July 12, 2019, 12:02 am
Once Zion Williamson fell in the Pelicans’ lap, everything changed. Anthony Davis was not yet traded and it wasn’t entirely certain the Pelicans would receive a foundational young talent to headline a deal. Then David Griffin’s lottery luck struck again, and the Pelicans found themselves in a still-uncertain, but better position: they now had a foundational young player to build around and the assets that would come back from an AD trade to bolster their future interests.
Now that they had someone to build around, the calculus of a rebuild shifted gears. They could sell off Jrue Holiday to a team looking for a top-25 player and go full rebuild, or they could look to acquire young talent on the free agency market. The Pelicans chose to go in-between.
The moves the Pelicans made this summer echoed everything that David Griffin said in his various public appearances. They wanted to rebuild for the future, but they wanted to do so in a way that completely revamped the culture of basketball in this city, because the Pelicans have always been second fiddle to the Saints. And so far, every veteran that the Pelicans have chosen to acquire and every veteran that they have chosen to keep has a specific purpose for the future of this team, even if they won’t be around to reap the benefits four or five years from now.
Holiday is the steadying force. Griffin has not shied away from paying high praise to Jrue, challenging him to jump from “very good” NBA player to MVP candidate. Whether this challenge will result in the leap that Griffin wants and expects is unclear, but this is certainly clear: the team belongs to Jrue, and that is something that couldn’t be said at any time during Anthony Davis’ awkward tenure here.
J.J. Redick is the first veteran the Pelicans acquired. The 35-year-old was brought in for a very specific reason: to shore up a lineup that was virtually bereft of any volume distance shooting. To my estimation, Redick could possibly account for as much as 30% of the Pelicans’ 3-point makes this season barring any major roster changes. This makes him a pivotal consideration when constructing lineups that optimize the skills of the other players, particularly when 2-3 of the other perimeter players may lack reliable jumpers.
Derrick Favors was the final major veteran acquisition and came via trade with the Utah Jazz. Griffin noted that Favors is seen as a major part of the nucleus moving forward, which would mean that the Pelicans are hopeful to maintain Favors after his contract expires at the end of this year. They think that he has “untapped offensive potential,” which is probably linked to moving Favors out of an awkward fit with Rudy Gobert, as the two centers had a lot of skill overlap. Favors does his best work near the rim, and that is hard to do when the Stifle Tower is your frontcourt partner for a sizable number of minutes. The shift to full-time 5 should take Favors’ offense away from the perimeter, where he doesn’t belong.
The use of the Pelicans’ available cap space points to the middle ground they hope to achieve this year: a team that is built to win (some) now while still maintaining flexibility for the future. No contract handed out this summer (including Darius Miller’s, which appears to be an overpay for a short-term need and for trade salary aggregation) extends past two years, no big contracts were handed out, and no future first-round draft assets were sent out despite the deep collection of first-rounders the Pelicans possess. The hope is that the Pelicans will be good enough to compete for a playoff spot and that this culture will help the young core build and solidify good habits as they learn to play on a winning NBA team.
While it is far too early to proclaim the certainty of a bright future for the New Orleans Pelicans, one thing is clear: the front office is going to very public about what it’s going to do, and after it has declared its intentions, it is going to deliver upon them; for that reason, hope is superfluous in a way that has never been present in Crescent City basketball.