NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Losing All-Star DeMarcus Cousins to injury in the middle of last season helped Pelicans general manager Dell Demps decide on roster moves this summer, particularly after Cousins chose to bolt in free agency.
Demps had a chance to see the Pelicans coalesce around fellow All-Star Anthony Davis and a faster-paced style as they rallied to finish sixth in the Western Conference and sweep third-seeded Portland in the first round of the playoffs.
"It was fun to watch as the guys were playing fast and sharing the ball and flying all over the place," Demps said. "When you feel like you've established an identity that has had success, you want to continue along those lines.
"We feel like we've established ourselves from a defensive standpoint and an offensive standpoint," he added. "We're going to defend. We're going to play fast. We're going to move the ball and we're going to play for each other."
To help fill the void left by Cousins, Demps brought in former Lakers forward Julius Randle, who became available after Los Angeles landed LeBron James. When veteran point guard Rajon Rando also left New Orleans, the Pelicans signed guard Elfrid Payton.
Demps sees Randle and Payton — who are both entering their fourth NBA seasons — as players who are young, but established. Demps also sees both as two-way players who can help defensively and thrive in a system that very well may lead the NBA in possessions per game, as New Orleans did last season.
The stakes are high.
Davis' star power is giving him increasing leverage to demand a trade in the coming seasons if he loses confidence in the direction of the franchise. Davis is quick to highlight his affection for New Orleans, but he also wants to win — something he hasn't done for most of his first six seasons with the Pelicans. He's been to the playoffs just twice, advanced to the second round once, and has gone no farther.
"Last year was definitely fun. We accomplished so much after all we'd been through," Davis said. "We're trying to carry the momentum into this year and see what happens. Of course, we lost two (key players), but we added two guys who we think can help us."
Some things to watch with the Pelicans:
The addition of Payton allows Jrue Holiday — the club's second-biggest star — to spend more time at shooting guard than point guard. Playing a similar role last season allowed Holiday to focus more on scoring and defending than setting up the offense, and resulted in arguably his best season. He averaged a career-high 19 points per game to go with averages of six assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
The 28-year-old Holiday scores often on slashing dribble-drives, but said he'd like to improve his 3-point shot. He also wants to improve on his already formidable reputation as a defender.
"I think the biggest thing for me is defensively, being consistent and showing people that I like to play defense and I'm pretty good at it," Holiday said.
The Pelicans expect to experiment with a lineup featuring a front court of the 6-foot-10 Davis, the 6-9 Randle and 6-10 forward Nikola Mirotic. All three players have the combination of size, agility and shooting range to play either forward spot or at center, Davis said.
"I think it's a cool idea," Davis said. "We'll see if it works."
While the Pelicans led the NBA in pace last season, coach Alvin Gentry wants to play even faster this season.
The idea is to consistently create shot opportunities before opposing defenses get set, which means sprinting back up court after rebounds and making long outlet passes when possible.
"I don't know if he thinks we're some track stars or something, but I guess that's the plan," Holiday said. "With the guys that we've added, really just pushing the pace is going to be big."
Gentry, who took over in New Orleans after helping install Golden State's up-tempo system as a lead assistant there, said the Pelicans can be "much better" at pushing the pace.
Gentry noted that Randle played for another former Warriors assistant, Luke Walton, in Los Angeles, and should be familiar with the style the Pelicans seek to play.
The Pelicans hope 6-11 center Jahlil Okafor can fulfill the potential he was thought to have when Philadelphia drafted him third overall out of Duke in 2015. Okafor averaged nearly 18 points as a rookie, but only 6.4 points in a reserve role with two teams last year.
While an ankle sprain in the preseason opener has slowed Okafor's integration into his new team, Demps complimented Okafor's conditioning and attitude as training camp began.
"He definitely is coming in to prove something. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that," Demps said. "You can see with the shape that he's in, the effort he's playing with, the intensity. You can see that he wants to prove to the world that he's a good NBA player."
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