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New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis passes the ball against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green during the first quarter of Game 5 at Oracle Arena, in Oakland, Calif., on May 8, 2018.Kyle Terada/Reuters

Anthony Davis wasn’t willing to call the New Orleans Pelicans’ season a success.

Not that Davis dismissed the determination, grit and growing chemistry the Pelicans showed in the way they adjusted to a season-ending injury to fellow all-star DeMarcus Cousins.

New Orleans exceeded expectations by getting to the postseason and sweeping third-seeded Portland. Then came a second-round matchup with defending champion Golden State, and the Pelicans were reminded why bringing back a player of Cousins’s calibre could be crucial to going further next season. The Warriors needed only five games to end New Orleans’s season.

“Any time you don’t win a championship, I don’t see how it could be successful,” Davis said. “We can take a lot of positive things from the season. Of course, one of our main guys went out and everybody doubted us. Everybody counted us out and we were able to keep fighting, keep pushing as a unit and able to come this far.”

This off-season could go a long way in determining if they go any further.

Not only is Cousins a free agent, but so is assists maestro Rajon Rondo. Further complicating matters is that Cousins’s injury – a torn Achilles – has been a historically difficult one from which to come back. So the Pelicans’ faith could be tested if Cousins declines to take less than the maximum he can get under the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement.

Also, Rondo and Cousins are friends. Bringing back one could raise the prospects of keeping the other.

Rondo, who averaged 10.3 points, 12.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds in the postseason, asserted that bringing back Cousins will be “very important.”

Cousins averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds in 48 games, during which New Orleans went 27-21. But the Pelicans assert that when Cousins went down, they were only beginning to figure out the most effective way to play with him and Davis in the lineup together. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that they won seven of the last eight games Cousins played, including a victory at Boston and a home triumph over Houston.

“We felt like, you know, we were able to play against the elite teams in the league,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We felt great about it, and then he got hurt and we struggled for four or five games.”

Once the Pelicans adjusted to life without Cousins, they shot up from sixth in the NBA in pace of play to first, with Rondo pushing the ball up the court and using his precision passing to put Davis, Jrue Holiday and midseason trade acquisition Nikola Mirotic in prime positions.

The Pelicans won their final five regular season games to finish as the sixth seed in the highly competitive Western Conference, and Gentry was informed the team was picking up his option for next season.

While Rondo couldn’t promise he’ll be back, he made it clear his affection for many on the roster grew considerably this season.

“Can’t say enough about this group – a group of men that came together and found a way to sacrifice for one another and try to come with a common goal,” Rondo said. “I love our chemistry.”

The Pelicans played so well at times that Gentry found himself answering questions about whether the Pelicans might be better without Cousins. Gentry called that notion “ludicrous.” He also said “it goes without saying” that the Pelicans want Cousins back.

If Cousins and Rondo both return, and team chemistry continues growing, the Pelicans could blossom into a team with the requisite combination of size and skill to punish teams such as the Warriors, which thrive on “small ball.”

In any event, Davis’s ability to carry the team in Cousins’s absence only elevated his status as an elite player. He posted averages of 28.1 points, 11.1 assists and 2.6 blocks.

Meanwhile, playing more shooting guard than point guard seemed to suit Holiday, who averaged a career-best 19 points a game this season.

And for at least three more seasons, the Pelicans will have both Davis and Holiday under contract.

“We feel like we’re headed in the right direction as a franchise,” Gentry said.

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey says no one from the organization has told him he won’t be returning next season after the team's playoff elimination. Raptors president Masai Ujiri says everything will be evaluated in the off-season.

The Canadian Press

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