Did New Orleans Pelicans Make Mistake Swapping Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holiday?

Kyle Neubeck@@KyleNeubeckContributor IIApril 11, 2014

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio, right, defends New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)
Hannah Foslien

Coming off an All-Star campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers, Jrue Holiday was supposed to be an addition that would make the New Orleans Pelicans threats out West. 

The franchise needed a ready-made star to hold down the fort while Anthony Davis came of age. Trading top prospect Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected selection in the vaunted 2014 draft speaks to what they saw in the young guard.

Was the bounty paid for Holiday worth it?

Unfortunately, Pelican fans have seen their team hit with a rash of injuries, including one that knocked Holiday out for good in January. They've been deprived of seeing the promising collection of talent in New Orleans at full strength for most of the season.

Holiday's absence is a positive in one regard: the basketball-watching public has been able to see how the team functions without him. His backcourt mates, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, have shown what they can do in bigger roles for the Pelicans.

Between his time on and off the court, we have some idea of what Holiday means to the Pelicans now and in the future. Let's consider the things we know to this point. 

Holiday's Production

Gerald Herbert

If your concern was that Jrue Holiday's numbers were inflated playing on a bad Sixers team in 2013, his production when healthy this season should ease your concerns.

Jrue Holiday: Steady Production
2012-13 (Sixers)
2013-14 (Pelicans)14.37.944.739.03.1

Although his scoring numbers have taken a dip, Holiday's other basic peripherals have remained the same or improved. He has been a much more efficient shooter and distributor, even cutting down on the turnover issues that plagued him last season.

The scoring numbers dropping shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, Holiday was "the man" for the Sixers last season, given the chance to play with a strong supporting cast this year in New Orleans. That never fully materialized, but he's already trending toward being more of a true point guard.

Holiday's transition from scoring guard back to point is based in necessity. After being named the 2008 Gatorade Player of the Year during his senior year of high school, Holiday was forced into the off-guard slot at UCLA, with incumbent starter Darren Collison holding the reins.

During his time in Philadelphia, roster makeup held back Holiday's development. Without an above-average big man to develop a pick-and-roll partnership, the training that many young guards get in their first few seasons just wasn't there. That he was able to eek out eight assists per game last season speaks to his natural talent.

Having to be the featured option wasn't all bad for Holiday. He's able to hurt defenses in a variety of ways when he has it going, and he and Davis showed off how fruitful their partnership might be should they get time to develop together. For Holiday, learning when and where to pick his spots will come, even if it's a bit later than desired.

Further experience playing together will benefit Holiday and the team as a whole. He's an impactful player to begin with, so that experience will inch him that much closer to the top tier of guards.

Anyone in favor of the trade last summer would be hard pressed to call it a failure now, as long as we're limiting the conversation to his play. 

Overcrowded Backcourt

INDIANAPOLIS - JANUARY 4:  Eric Gordon #10, Greg Stiemsma #34, Tyreke Evans #1 and Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans walk on the court against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on January 4, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO U
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

The counterargument to Holiday's play is a cursory analysis of the Pelicans roster. There's a lot of money tied up in the backcourt over the next few seasons.

For the triumvirate of Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans will be paying in the ballpark of $35 million a season for the next three years, according to Sham Sports. That's almost halfway to the luxury tax, let alone the normal salary-cap threshold. 

If the Pelicans were a major-market franchise with deep pockets, this wouldn't be as much of a concern. Teams regularly spend up to and beyond the tax to keep good teams together, even under a new CBA that punishes cash cows.

But the Pelicans are not that, nor are they particularly close to contending in their current form.

Even with a full roster, there are major defensive woes that don't appear to be going away anytime soon. They're below average in points allowed per game (ranking 19th), but even that's inflated by the slow pace at which they play. Their defensive rating of 110.1, 27th best in the league, is much more indicative of their play on that end.

There are simply too many poor defenders on the team, and there's a large void in the paint that a player like Noel might address. Davis has frequently been left on an island by his teammates, and even a player with his immense shot-blocking skills can't cover for anyone.

The crunch-time lineup of this trio, Davis and Ryan Anderson blew opponents away on offense, but gave up 1.2 points per possession on defense. With Evans forced to play small forward, the Pelicans were at an extreme disadvantage. 

Perhaps it's most telling that Evan's numbers post-All-Star break have been fantastic. His scoring, assists, rebounds and shooting percentages have all increased dramatically while playing more at his natural position.

Still, that's not an argument worth much in regards to negating the Holiday trade. Holiday's ability to shoot and play off the ball worked well next to Evans, and the two posted a plus-1.6 plus/minus while sharing the court, according to the NBA's stats database. Compared to Holiday-Gordon (-0.6) and Evans-Gordon (-2.4) it's by far the best of the bunch.

Not trading for Holiday wouldn't change the fact that Gordon has been ineffective with whomever his partner has been. 

Exploring the Unknown

Michael Perez

Nerlens Noel sounds like he would make the Pelicans better on paper, but without having seen him play even a minute of professional basketball, it's hard to say.

Noel has yet to play a game as he recovers from the torn ACL that ended his freshman year at Kentucky, so any impact he'd bring to the table would have to wait til next season. Picturing a shot-blocking tandem of Noel and Davis is tantalizing, but still far off.

Apart from Noel, the bigger impact came from the domino effect created by the trade. After taking on Holiday's salary, the Pelicans painted themselves into a corner financially. In order to sign Evans, the Pelicans had to sacrifice Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez, the former of whom has been sorely missed on the defensive interior.

Given the state of the Western Conference, not making the trade probably wouldn't have had a demonstrative effect on this season. Lopez and Vasquez would have been marginal upgrades, but New Orleans would still likely be destined for the lottery...only this way, they'd still own their pick.

Having two lottery picks join the fray in Noel and this year's selection would hopefully give the Pelicans a solid core when combined with Davis, Evans, Gordon and a healthy Anderson.

But "hopefully" is the key there. New Orleans would be rolling the dice, searching for pieces that could push them into contention. Holiday is a known quantity, having already proven in Philadelphia that he could be a secondary piece on a playoff team. That's generally what you hope for in the back half of the lottery—unearthing Paul George or Dirk Nowitzki is doable, but it tends to be the exception, not the rule.

With Davis already on board, trying to build through the draft would be just as risky as a splashy trade. Having already lost Chris Paul to the temptations of big-market teams, the onus is on management to find complementary pieces sooner rather than later.

Holiday is one of those pieces.

Rather than lament the perils of trading away Noel's flat-topped theatrics, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps should be focusing on shedding Gordon's contract by any means necessary, rather than revisiting the Holiday swap.

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