Who is the most inspiring underdog of the NBA playoffs?

The answer is the New Orleans Pelicans – and the defending champion Warriors had better show respect for them

The Warriors are seeking their third NBA championship in four years, and they’ve become one of the richest teams in basketball. Their anticipated second-round opponent, the Pelicans, are poor by comparison — mainly because they generate relatively little money from their home market of New Orleans, the NBA’s smallest city.

Coming off their first playoff series win in 10 years, the Pelicans should be no match for powerful Golden State. And yet …

Anthony Davis has turned the corner. The “Unibrow” is popular with millions of fans in America because of his humility. He is the most talented young star in the NBA, but there are no signs of arrogance from him. He remembers how things used to be, before he became famous.

“I was a role player until my senior year in high school,” he told me last season when I met him in New Orleans.

In my new book The Soul of Basketball, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich details how Tim Duncan grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, far away from the AAU culture of America. “He never imagined success in the basketball world,” Popovich explains. “He was never coddled and never picked and never traveled across the country with this AAU camp and that camp and the other camp and told how great he was. He was outside of all of that, so it never infected him.”

The most-talented teenagers in America are told every day that they are going to become stars in the NBA. When you keep hearing that your success is guaranteed, isn’t it likely to change your point of view? It’s hard to be humble when people are insisting that you’re guaranteed to become a millionaire, as if it’s all meant to be.

But Tim Duncan wasn’t “infected” by that kind of talk. And neither was Anthony Davis. During his second year of high school in Chicago, Davis was only 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters), the same height as his father. Davis had no idea that he was going to grow another 8 inches over the next two years to his current height of 6-10 (2.08 meters).

“I had to find a way,” said Davis of those years when he learned to do the many “little things” that would earn him playing time in high school — and that enable him to help the Pelicans in so many different ways today. “People realized I could shoot in high school, so I had to find ways to move without the ball. All that stuff you figure out from being a role player comes from playing off the best player, because all of the attention is going to be on him.”

Now, at age 25, Davis is the best player. In their surprising four-game sweep of the Trail Blazers in the opening round of the playoffs, Davis averaged 33 points and shot 57% from the field while generating 12 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. In spite of those big numbers, he has remained a good teammate through and through – a visionary passer and a persistent defender who goes out of his way to cover for those who are less talented. These are traits that he shares with Duncan, who also starred for a small-market team.

“If it wasn’t for New Orleans, I probably wouldn’t be the person who I am today,” said Davis, who continues to insist that he feels at home in the NBA’s smallest market. “I have learned so much while I’ve been here. I’ve learned so much about myself.”

Rajon Rondo has come of age too. Rondo, 31, has learned from the mistakes of his early career. The Soul of Basketball details Rondo’s acts of immaturity as a young Celtic that led to his departure from Boston (and then from Dallas) early in his career. Over the last two seasons, in Chicago and now in New Orleans, Rondo has turned into a leader. The young player who frustrated his teammates in Boston has become a veteran in whom the younger Pelicans can trust.

Rondo and his former rival, LeBron James, may be the two smartest players in the NBA. The Pelicans breezed through their opening round by stifling the Portland backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum – with Rondo calling out the plays defensively that enabled his teammates to focus on Portland’s two stars.

Early in his career, when he was on the verge of leading the Celtics to a second championship in their era of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, I repeatedly referred to Rondo as the best point guard in the NBA because no one was better at creating shots for his teammates. Rondo is pulling off the same magic now for New Orleans. He averaged 13.3 assists (and only 3.5 turnovers) while his team was shooting 52.1% and averaging 114.5 points in the opening round of the playoffs against one of the NBA’s better defenses. As a younger player Rondo didn’t command respect from the perimeter, but that has changed too: He shot 42.9% from the 3-point line in the series against Portland.

Based on his ability to relate to teammates, Rondo looks very much like he’s going to be a head coach in the NBA someday. In the meantime, the Pelicans are counting on Rondo to create opportunities for them by attacking the Warriors off the dribble. Their experienced leader has a command of the offense that is rarely found in this new age of the scoring point guard.

Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic have found important roles. Last July, Holiday agreed to re-sign with New Orleans for $126 million over five years. Two weeks later, Rondo negotiated a one-year contract worth $3.3 million. Rondo was playing for his fifth team in four years, he had zero leverage – and yet Holiday was willing to adapt in order to make room for him.

By moving to shooting guard, he allowed Rondo to run the point – and Holiday has thrived. Holiday averaged 19.0 points while shooting 49.4% during the regular season (career bests) and still generating 6 assists per game. After missing 122 games over the previous four years, Holiday played 81 this season for New Orleans. Most impressive of all was his defense in the playoffs, which led coach Alvin Gentry to praise Holiday as one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

In Game 4, Holiday (41 points) and Davis (47) tied the NBA record for most points by two teammates in a playoff game. At age 27, Holiday has proved to be worthy of the Pelicans’ huge financial investment. His instincts at both ends will be crucial against the Warriors, especially when Steph Curry makes his return from a knee injury.

The other big move for New Orleans followed the season-ending injury to All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in late January. The aggressive Pelicans quickly replaced Cousins by dealing for 6-10 forward Nikola Mirotic, who had demanded a trade from the Bulls after being injured in a fight during practice with teammate Bobby Portis. In the absence of Cousins, the Pelicans shifted Davis to center, which created a smaller, more fluid attack around the perimeter shooting of Mirotic, who generated 14.6 points in three regular-season months with New Orleans – and a more efficient 18.3 points in the playoffs.

Mirotic is a reliable team defender who fit in nicely alongside the Pelicans’ defensive leaders Davis and Holiday. The Pelicans began the year with a top-heavy front line of Davis and Cousins, but months later they’ve hit stride thanks to the cheap signing of Rondo and the unexpected trade for Mirotic – making them the surprise team of the playoffs.

No one picked New Orleans to upset Portland. And nobody will be picking them to beat the Warriors in the second round (after Golden State finishes off its opening series against the undermanned Spurs). But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun cheering for Anthony Davis and his team of underdogs.

Three years ago, as the Warriors celebrated their first championship of the Curry era, their assistant coach Alvin Gentry looked into the lens of a TV camera and had a message for Davis.

It’s difficult to hear him over the commentary, but Gentry’s message was clear to Davis. “A.D.,” yelled Gentry, who had already agreed to become head coach of the Pelicans. “A.D., we’re going to be right back here.”

The Pelicans aren’t likely to fulfill Gentry’s promise of winning the championship this year. As well as they’ve performed with their fast lineup, they’ll be facing a Warriors team that plays small-ball better than anyone. And yet there is something very intriguing about the partnership of Davis and Rondo, who at his best is able to control the pace of play — mixing speed with patience — better than any point guard in the NBA.

The defending champs ought to win this series and advance to a long-envisioned Western conference final against Houston. But this round isn’t going to be easy for Golden State. After years of wondering what he might accomplish if he ever was surrounded by capable teammates, the NBA’s most promising big man is supported by Pelicans who can bring out the best in him — and vice-versa. We are about to find out just how good Anthony Davis can be.

To buy my book The Soul of Basketball please click here.