Pelicans preparing to make key decisions that will shape suddenly bright future

METAIRIE, La. -- After each season, Alvin Gentry sits down and takes a long, hard look at every game, starting with his own role in all of the good and all of the bad that transpired over the previous six months.

With his second season as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans ending on consecutive back-to-back road sets out West, the first order of business this year was some sleep.

“We got in at 6 this morning,” he said. “I think I’ll have plenty of time to do that.”

About nine hours later, Gentry and general manager Dell Demps were in front of a microphone at the team practice facility to offer early evaluations on a 2016-17 season that started as a team revolving around the rare gifts of an All-Star big man and ended with the acquisition of the West Coast edition to complement him.

But with just a 34-48 record to show for it, most of the discussion centered on which of the principals will be back for the third consecutive bid to reclaim the heights of 2014-15’s playoff run, starting with the two fielding the questions.

“I walk in here every day excited about my job,” Demps said, echoing what he said after last season’s 30-52 campaign when faced with a similar line of questioning. “I don’t ever feel the pressure, or anything like that.

“Right now, we’re in evaluation mode. We’re going to sit back and meet with Alvin. We’re going to sit back and go over the whole season. I think we’ve had a lot of challenges this year. But I do like the direction and path that we’re headed [on].”

Indeed, the last of the three or maybe four iterations of this season’s Pelicans was certainly the best. New Orleans was just 7-10 with DeMarcus Cousins on the floor, but boasted the 11th-best net rating in the NBA (plus-1.9) in between the trade and the four games Cousins sat out to end the season, per NBA.com/Stats. And despite a rocky start to the partnership of their two new super friends, the Pelicans were plus-2.9 in the 394 minutes Cousins and Anthony Davis played together, with their already-top-10 defense improving to what would be the league’s best rate (99.6 points per 100 possessions).

But when evaluation mode is activated, it remains to be seen if the 25-game sample after the All-Star break will supersede the bottom line of another season outside of the Western Conference playoff field.

“It’s not something I spend a lot of time worrying about,” Gentry said about his status. “I’m at the office and I’m working and I’m preparing for the summer and everything else like I would normally do. When the time comes, that decision will be made.”

If Gentry were to return for the final season of his contract (which also includes a team option for 2018-19), he said the adjustments made over the final stretch -- including the addition of high-low actions and getting Cousins on the blocks early after free throws to preempt the double-teams -- and the influx of talent are enough over a full slate of games.

Asked if he thinks the post-trade roster can continue to play in the system the Pelicans deployed under Gentry for much of the season, Demps said, “I think the current personnel should dictate how we should play,” before pointing to the tweaks made after the initial few games.

To better take advantage of both of their two All-Stars, Demps and Gentry agreed on the Pelicans’ biggest need: shooters.

The Pelicans shot 35 percent from 3 last season (19th-best in the NBA), and though both Cousins (37.5 percent from 3 in New Orleans) and Davis (still a work in progress at 29.9) have the versatility to step out to the perimeter, both players have noted the traffic jam in the paint that can occur with them both on the floor.

Whether or not the Pelicans will have the means to acquire an impact shooter without sacrificing the switchy, feisty defense that quickly became the team’s identity brings us to our last big question of the evening: Jrue Holiday, an impending unrestricted free agent.

“Jrue’s been with us for four years,” Demps said. “We love Jrue. We love his family. Obviously we’d like to have him back. He’s got a tough decision to make. We’re going to let that process play out. He’s one of my favorite players. He’s a two-way player and he’s a phenomenal person. We really enjoyed having him here.”

Even if Holiday returns, there’s still a long way to go.

“There’s a big ladder that we have to climb before we worry about Golden State and San Antonio,” Gentry said. “There’s Portland, Memphis. Those teams we’ve got to get ahead of before we start thinking about the Golden States and the San Antonios of the West.”

But the early analysis shows a team trending in the right direction. It just remains to be seen who will be the ones getting them there.