The late summer is when the NBA world grinds to a halt. Sure, Zach Lowe is at "King's Landing," but all the excitement of free agency has faded—unless you're really eager for the Kevin Love trade to be official. The schedule was released last week, and that provided a momentary jolt, and there'll be the FIBA World Cup to distract for a few more weeks, but it's easier now than ever to start dreaming about the regular season and making predictions.
Prognostications are tricky, because they seem to always rely on a certain status quo. If a team is coming off of a playoff appearance, kept the team together or added complimentary pieces in the offseason, it stands to reason that they should at least perform at the same level this season. By that logic, the Western Conference playoff picture won't change at all next season.
That's not how the universe functions though, so let's make the case for the New Orleans Pelicans, they of the 34-48 record last season. The Dallas Mavericks needed 49 wins last season to make the playoffs as an eighth seed, so assuming the West remains ultra competitive—and there's no reason to assume otherwise—the Pelicans will need to make quite a leap to even sniff the playoffs.
But, these sort of leaps happen every year, and the there are two prime examples in the recent past that the Pelicans can look to emulate.
In LeBron James's first two seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs won 35 and 42 games respectively. LeBron was already a very good player in his rookie season, but made a big jump in year two, averaging 27.2 points per game and lifting his field goal percentage from 41.7 percent to 47.2 percent. In year three, LeBron went to another level: he averaged 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 48 percent from the field. The Cavs won 50 games and made the playoffs. Over the next four seasons, the Cavs never missed the playoffs and made one Finals appearance. The streak ended when LeBron left Cleveland in free agency in 2010.
In Kevin Durant's first two seasons, the Sonics/Thunder won 20 and 23 games. Durant averaged 20.3 points per game in his rookie season, but shot just 43 percent from the field. In year two, the team fired P.J. Carlesimo and ushered in the Scott Brooks era. In his third season, Durant won the scoring title, averaging 30.1 points per game. The Thunder—like LeBron's year three Cavs—won 50 games and lost to the Lakers in round one. They also haven't missed the playoffs since and have made one Finals appearance.
Of course, there's no formula for which players in which years are ready to make the leap. LeBron and Durant were already great players in their first two seasons, but aside from individual improvement, their circumstances changed as well. Mike Brown took over from Paul Silas in Cleveland and eventually molded the Cavs into one of the strongest defensive units in the league, anchored by LeBron. Under Carlesimo, Durant spent time playing at the two, an experiment that was ended without ceremony when Brooks took over. The Thunder also drafted Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green in Durant's second year, and had a much stronger core group by year three.
For the Pelicans, there are three main reasons to think why they will be much improved in year three of the Anthony Davis era. The team filled a need with the acquisition of Omer Asik from Houston. Even with Davis as the league leader in blocks, the Pelicans were a below average defensive team. They needed a rim protector, and acquired one of the best in the league.
The Pelicans will be better if their team can just stay relatively healthy. Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson— two of their core guys—missed 48 and 60 games last season, respectively. In the brief time that the five-man unit of Holiday, Anderson, Davis, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans spent on the floor, they averaged 123.5 points per 100 possessions. It was a ridiculously small sample size—91 minutes spread over 12 games—and their defensive numbers were atrocious, but, if that lineup can stay on the court, and successfully incorporate Omer Asik, there's a lot of potential to make it work on both ends of the court.
Most importantly, this team has Anthony Davis. Maybe he makes the sort of leap that LeBron and Durant made in their third years and all of the points above will simply be rendered moot. Davis is poised to establish himself as the third-best player in the league. In fact, it would be a surprise if that's not the case by the end of next season. He's already an absolute monster, it's scary to think the work-in-progress label still applies as well. Last year, he averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 2.8 blocks per game on 51.3 percent shooting. Oh, and he's been working on adding the corner three to his game. A few weeks ago, Durant called Davis an MVP-caliber player. He looked impressive in the team's exhibition against Brazil over the weekend. With KD's withdrawal from Team USA and Paul George's injury, Davis is poised to be the best player on Team USA's World Cup squad next month in Spain.
It's August. It's a great time to start talking yourself into finding a surprise team. When season preview time rolls around, a lot of people are going to dismiss the Pelicans. But Anthony Davis is going to be great next season, that might be enough for the Pelicans to sneak into the playoffs. Throw in all those other improvements the team has made, and you're looking at a team that's about to level up.
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