Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans Are Better, But Are They Any Good?

Despite some solid roster moves this summer, New Orleans is still hamstrung by its previous failed efforts to build a win-now team around young superstar Anthony Davis.
August 2, 2016, 4:39pm
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In the NBA, every general manager dreams of building a talented team that has both continuity and flexibility. And why not? The ability to win now with what's on hand, win later with what you'll keep, and wheel and deal for opportunistic upgrades is—with a little bit of luck—a proven formula for extended, self-sustaining success. Which, not coincidentally, is also a good way to keep your GM job.

With that in mind, let's evaluate the New Orleans Pelicans' moves this off-season. On one hand, they have brought in solid veteran role players on long-term deals, a nod toward talent and continuity. They've also avoided any monstrously bad contracts, which means those same players can be moved if necessary. That makes New Orleans at least somewhat flexible.

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On the other hand, the Pelicans are heading into the fifth year of Anthony Davis's career, which means they've enjoyed a half-decade of the single biggest advantage a franchise can have—a young, proven Superstar™. And yet, New Orleans isn't remotely close to being a NBA title contender. Along with some previous poor decisions, the cap-sheet-cluttering deals handed out by the franchise this summer have hamstrung its ability to build a significantly better roster going forward.

In short, the Pelicans appear to have locked themselves into being solid, but far from spectacular.

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It's hard to fault the Pelicans for how they handled free agency, signing Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway, and Terrence Jones. The two big-money players—Hill and Moore, who are making nearly $20 million combined next season—have proved that they can be solid contributors on playoff-quality teams. The 24-year-old Galloway has become a nice 3-and-D prospect, and even the oft-injured Jones still has some upside.

Realistically, there's a lot of adequacy here, and that should improve a team that struggled with injuries while winning 30 games in 2015-16. Moreover, there's something to be said for simply hitting singles instead of swinging for the fences—especially given New Orleans' recent risk-taking history. Over the past three seasons, the Pelicans' front office has pushed its chips into the middle of the table, gambling around Davis and aiming for immediate postseason success, only to see that strategy backfire. The franchise has missed the playoffs twice during that span, and hasn't really added any promising players in Davis's age range.

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Three risky moves, all of which were questioned in real time, stand out:

● Trading two lottery picks for point guard Jrue Holiday, a fringe All-Star, only to see him miss 107 games over three seasons. Holiday is still just 26, and hasn't lost the attributes that made him a highly sought-after player: an all-around game built around the ability to shoot from distance, create plays for others, and defend at a near-elite level. However, his ongoing health problems make it hard to count on him for 30 to 35 minutes a night. Moreover, Holiday is entering the final year of his current deal, and New Orleans isn't close to knowing if he's a player they can build around. Is he a second offensive option when paired with Davis? More of a third or fourth option? It's hard to say.

● Handing Tyreke Evans a four-year, $44 million contract while Holiday and Eric Gordon already were in the mix. Evans has missed nearly a full season's worth of games over the past three years, and has been ruled out for the start of the 2016-17 season following knee surgery. When he's on the floor, Evans helps the Pelicans' offense tremendously; given that his game is dependent on slashing and penetration, it's hard to predict whether he'll still be as effective coming off a knee injury.

● Trading a first-round pick for Omer Asik, then re-signing him to a five-year contract worth approximately $52 million. Asik's contract is non-guaranteed in its final year, and that may be its only saving grace. Otherwise, this is considered one of the worst deals in the league, as Asik has regressed to the point that the $31 million he's due over the next three seasons is basically viewed as a sunk cost.

When they say you're a sunk cost. Photo by Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

Those three whiffs have made finding value vital for New Orleans. Heading into next season, the Pelicans are over the salary cap; in 2017-18, the organization potentially will have $78 million on its cap sheet. That's fine if you're the Golden State Warriors, but not so much when you're lacking a reliable second, third, and possibly fourth offensive option signed for multiple years. Worse still, New Orleans has only one young asset with potential to become a viable option and/or a young trade chip: Buddy Hield, the No. 6 overall pick in this year's NBA draft.

As for the team's summer signings? While they certainly will help push the Pelicans into playoff contention, they don't give the franchise much room to grow. Hill has developed into a strong, versatile defender who can guard three positions well—something extremely valuable for a team that finished 27th a season ago in defensive efficiency—and hit the occasional shot. Still, it's hard to see how his four-year, $48 million deal will generate surplus contract value when his best-case scenario is becoming a Harrison Barnes-in-Golden-State-type fifth option who doesn't create offense.

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Moore is similar to Hill. He provides versatility with the ability play both guard spots, but he'll have to improve from competent to elite backup point guard to make his four-year, $34 million deal a bargain. There are simply too many players around the NBA who can fill the backup point guard role in good-enough fashion. Meanwhile, Jones and Galloway are theoretically the sort of buy-low prospects who can blossom into productive, underpaid contributors. Problem is, the Pelicans weren't able to sign either to a contract that would allow the franchise to reap the benefits of any blossoming. Galloway's two-year, $10.5 million contract has a player option in 2017-18, which means that if he is successful this year, New Orleans will have to use cap space to sign him to a bigger deal, or lose him in free agency. The same holds for Jones, who is on a one-year minimum deal.

Listen up, kids: with enough hard work, you too could become a tradable young asset. Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Add everything up, and the Pelicans are basically set for the next two years. That isn't necessarily bad—with a bit of health and luck, they could be a playoff team. Davis is still Davis, a potential top-five player in the league. Surround him with competent players, as New Orleans has, and 45 wins is very doable. For a franchise in an apathetic basketball market—the Pelicans haven't cracked the top 20 in attendance since 2009—that's not to be scoffed at. The franchise needs to generate excitement and invigorate its fan base, and even modest success over the next three seasons could go a long way toward helping it retain Davis in the long term.

That said, New Orleans appears to have a relatively low ceiling, particularly for a team with a bona fide superstar. And it's hard to see how the Pelicans can get much better without mortgaging future draft picks—the same short-term approach that has gotten them to this point. Their predicament is the result of having jumped the gun after drafting Davis. Rather than surround the 20-year-old future star who was still growing into his game with young, developing talent, New Orleans went all in. That didn't work, and now the team is scuffing to build a competent roster at the very time it should be primed to take win-big-or-bust risks. So long as Davis is around to cover up the organization's warts, New Orleans should be good. But after this summer, it's likely we'll never know if the Pelicans could have been great.

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