In order for the New Orleans Pelicans to get back into contention, small forward needs to be altered next year.
In the NBA, small forward has become a premier position in recent years. Some of the game's greatest shooters are currently holding down the three-spot on their respective teams, including LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce.
For the Pelicans, they have only five players with guaranteed contracts at this point—last year’s draft picks, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, max-contract Eric Gordon, dynamic shooter Ryan Anderson and facilitator Greivis Vasquez—barring any offseason trades.
It was a struggle last season as three small forwards regularly saw the floor.
The majority of playing time went to Al-Farouq Aminu, who averaged just 7.7 points in 27.2 minutes per game. The remaining minutes were picked up by Lance Thomas and Darius Miller, each contributing under three points and under two rebounds per game.
Aminu, the 6’9” wing player who started 71 games, should not be a top priority for the Pelicans in free agency. He is a turnover machine who doesn’t provide much offensively.
According to ESPN’s Hollinger Stats (Insider Access required), Aminu’s turnover ratio—percentage of the players' possessions that end in turnovers—was 15.4, or the worst among 70 qualified small forwards.
While his contributions on defense helped keep this team in multiple games, the turnovers and lack of consistent offensive production have the Pelicans needing a fix, and the problem requires an upgrade.
When you look at the cap space the Pelicans possess, there are a few ways management can look to upgrade in this area. These include seeking a proven free agent, waiting until the draft to see if they can select a viable option at the position, or getting creative and looking for a trade partner.
The best way to go about upgrading a premier position on a young, inexperienced team is to look at who's available via free agency.
This year’s free agent class has players well within the Pelicans’ price range. Perhaps the most intriguing player is Paul Millsap of the Utah Jazz. He can score from mid-range and has the quickness to get to the rim.
The 6’8” Louisiana native could look at this team and realize he could turn them into a contender. While his preferred position is power forward, the athleticism and ability to steal and rebound will make him an immediate upgrade.
Last season, Millsap scored 14.6 points per game, with 7.1 rebounds and a career high 2.6 assists.
In Jeff Duncan’s article (New Orleans Times-Picayune) about the priority of addressing the small forward position, he writes:
Millsap...owns the kind of work ethic and team-first attitude Monty Williams and Dell Demps crave. He's probably better suited to play power forward but has improved his offensive ability to play the three spot this season. He'd fit nicely next to Anthony Davis on the Hornets' front line.
This clip shows Millsap's complete game (coming against the Hornets). He's able to see the floor and find the open man, hit mid-range and baseline jumpers, while being an effective post-up player and crashing the boards.
For a player who made $8.6 million last season, a slight raise is still within the Pelicans pay range. If he commits to playing small forward, then New Orleans will have a dynamic front court.
While Millsap is a star, the best option for this team is a player who will come more expensive (around $15 million-$17 million), and that is Denver’s Andre Iguodala. He is one of the most athletic players in the league, and he does it all.
Iguodala is a premier talent who is a top perimeter defender. Though he is an above-average scorer, he is not selfish, padding the stats in every category.
The 29-year-old has averaged 15.1 points throughout his nine-year career, to go with 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists. His quickness and ball-handling skills enable him to get to the rim, which accounts for the majority of his points.
However, his value comes from his defense and his ability to make plays in transition. He can frustrate his opponent on defense and run the floor with the best of them.
In the clip below, you can see the praise he has received from around the league and how his “team-first” mentality will allow him to fit into any system. New Orleans would benefit from having a durable, athletic talent like Iguodala on its team.
As the Pelicans prepare for another lottery selection, with a slim hope of getting the No. 1 pick for a second consecutive year, there are a few small forwards worthy of selecting with a lottery pick.
In all likelihood, the selection will be between Georgetown’s Otto Porter and UCLA’s Shabazz Mohammed, who each have star potential and the ability to change the scope of a team.
If I had the pick, and both were still available, I’m taking Porter. He is the most dominant wing player in the draft. Porter's high-percentage shot selection led to his 48 percent shooting from the field this season.
The No. 1 ranked small forward in the draft, his scoring will automatically be an upgrade over Aminu. He averaged over 16 points per game in his sophomore season.
That’s not all Porter will bring, as he is an above-average defender. He had 7.5 rebounds per game and stole 57 passes throughout the season.
His versatility is on display in this next clip.
As he’s been steadily climbing up draft boards, Porter is a must-pick for the Pelicans if he is still on the board at the time of their selection.
Other options in the lottery for small forward would be Mohammed or UNLV’s Anthony Bennett. If none of these players are left by the time New Orleans selects, they should go in a different direction and try to upgrade through a trade.
Find A Trade Partner
A name the Pelicans had on their radar in the 2007 draft and should still be worth looking into is current Philadelphia 76er Thaddeus Young.
An athletic swingman, he could be moved in the right package. Primarily playing power forward for Philadelphia, at 6’8” Young is very undersized and could be better suited as a small forward.
Averaging just under 15 points per game, with 7.5 rebounds and a 18.27 player efficiency rating last season, Young is a great wing player, capable of playing all three frontcourt positions.
He attempts most of his shots inside, per 82games, scoring at a 61 percent clip and doing more of what’s needed for the team.
To be an effective three, he needs to be quicker and work on his perimeter/outside shooting. Still just 24 years old, the six-year vet is coming off a year where he started every game he played in for the first time in his career.
If Young is brought in to be the starting small forward, it would be a good idea to re-sign Aminu, who could be had for a 3-year, $9 million-$11 million deal. The two could complement each other and this position wouldn't be a problem anymore.
While it’s unclear at this point how the Pelicans will address the small forward situation, it is certain that this area will be a primary focus in the summer.
If the Pelicans wish to turn the corner, a small forward upgrade is imminent. There are a number options for the Pelicans to take this offseason; they just have to figure out which avenue will work best for the team.