Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Re-Building the New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans are re-building themselves in a very unique way
By Jeremy Conlin   @jeremy_conlin

Here are the facts:

•    The New Orleans Pelicans (formerly the Hornets) traded the rights to Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick (with top-5 protection) to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday.

•    The New Orleans Pelicans (still formerly the Hornets) signed Tyreke Evans to a 4-year, $44 million offer sheet. In the subsequent sign-and-trade agreement with Sacramento (Evans’ former team) and Portland (a cooperating 3rd party), New Orleans surrendered Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez (two serviceable starters).

Here are things that aren’t technically “facts” but are still probably true anyway:

•    Nerlens Noel, even with an ACL injury, was widely considered the best prospect in the 2013 draft class.

•    Jrue Holiday played the first half of the 2013 season at an All-Star level. He played the second half of the 2013 season at a level comparable to Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings (a free agent who still hasn’t signed a contract for next season).

•    Tyreke Evans has never played substantial minutes at small forward, or even in a role where he is not the primary ball-handler/creator (a position/role he will fill almost exclusively next to Holiday and Eric Gordon).

•    New Orleans owner Tom Benson has mandated a “win-now” philosophy.

There’s a very thin tightrope that NBA teams seem to walk these days. There seem to be three different paths to success:

1. Assemble top-level talent through free agency (see: Miami Heat)

2. Bottom out and build through the draft (see: Oklahoma City Thunder)

3. Assemble cheap assets and trade for a star (see: Houston Rockets)

But New Orleans might have just created a 4th. They combined paths No. 1 and No. 2, by first drafting Anthony Davis with the No. 1 overall pick (Path No. 2) and surrounding him with talent like Gordon, Evans, Holiday, and Ryan Anderson (Path No. 1).

There’s an easy counter-argument here. Nobody in the the Gordon/Evans/Holiday/Ryan Anderson group is, strictly speaking, “top-level talent.” But collectively, along with Davis, they present a strong core for an optimistic observer.

IF Tyreke Evans blossoms as a small forward, IF Eric Gordon can stay healthy for a full season, IF Jrue Holiday can sustain his level of play from the first half of 2013, and (most importantly), IF Anthony Davis develops into the Garnett/Chandler-like defensive force that many expect him to… the New Orleans Pelicans could be a 60-win team and a legitimate threat in the Western Conference.

Ultimately, that’s the fascinating thing about the Pelicans going forward. They’re the highest-risk, highest-reward team in the conference, and possibly the league. If everything goes right in 2014, they’re comfortably in the playoffs. If everything goes wrong in 2014? They end up with the 6th pick in the 2014 draft and they have to hand it over to the 76ers. Going forward? If everything goes right, they’re competing with Houston and Oklahoma City at the top of the Western Conference; but if everything goes wrong, they’re a $65 million albatross.

At the fulcrum of these conversations is the relationship between ownership and basketball operations. It seems, at least to sources familiar with the situation (of which, admittedly, I have none – I’m just regurgitating information given to people far smarter and more resourceful than I), that Pelicans owner Tom Benson is far more concerned with putting a respectable product on the floor than building for a hypothetical future in 2017 or later.

For a man investing upwards of a third of a billion (with a “b”) dollars in a pro basketball team, this is an entirely defensible position to have. If I were 86 years old (as Benson is) and had just made that kind of investment, I would hope to see some return on that sooner rather than later.

But for an NBA idealist (a class among which I often consider myself), this plan of action might seem short-sighted. Many would wish to see the Pelicans guard their cap space and draft options deep in the bowels of Fort Knox, and to build around inexpensive talent like Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, and unspecified 2014 draft pick X.

But New Orleans General Manager Dell Demps saw an opportunity to have the best of both worlds. He (for lack of a better term) appeased his owner’s “win now” request by bringing in two All-Star caliber players in Holiday and Evans, and he assembled a core, which, if everything breaks exactly right, could very well be representing the Western Conference in the 2017 NBA Finals.

And here’s one last upside to consider – New Orleans has created a rather unique salary cap flexibility for the future. Gordon, Anderson, and Davis all have expiring contracts in the summer of 2016 (total: $31 million), and Holiday and Evans’ expire in 2017 (total: $22 million). Even if New Orleans opts to extend Davis a long second contract (exceedingly likely), the Pelicans will have upwards of 22 million expiring dollars over the last year of Davis’ rookie contract and the first year of his new extension.

If you look at each of New Orleans’ off-season moves by themselves, a number of them seem to be misguided and short-sighted. But collectively, they create a nucleus that is simultaneously promising and flexible.

That’s a rare feat.

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