The New Orleans Pelicans entered the 2017-18 NBA season surrounded by question marks. Some had the team rising up to the upper echelon of the Western Conference while others had the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins era ending in disappointment, predicting that the All-Star center would leave the team after a second straight lottery-bound season. It’s safe to say that the team performed up to par with the former, earning the sixth seed but tying the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz for the fourth-best record in the conference.
The Pelicans seemed destined for mediocrity throughout the first half of the season. They started 20-20 before winning seven of eight games in January, which gave the team a spark to rise through the standings. However, just when it looked like the Pelicans could be the real deal, Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in the closing seconds of the team’s 115-113 victory over the Houston Rockets on January 26, effectively ending his season. Even with this massive blow to a team already lacking depth, the Pelicans stayed in the playoff race — making a key trade for Chicago Bulls’ stretch-four Nikola Mirotic within a week of the injury. New Orleans also brought in former Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor — who saw his first NBA action since the 2013-14 campaign — on a 10-day contract, which was eventually guaranteed for the rest of the season.
While these midseason additions bolstered the Pelicans’ depth, it was an offseason addition that led the Pelicans to the third-highest scoring and second-most efficient offense in the league: Rajon Rondo. After an up-and-down campaign with the Bulls, which followed an uninspiring season with the Sacramento Kings and a disaster of a run in Dallas, it seemed that bringing in the ball-dominant guard would only hamper the team’s success and push fellow guard Jrue Holiday into an uncomfortable position. This, however, was far from true as Rondo’s elite court vision and playmaking skills were put on full display, contributing to both Davis’ MVP campaign and Holiday’s best year since his days in Philadelphia.
Holiday, who the Pelicans re-signed on a five-year, $126 million deal on the first day of free agency, seemed to be massively overpaid when the contract was first signed. The former All-Star had just finished an underwhelming 2016-17 season and overall just hadn’t found his niche with the team since being acquired from the Sixers in 2013, despite decent numbers. But, as seemed to be the theme for the team as a whole this season, Holiday exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. He finished with career highs in points per game, rebounds per game and field goal percentage while also racking up 6.0 assists per game.
By season’s end, Alvin Gentry’s Pelicans showed they belonged in the playoffs, despite having just a two-game advantage over the ninth-seeded Denver Nuggets. Even without Cousins, New Orleans defeated, well, dominated, the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Holiday and Rondo suffocated Damian Lillard while Davis handled Jusuf Nurkic and any other big thrown at him. Although the final scores may signal that the series was close, the Pelicans were simply the better team in every game as the series, which New Orleans wasn’t even favored to win, culminated in a sweep of the Blazers.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the team was faced with the challenge of handling the Golden State Warriors in the second round, a feat no Western Conference team has accomplished since the Los Angeles Clippers defeated them in seven games back in 2014. This series proved to be no different, as, despite another dominant series from Davis, the Warriors — once again featuring a healthy Stephen Curry in the lineup — proved to be an insurmountable task for the Pelicans. New Orleans just didn’t have enough firepower to compete with Golden State’s quartet of All-Stars as the team faltered in five games.
Now that their season has come to an end, a plethora of questions lie ahead for the New Orleans Pelicans. After a successful run following Cousins’ Achilles injury, would it be wise to surrender max money to re-sign him with no promise that the team will improve? Rondo had a very successful season, but on an admittedly small contract; will the team be willing to cough up more money to a veteran point guard on the wrong side of 30? With one of the shallowest benches in the NBA, how will the team satisfy its dire need for wing players? The Pelicans enjoyed their most successful season in recent memory, but with so many other juggernauts rising in the West, the franchise still has a long way to go.