Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Pelicans were a funky team with some very good young players, a killer new mascot, another lottery pick, a coach with the most diverse sideline wardrobe in the NBA, and an intriguing upside that seemed years away. And then, bam: They surprised everyone by trading two first-round picks, including the pick that turned out to be Nerlens Noel, in exchange for Jrue Holiday — a deal with serious Kawhi Leonard–George Hill potential in terms of long-term “Who won?” curiousity. They followed that up by immediately throwing a monster contract at Tyreke Evans, one of the league’s five best restricted free agents, at the start of a free-agency period in which there has been almost zero buzz around the other four.1
Those would be Nikola Pekovic, Jeff Teague, Brandon Jennings, and Gerald Henderson.
Once the Evans deal is complete, the Pellies2 will have six players locked up through 2015-16, tied with the Celtics for the largest number (excluding 2013-14 rookies) of any team in the league. Those six guys, plus draft picks and charges for empty roster spots, would take the Pelicans very close to the projected salary cap in the summers of 2014 and 2015. In other words, this six-man group could be the team: Evans, Holiday, Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon. To acquire that core, the Pelicans have sacrificed both future cap flexibility and a pick in next June’s loaded draft, the key asset that swung the Noel-Holiday deal. Outside of Boston, which has quickly become Valhalla for any NBA front-office geek interested in a monster rebuild project, the Pelicans have had the league’s most interesting offseason — a series of high-risk, high-reward gambles that have divided rival executives and gone against the grain of larger trends in NBA team-building strategy.
Still workshopping this!
And the gamble starts right away, at the behest of owner Tom Benson, who pushed the front office to end the slow game and accelerate the rebuild now, per several sources around the league. Dell Demps and his staff have tried to find a middle path by acquiring two productive players — Holiday and Evans — that are both just 23 years old, with upside still to realize. The Sixers are counting on the experiment being a failure this season. If it is, Philly could end up with the no. 6 or no. 7 pick in addition to its own, which appears a sure thing to fall among the top five.3 The Pelicans believe this group can chase one of the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference, and that even if they fail, they might still win enough games to slot their pick somewhere in the no. 12-14 range.
The 2014 pick the Pelicans sent Philly is top-five protected every season going forward, meaning the Pelicans keep it if it falls among the top five selections in the draft. That would appear unlikely, even if the Pelicans disappoint this season. There’s enough talent on hand here to outplay Charlotte, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Phoenix, and Boston, especially if Boston tells Rajon Rondo to take a nice, long vacation.
And that’s really the bet here — the wager that lands right in the crosshairs of a simmering debate about the worth of first-round picks. The no. 13 pick, according to an exhaustive ESPN.com analysis of past NBA drafts, has an average return of something like Corliss Williamson. But the new collective bargaining agreement, with its harsh tax rates and roster-building limits imposed upon big spenders, has teams prizing draft picks more than ever. Only one future first-round pick changed hands at the trade deadline, far below what we’d normally see, and teams have paid ever-increasing sums to acquire first-rounders from rivals — even if those picks are likely to fall toward the end of the first round, where the average return dips to Jon Barry levels. Golden State assumed Richard Jefferson’s monster contract to acquire San Antonio’s 2012 first-round pick, which became no. 30 (Festus Ezeli). And just this week, Utah took on a whopping $24 million in dead salary as the price for two Golden State first-rounders and two second-rounders.4 There are other examples out there.
Dear Jazz fans: I get what Utah was doing here. They wanted to find a way to meet the league’s salary floor, now set at a record-high 90 percent of the cap level — about $52.5 million — without signing anyone who would be on the books after this season. They don’t care about making the playoffs this coming season, and so they didn’t see much appeal in signing, say, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap. I get it. But there is an opportunity cost to every transaction, and the Jazz paid a giant sum — most of their cap space — for first-round picks that are likely to be very bad. There were other alternatives, and some alternatives that haven’t emerged yet. That’s the value of keeping cap space open during the season, and especially at the trade deadline. Teams only have to hit the floor by June 30 after each season, and in recent history, only the cheapo Maloofs have had any issues in that regard. Every team last season, when the floor was lower, spent over the new 90 percent floor anyway, and no one has ever had any trouble finding dead money when they need it — and wringing a nice asset for their space. Utah didn’t make a bad deal at all, especially not considering their priorities. But they paid a giant price for bad picks, and they closed themselves off to other things — even if Brandon Rush and one of the toxic Andris Biedrins–Richard Jefferson duo become movable for second-round picks during the season.
The word “asset” has never had more currency in the NBA. Draft picks, even in the 20s, are “assets” teams can use to acquire cheap talent, or to grease the wheels in potential mega-trades for star players. The Celtics view the three unprotected picks they nabbed from the spend-spend-spend Nets not just as young players that will don the hallowed green, but as “assets” carrying the lure of the unknown for a rival GM looking to move a disgruntled star.
There are lots of people around the league who think the valuing of draft picks has gone too far — that it has become almost a fetish. Count the Pelicans among them. They looked at Holiday and saw a certainty — a 23-year-old NBA baby who proved last season, at least before a horrific late shooting slump, that he was up for a larger burden on offense. Holiday brings an above-average 3-point shot, decent court vision, a very affordable long-term contract that kicks in next season, and the ability to defend shooting guards if necessary. The Pelicans are gambling that a known commodity of this level will be worth more than this year’s no. 6 pick, recovering from a severe knee injury, and a back-of-the-lottery selection next year.
The Sixers, for their part, are betting on a lot of things — Noel’s health, the Pelicans continuing to struggle, and the notion that it’s much easier to replace 85 percent of a quality starting point guard’s production than it is to find the next Tyson Chandler. And you can see the logic. There are so many decent starting point guards in the league that Teague and Jennings cannot find aggressive suitors, and solid guys like Kyle Lowry, Ramon Sessions, Goran Dragic, George Hill, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, and others all earn less than Holiday will on average over the length of his contract. But most of those guys come with warts a great team could expose over a playoff series, and two playoff contenders last season were starting Mike James and Mo Williams, respectively, for large chunks of the season.
The Holiday deal indirectly resulted in the jettisoning of Greivis Vasquez, whom the Pellies will send to Sacramento as part of the Evans sign-and-trade. Vasquez is a solid offensive player. He’s big for a point guard, and he has used his size to compensate for his glaring lack of quickness. He can throw tricky over-the-top interior passes, and he has developed a quirky arsenal of floaters to make up for not being fast enough to get to the rim consistently on the pick-and-roll. He has turned himself into just about a league-average 3-point shooter, a surprise development, assuming last season’s improvement sticks.
But he’s also 26, nearly three and a half years older than Holiday, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. He’s a liability on defense, where the Pelicans struggled horribly last season. Vasquez is a smart, creative player, but someone is going to pay him big money next summer, and they are probably going to be disappointed in the long-term return.
So: What exactly have the Pelicans built? In the long run, they have to decide if it’s worth having both Gordon and Evans, and if this nucleus projects, even years from now, as anything better than a midtier playoff team. And in the short run, there is a large gap in quality between the no. 6 pick and the no. 13 selection, and it’s possible the “Who won?” question on the Holiday trade will hinge on how good New Orleans is this season.
And that, I’m afraid, is scary. This team is going to need a ton of work, and though some of that work started last season, Monty Williams and his staff still have enormous ground to cover — and two new rotation cogs to sort out.
In Holiday, Evans, and Gordon, the Pelicans now have three perimeter players whose best skills center on handling the ball — both in isolation and on pick-and-rolls. The Pelicans may bring Evans off the bench, preferring to start a rangier small forward in Al-Farouq Aminu, but those three guys are going to play big minutes together.5 Two of them are good shooters, assuming Gordon finds his stroke after two lost and pouty seasons. Evans shot 34 percent from deep last season, by far the best mark of his career, and there is a little less leg-kicky noise in his jump shot now. But a lot of those 3-pointers were wide-open looks that defenses happily gave Evans in order to have his man clog up the paint.
The team still needs a long-term small forward, and though they almost certainly thought about making a run at Andre Iguodala, there doesn’t appear to have been strong interest on either side of that potential coupling.
And Evans, as something like a co-lead ball handler in Sacramento, hasn’t spent all that much time on the short corner 3-pointer — the domain of Shane Battier spot-up types. He attempted just 27 corner 3s last season and four in 2011-12, very low numbers. And even as he showed improvement from distance last season, he still shot just 33 percent on the midrange 2s he adores — only a couple percentage points better than his dismal 2011-12 mark.
Teams are still going to make Evans prove it from outside, by ignoring him off the ball and going under screens when he runs the pick-and-roll. The easy solution to that is to give him the ball and surround him with one dynamite pick-and-roll big man (Davis) and three shooters around the central play (Holiday, Gordon, Ryan Anderson). Evans showed real improvement as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season, even if he still focuses too much on using wild spin moves to chase his own shot in the lane. He shot a very nice 48.5 percent out of the pick-and-roll last season, but he also turned the ball over on 21 percent of those plays — one of the highest turnover rates in the league among guys who ran a decent number of pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports.
Evans’s pet move, the spin, is a little out of control by nature, and it’s hard to see open passing lanes when you’re twirling around at high speed. Keith Smart, Evans’s old coach, told me almost exactly a year ago that Evans still hadn’t figured out how to “map the floor” — how to understand the location of his teammates, anticipate their movements, and play with a willingness to actually look for them.
But the film shows Evans improved in that regard last season. He has a better sense of where shooters are, and when they’ll come open. He takes his time now on the pick-and-roll, pausing to read help schemes and draw traps before hitting his big man rolling to the rim. He developed nice chemistry with both Jason Thompson and Patrick Patterson last season, proving he can work well with big men capable of both slipping to the rim and popping for jumpers.6 That bodes well for his relationship with Davis and Anderson; Davis is a scary explosive cutter with a usable midranger, and Anderson is the league’s best shooting power forward. Evans will feel unburdened working with these guys after watching DeMarcus Cousins just stand around, sulking, on too many Evans-Cousins pick-and-rolls.
Evans assisted on 43 of Thompson’s baskets last season and just 41 of DeMarcus Cousins’s, which seems notable.
But the improvement has been fitful, and giving Evans the ball too much will not sit well with Holiday and Gordon. All three of these guys have diverse enough skill sets for this to work, but it’s going to take time. It helps that the Hornets ran more pick-and-rolls than anyone in the league, meaning that each possession could offer such chances for two or all three among this group.7 All three have flashed post-up games they can use against certain defenders, and sending Evans to the block could be a powerful way to space the floor around him. Evans developed as a cutter once Smart assigned more ballhandling responsibility to Isaiah Thomas, and he can be explosive working along the baseline that way — if he commits to it, which he did not always do. Holiday and Gordon are both smart enough to contribute that way.
Only the Wolves finished more possessions with a pick-and-roll ball handler either shooting, drawing a foul, or turning the ball over, and no team finished a larger share of possessions with the roll man doing one of those things, per Synergy Sports.
One piece of added value that might come with all three playing together: Opponents are going to have to think harder about having a wing player guard Anderson. Teams enjoyed doing that to New Orleans, since wings are much faster than big men and more comfortable on the perimeter, and thus more likely to stick close to the Grenade Launcher. (Trademark: John Hollinger, I think.) The trade-off is sticking a power forward, the guy who’d normally guard Anderson, on a Pelicans wing player. That’s easy to do when Aminu, Lance Thomas, or Darius Miller is available as a nonthreatening hiding spot, but it’s more dangerous when every Pelicans wing can handle the rock.
Again: There’s potential, especially if either Aminu or Rivers shows a new skill on offense this season. But it’s going to take work.
And that work isn’t even the heavy lifting here. That comes on the other end, where the Hornets ranked 28th in points allowed per possession and were an absolute catastrophe when Anderson and Davis shared the floor, per NBA.com.
All these moves have folks dreaming of an explosive Holiday-Evans-Gordon-Anderson-Davis lineup, and swapping Holiday for Vasquez is a major upgrade at the point of attack. But unless Davis is ready to make a huge jump, this lineup could be flammable on defense. It might even be likely that Williams will start Jason Smith to break up the Anderson-Davis duo at first, and the Hornets are going to need to find another capable big man after sending Robin Lopez to Portland in the Evans deal.8
Williams has told me he considers Smith the team’s best big-man defender, though he has also said he’s hopeful Davis and Anderson can manage better as a duo if the Pelicans put better perimeter defenders around them.
It’s not just that Davis is too skinny to guard centers, which is still the case, and still a problem. The Pelicans often had Anderson defend post players when he played with Davis, and though he’s game for some rough stuff inside, Anderson should not really be defending Al Jefferson. And smart teams will attack the Anderson-Davis combo by running pick-and-rolls with Davis’s man as the screener, knowing that if they can get by Davis, the Pelicans have zero capable rim protection behind the play.
Teams are also going to go small a ton against this lineup, since they like having wings guard Anderson and don’t yet fear his post-up game. And small-ball lineups, filled with shooting, present an even more difficult challenge for the Pelicans defensively.
And opponents were able to get by Davis last season. He improved toward the end, after suffering several injuries that interrupted his progress, but Davis was out of control for much of last season. That’s understandable; he’s only 20, learning in the world’s hardest league after a single year of college.
But the Pelicans need progress now, and it’s unclear if Davis will be ready. Davis looked like he was playing defense on ice for much of last season. He’d jump into help position a beat too early, or too late, with too much bounciness in his legs, which would result in him stumbling an extra half-step or so out of position. That made it difficult to recover toward the rim, where Davis’s length and shot-blocking are game-changing assets. He had particular trouble deciding what to do, and when to do it, against side pick-and-rolls.
The Pelicans as a whole struggled to execute Williams’s aggressive schemes, which involved packing the paint, doubling dangerous post-up players, and switching a decent chunk on pick-and-rolls. All of that movement requires pitch-perfect communication and timing. If Player X doubles the post, that means Player Y has to shift here and Player Z has to shift there. And if that post player kicks the ball out, everyone has to rotate in sync so that no shooter is left unattended. And obviously, if one player thinks a switch is in order, the other guy better think the same, or else some Keystone Kops–level comedy is about to happen.
The Pelicans had massive issues with all this stuff last season. They botched switches. They paused in fatal moments of confusion, unclear who was supposed to rotate where out of various double-teams and pick-and-roll rotations. They were especially late finding shooters in the weakside corners, a huge Williams concern; only four teams allowed more opponent corner 3s last season, and Pelicans opponents hit 42.4 percent of those shots — the sixth-highest mark in the league, per NBA.com.9
Numbers three, four, and five were 42.5 percent, 42.6 percent, and 42.9 percent, respectively, so the Pelicans’ ranking as sixth-worst here was much closer to “worst” than it was to “average.”
Again, Holiday will help. Davis having a year of growing pains in the rearview will help. Smith will help if he can stay healthy after suffering a torn labrum (the same shoulder injury that dogged Dwight Howard) last season. Evans might help, though how much is unclear. He’s a solid, versatile defender when he’s dialed in, but he wasn’t dialed in nearly enough as the Kings lost game after game and ranked among the league’s 10 worst defensive teams in every season of Evans’s career. Quick 2-guards can challenge him off the bounce, and he’ll face occasional size issues at small forward. He has the tools and wit to be a good, physical team defender away from the ball, but he has never proven he can do that game-to-game over a full season.
The Pelicans are betting huge money that he can, and that Williams can fit all these pieces together ASAP. Evans might also make Gordon expendable in the long run. Gordon is happy that New Orleans has acquired two of his buddies from the AAU circuit, and the Pelicans have publicly said all the right things about Gordon since acquiring him. But he has sulked for much of his time in New Orleans, and Williams was clearly frustrated last season with how much time Gordon missed due to knee issues. No team takes any trade totally off the table, at least ones that don’t involve LeBron or Kevin Durant, and the Pelicans will keep their options open with Gordon — and just about everyone else, save Davis.
But they have a big stake in this working from the jump next season. And it might, though there are major issues, especially on defense, that could doom this team and leave the Sixers licking their lips. The league is watching.