With younger, more versatile pieces, Pelicans set up to compete in West

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 28: Julius Randle /

With the Western Conference constantly changing, the New Orleans Pelicans could have stood firm with their core. They chose not to, although not everybody is happy with the decisions they made.

Some think they got worse. Others think they got better. But what can’t be disputed is that they got younger, longer, and more versatile.

And in the wild, wild West, that matters.

The Pelicans signed Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle this past week. Those came at the expense of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo and big man DeMarcus Cousins.

Boogie shocked the basketball world Monday when he signed a $5.4 million dollar mid-level exception with the NBA champion Warriors. Rondo signed a one-year, $9 million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

We’ll touch on how the new pieces fit later, but there’s no questioning the ones they lost hurt now. At his best, Cousins was a guy that was a walking double-double that could stretch the defense. He was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists and shooting 35% from three through his first 48 games prior to the Achilles injury he suffered on Jan. 26.

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Then there’s Rondo, who was a solid piece at the point for the Pelicans during their run to the Western Conference Semifinals. His playmaking skills led to an MVP-caliber season for Anthony Davis and a career year for Jrue Holiday. Playing off the ball, Holiday averaged 19 points in the regular season and 23.7 in the playoffs alongside Rondo.

The 24-year old Payton has the length and quickness to provide a more versatile threat at the guard position. The 6-4, 184-pounder has shown to be a capable rebounder and an improving spot-up shooter. Last season, he averaged 12.7 points, 6.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds in 63 games with the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns.

To some, Randle was the Lakers’ best player last season despite never really being appreciated by the organization. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, he asked that his rights be renounced by the Lakers so he could become a free agent. That decision paved the way for the Lakers to sign Rondo, meaning the two teams pretty much swapped players.

The 23-year old has the ability to play both forward positions, allowing Davis a chance to play more on the perimeter. Like Payton, he has plenty of potential and is improving in the league, meaning his best years are probably ahead of him.

The Pelicans could be better this upcoming season, though. A lot will depend on how well Payton and 2017 draftee Frank Jackson (who missed last season with an injury) grow at the point guard position. The backup point guard was a trouble spot at times last year, but Jackson could solve those problems.

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The West starts with Golden State and Houston, who played a seven-game series in the conference finals this past season. Utah isn’t going anywhere and the Lakers now have some guy named LeBron James (is he even good?!). Oklahoma City kept Paul George to team with Russell Westbrook and will have key defender Andre Roberson returning from a season-ending injury. Portland and Minnesota kept their cores intact.

Oh, and there’s San Antonio, who has to decide what to do with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard.

In the West, teams have to be versatile defensively on the perimeter. Limiting the quality and number of 3-point attempts against teams like the Warriors and Rockets is key to success. The Pelicans now have point-guard versatility in Payton and Jackson. They have shooters in Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Ian Clark. They have a playmaker in Randle and a superstar in Davis. Plus considering the additions are more plug-and-play types, there shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment period for the new pieces.

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New Orleans won 62 percent of their games after Cousins got hurt. Average that out over 82 games and they would have 51 wins, a three seed in the West last year. With the core intact and the new pieces hungry, the Pelicans present a team capable of competing in 2018-19 even more-so than last year.

Even though it may not seem that way now.