Biggest Questions and Answers for New Orleans Pelicans This Offseason
Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
When a team is stuck in the lottery for multiple years, like the New Orleans Pelicans have been, there are mounds of questions that must be answered.
While personnel changes occur every offseason, the Pelicans have many unanswered roster issues. Just five players from the 2012-13 season are under contract and five more have non-guaranteed salaries.
New Orleans is looking at a bright future, perhaps just one player away from becoming contenders in the Western Conference.
The young core of this team is set and won't be touched this offseason as they are readying for a winning team.
The defense, both interior and perimeter, has been weak. Last season, New Orleans ranked 28th in defensive efficiency (Hollinger stats), allowing 107.6 points per every 100 possessions.
How to improve the defensive presence is a clear question as the offseason has begun, but what other questions must the Pelicans answer?
Who Plays Small Forward?
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Currently, there is a vacancy at the Pelicans small forward position.
Al-Farouq Aminu, who started 71 games at the position in 2012-13, is a free agent, while Lance Thomas and Darius Miller have non-guaranteed contract options.
There is a chance the team retains Aminu, who would be cost effective, but Aminu isn't better than a bench player. His defense, rebounding, length and ability to steal a pass have kept him in the lineup, but the Pelicans had no better option.
His 7.5 points per game wasn’t the type of production you'd expect offensively from a small forward, one of the premiere NBA positions.
This year, New Orleans has the cap space to sign a lucrative deal with a top tier free agent if they choose to. There are a variety of small forwards available on the open market, including Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith or a slightly older option in Paul Pierce.
The way to go here is to sign Andre Iguodala to a max deal. He is one of the top perimeter defenders and one of the most unselfish players in the league. Though his offensive numbers have dipped, he’s one of the most athletic and versatile players in the NBA.
His value comes from his transition play and ability to make plays at the rim. The 29-year-old has averaged 15.1 points throughout his nine-year career, to go with 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
As a backup, the Pelicans should retain Darius Miller, who will cost just $788,872 (per HoopsWorld) and draft an Oladipo or Porter who will learn and develop with help from Iguodala.
Iguodala is the player that could return this team to relevancy, and though he would cost around $17 million, the Pelicans shouldn’t let this opportunity pass.
What Direction Do the Pelicans Go in the Draft?
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With a lottery selection, which way do the Pelicans go?
The clear need is a small forward, but what if Georgetown’s Otto Porter or UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad are off the board?
Do you go with the best player available, like Michigan’s Trey Burke or Indiana’s big man Cody Zeller? Do you trade down, or even out of, the draft?
If the roster stays virtually the same, there are two strong power forwards, a point guard, two shooting guards and a viable center on the roster.
The results of the lottery on Tuesday, May 21, will ultimately give general manager Dell Demps an option of how to answer this question.
In a perfect world, the Pelicans select Porter to bolster the small forward position. However, I can see Demps upgrading that position through free agency.
Finishing the season with the fifth worst record in the league, the highest odds lie at New Orleans selecting fifth. If the Pelicans were to fall out of the top seven or eight slots, don’t be surprised to see a trade.
In this scenario, the Pelicans would trade the lottery pick for a package of a player and that team’s second round pick (or late first round pick). With the pick, select a Jeff Withey-type center or a Reggie Bullock-type small forward.
This is a stretch, and the more realistic possibility is a fifth overall selection. Here, the Pelicans need to take the best available. Various mock drafts have New Orleans selecting Trey Burke, which could mean the end of Brian Roberts in New Orleans, according to John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Looking to upgrade on defense, the most logical choice would be Victor Oladipo. A wing player capable of locking down his counterpart, Oladipo is a top defender in the country. His perimeter play would also complement Anthony Davis’ interior play.
The drafts can get tricky, and this year Demps has a lot of decisions to make as the draft gets closer. Now, you think about picking fifth (until Tuesday’s lottery when you’ll know for sure) and selecting Trey Burke, Otto Porter or Victor Oladipo.
The player that best fits the needs of the team is Oladipo, and that’s the direction Demps and the Pelicans should head.
Which Non-Guaranteed Options Get Picked Up?
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From the 27-55 team of this season, there are just five contracts on the books for next year. Those contracts are Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and Greivis Vasquez.
Five more players have non-guaranteed options that Demps must decide whether they get picked up. Those players include Robin Lopez ($5,119,761), Jason Smith ($2,500,000), Lance Thomas ($884,293), Brian Roberts ($788,872) and Darius Miller ($788,872), courtesy of HoopsWorld.
With some imminent changes, it is certain not all of these players will be retained. While most non-guaranteeds are easy on salary cap, that also means they’re great trade bait. The Pelicans could elect for a trade to get some compensation before electing to release them.
After a torn labrum caused Jason Smith to require surgery, he missed the final 24 games of the 2012-13 season. Before the injury, he contributed over eight points per game in 17.2 minutes per game. The 7’0” forward finished the season with 45 blocks, the second highest mark of his career.
Smith is a gamer, a hustler who has molded into a cornerstone of Monty Williams’ team-first persona. He was very efficient during his time on the floor, and his 16.8 player efficiency rating was fourth best on the team.
Smith is a bargain at $2.5 million and should be brought back if he’s healthy.
Robin Lopez will, in all likelihood, be brought back. He started all 82 games last season, averaging 26 minutes per game. He is a clog in the middle, and though his 5.6 rebounds were a career high, he’s not great on the boards. He’s slow moving and has slow reactions.
He needs to be a more consistent defender and more aggressive around the rim. At over $5 million, Lopez could be out of New Orleans, and if Demps decides to trade his big man, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Unless the Pelicans drastically change their small forward situation, expect to see Lance Thomas back in New Orleans next season. His salary—under $1 million—is very team friendly, and he didn’t perform poorly last season, he just didn’t receive many minutes. It would be foolish to let him walk for under $1 million.
The same can be said about Miller and Roberts. With minimum salaries, it would make sense to see their contracts picked up.
However, depending on who New Orleans selects in the draft, one or both of these players could be trade bait.
Since non-guaranteed contracts are cap friendly and the Pelicans will still have a payroll of just under $33.5 million, each of these contracts should be picked up. Still, look for a trade partner for Lopez, get his affordable $5.1 million off the books and move on.
How Do They Improve Perimeter Defense?
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As I alluded to, the Pelicans ranked No. 28 in defensive efficiency last season. Much of the struggles occurred on the perimeter.
This is evident from the fact that the Pelicans ranked 28th in opponents' effective field goal percentage (52), and 27th in opponents' true shooting percentage (55.7), per HoopData.com.
Greivis Vasquez is a slow point guard and a miserable defender. Ryan Anderson logged the second most minutes per game and isn’t known as a defender. Eric Gordon is an average defender, utilizing his quickness, but lacking length.
While it would be a good idea for these players to work on their defense in the summer, they each control a crucial area of the team (facilitator, three-point shooter and scorer).
It’s going to take a personnel shift in order to contain this problem.
Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez can man the interior with the ability to shot block and clog the paint, but the perimeter is a different concern.
In order to improve, the Pelicans need a player known for defense. That can be addressed in one of three ways: the draft, a trade or a free-agent signing.
The logical way to answer this question is through some of the other questions. If they're lucky enough, the Pelican's brass will draft Victor Oladipo and sign Andre Iguodala. The best on-ball college defender in the country, Oladipo, harasses his counterpart, making it difficult to find any separation when playing man defense.
He stole over two passes per game and is able to guard multiple positions as a wing player. His lateral quickness makes him an intriguing prospect and a perfect fit for the Pelicans.
Iguodala brings energy, stingy defense and a knack for getting the basketball.
If the Pelicans’ offense stays at the same level they were producing this past season, the defense only needs to improve slightly in order for the team to win some basketball games.
Iguodala and Oladipo will play big roles for the franchise.
Does Eric Gordon Stay or Go?
There have long been rumors of a potential trade centered around shooting guard Eric Gordon.
Since arriving in New Orleans during 2011-12, Gordon has played just 51 games, suffering from knee and ankle injuries during that span.
And as this season came to a close, general manager Dell Demps couldn’t promise his max-contract player would wear a Pelicans uniform.
Joe Kaiser of ESPN.com (Insider access required) reported a rumor that the Pelicans may be seeking a deal with the Clippers. In the rumored package, Gordon and Robin Lopez would be shipped to Los Angeles for guard Eric Bledsoe and center DeAndre Jordan.
But, would a trade be the right move?
In limited playing time, Gordon still led the team in scoring with 17 points per game. However, he had a career low in rebounds per game (1.8), as well as shooting percentage (40.2) in 2012-13.
Playing with bone spurs in his ankle since the All-Star break—which he recently had surgery for—the Pelicans need to give Gordon a chance at full health. They haven’t gotten a chance to see exactly what Gordon can do.
When you look at the roster, this team is built around Gordon. Demps gave him an elite big man in Davis, a facilitator in Greivis Vasquez and a second scoring threat in Anderson.
Ultimately, it all depends on the draft and the type of deal Demps could get for his max-contract player. Still, the best option is to give Gordon one more chance.
He’s shown the player he can be on the court, and while emotions will flare throughout an 82-game season, Gordon can change the scope of a game (or season) with his explosiveness to the basket and ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor.
The answer to this problem is simple: For now, he stays. If the situation and clubhouse relationships worsen and Gordon still doesn’t fit with the team at full health, then ship him off at next year’s trading deadline.
But, if Gordon is traded and he goes on to have a phenomenal season with a different team, the Pelicans brass will come to regret letting go of its franchise player so soon.