: Friday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
First Away Matchup: Thursday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. ETBill Baptist/Getty Images
When New Orleans meets the Houston Rockets, the scoreboard operators are going to be working overtime.
According to NBA.com, the Pelicans finished 28th last year in defensive rating, allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets, meanwhile, are coached by Mike D'Antoni, to whom defense was anathema during his stints with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
Beyond just the aesthetic pleasure that will come from Houston and New Orleans' head-to-head clashes, these games could have playoff implications.
Hiring D'Antoni was either crazy enough to work or just plain crazy. He could be just the guy to get the most out of James Harden, and his uptempo style could compensate for Dwight Howard's departure. Or the Rockets take another step backward under D'Antoni, who didn't exactly find success in New York and Los Angeles.
In the event the Rockets and Pelicans are fighting for playoff seeding at the end of the year, the season series could play a pivotal role.
As ESPN.com's Justin Verrier noted, some fans in New Orleans will likely be keeping an eye on Houston for a different reason:
Justin Verrier @JustinVerrier
If Gordon and Anderson are healthy and productive under Mike D'Antoni, Alvin Gentry's old boss, the Pelicans will hear about it often.2016-7-3 00:53:36
Health problems plagued both Anderson and Gordon, which hindered the Pelicans' overall development as a franchise. The two played well but didn't feature nearly enough.
If Anderson and Gordon go on to play a full season and have success in Houston, it will only add to fans' frustrations in the Big Easy.
First Home Matchup: Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
First Away Matchup: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
Sunday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
The Pelicans looked to be on the verge of starting a rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, after New Orleans beat out Oklahoma City for the eighth seed in the 2015 playoffs on a head-to-head tiebreaker:
Kevin Durant's departure to the Bay Area has changed things a bit—not necessarily for the worse. A Thunder team with Durant and Russell Westbrook would be heavily favored over New Orleans in 2016-17. Take Durant away, and the gulf becomes much closer.
Like Houston, Oklahoma City could be a direct playoff threat for the Pelicans, lending a little extra importance to each of their regular-season meetings. Few expected New Orleans' February 2015 win over the Thunder to carry any sort of playoff implications, but it ended up being the difference between the eighth and ninth seeds.
In the bigger picture, the Thunder will be a reminder that the Pelicans front office can't afford to waste the next five years Davis is under contract with the team. Durant leaving Oklahoma City was once unthinkable, and then it happened.
Davis isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and nobody expects New Orleans to be a title contender overnight. At the same time, the clock is ticking. The Thunder are a prime example of how quickly the direction of a franchise can change after losing one player.
Record PredictionMichael Dwyer/Associated Press
Beyond the top three or four teams, there's little separation between the playoff contenders in the West. Along with that competitiveness comes a wide variance in where many franchises—the Pelicans included—could finish.
New Orleans could realistically be a fifth or sixth seed, or it could be another year that ends in 30-plus wins and a lottery pick.
In July, Gentry talked about how he likes what the Pelicans have done to strengthen their roster in the offseason, per the Advocate's Brett Dawson:
If you look around the league, most of the teams, they've got interchangeable parts, but they've got guys that are all about the team, that are trying to figure what makes the team better. I think for us, you talk about Anthony and Jrue [Holiday] and adding these two kids and some of the other guys that we signed, I like the makeup of our team. Now what we have to do is see how it all meshes together.
New Orleans is a deeper team that it was a year ago. Langston Galloway, E'Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill will give Gentry some more options off the bench, and Hield could be a major wild card.
If everything goes right, the Pelicans are a surefire playoff team, even in the hyper-competitive West. Worryingly, though, the team is hedging a lot of its bets on Davis and Holiday staying healthy.
The most games Davis has played in one season is 68, while Holiday has appeared in 139 games over three years since arriving in New Orleans. Should one or both of those stars miss a long stretch of time again, it won't matter how well Galloway, Moore, Hill and Hield are performing. Davis and Holiday are what will make the Pelicans go.
New Orleans should be better in 2016-17, but the team has too many lingering questions to foresee a winning record on the cards.