Biggest Needs for New Orleans Pelicans During 2014 Offseason

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

Biggest Needs for New Orleans Pelicans During 2014 Offseason

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    There are few offseason wish lists that are as straightforward as the New Orleans Pelicans'. 

    The first, second and third orders of business will be getting healthy. Everything else is a matter of opinion. The organization probably needs to resolve its backcourt logjam that requires either Tyreke Evans or Eric Gordon to come off the bench.

    It probably needs to upgrade a bench without many household names. 

    But we'd be mistaken to judge New Orleans' final product based on the 2013-14 season alone. There wasn't enough Jrue Holiday or Ryan Anderson to make a fair assessment. And Evans didn't start to come along until he saw some starting opportunities in March.

    As a consequence, there remain important questions about these Pelicans—more questions than answers.

    All the same, here are a few answers based on what we know and what we think we know. 

Trading Eric Gordon

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    Eric Gordon isn't a terrible fit with the Pelicans, but he's a redundant one. And a pricey redundancy at that, scheduled to make about $15 million in each of his next two seasons. 

    Tyreke Evans showed what he's capable of in Gordon's absence, and that's all the more reason to part ways with the Indiana native. There's been talk of doing just that for some time now, including in the days leading up to this season's trade deadline (per the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence):

    The Pelicans signed Tyreke Evans this past summer to a four-year, $44 million free-agent deal and then added veteran PG Jrue Holiday via a trade with the Sixers to join Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis. But all the moves haven't exactly clicked. In fact, they've backfired, with New Orleans losing 13 of its last 17 games after starting out 11-10. The front office's take? Team execs are saying at least those are assets that can be moved. Davis and Holiday are the keepers.

    It's unclear how much Gordon ever wanted to be part of the Pelicans. He asked the team not to match the contract he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2012. New Orleans decided not to listen. 

    There's certainly a logic to keeping Gordon. He's a great perimeter shooter, and that helps create space for Evans' penetration and Anthony Davis' post game. But Gordon's presence also forces New Orleans to either bring Evans off the bench or play him at the 3. Neither scenario is optimal.

    Besides, when healthy, the Pelicans will have at least two excellent three-point shooters on the floor at any given time (Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday). 

    The big question is how much trade value Gordon has at the moment. He has an injury history and was limited to just 64 games this season. The Pelicans may not get the kind of offers they'd expect to receive for a max player, a market reality with which the organization must contend.

    Chances are the Pelicans will look to spend some of next season proving Gordon is healthy and good to go, so it could be that he's more likely to get moved near the trade deadline. In the meantime, New Orleans should begin sizing up the market and attempting to attract some suitors. They won't get equal value back, but there's something to be said for addition by subtraction.

    NOLA.com's Jimmy Smith has the right idea:

    The only way Gordon fits in this team's future is if he is willing to come off the bench next year (Gordon can opt out and walk away from the final year and his scheduled $15.5 million compensation after next season). A starting backcourt of Evans and a healthy Jrue Holiday would be far more dynamic than Holiday and Gordon. Because he's owed $30.4 million over the last two years of his contract, trading Gordon for equal value will be unfeasible. And those wishing to merely cut ties with the player simply don't understand the way the NBA works.

    So it is that New Orleans will probably get pennies on the dollar in return for their big investment. It'll sting, but it has to happen.

Getting Healthy

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    Easier said than done.

    If only there were some kind of magical strategy to rid teams of the injury bug, the Pelicans would be first in line. They lost Eric Gordon in March and Jrue Holiday (leg surgery) and Ryan Anderson (neck surgery) in January. Those latter two injuries made it all but impossible for New Orleans to hang in the playoff hunt.

    As a result, we really don't have much of a clue about what kind of team we have on our hands. We can piece together clues from the season, but we haven't given head coach Monty Williams an opportunity to get his guys on the same page. We're still waiting on that whole gelling thing to happen.

    It might be awhile longer, too.

    Even before injuries sidetracked New Orleans' season, we were looking at two new key additions in Holiday and Tyreke Evans. Those weren't just any additions, either. They're primary ball-handlers, floor generals who help implement Williams' philosophy on the floor. 

    So the big takeaway is that we owe Williams another few months of regular-season action before we can really judge the product he's putting on the floor.

    And it goes without saying that the Pelicans' playoff hopes can't be seriously evaluated until they've played at full health for the majority of a season. 

    Their chances might actually be pretty good.

Starting Tyreke Evans

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    Here's a pretty good reason to keep Tyreke Evans in the starting lineup: he plays like an All-Star when he's there. And, according to Evans, that's no coincidence (per NOLA.com's John Reid):

    I'm just playing my game, not thinking. I'm definitely more confident. I’m attacking, getting to the line and finding guys. When I get a rebound, I just go. I just know how to do those things better when I am starting. I've been starting my whole career and I know how to control getting baskets and finding open teammates better. I'm comfortable with that position and I can say that for sure.

    Having Eric Gordon on the roster complicates things a bit, given that Evans' game is a better fit for the 2-spot. He's a bit undersized at the small-forward position, so a three-guard look isn't ideal in this case. But one way or the other, Evans has proven his production is considerably better as a starter.

    He averaged nearly 20 points this season as a starter, but just 12.1 in 50 games off the bench.

    Things could run even more smoothly with a healthy Jrue Holiday figuring into the equation. Holiday is an excellent spot-up shooter, and Evans' handling ability would give Holiday the opportunity to play off the ball a little more. 

    The plan coming into the season was for Evans to be a dynamic, jack-of-all-trades kind of sixth man. It wasn't a terrible idea, and you can't fault Monty Williams for giving it a shot. 

    But we should keep in mind that Evans is still just 24. He's already been asked to change roles and positions a lot for a guy who's still learning the game.

    There's something to be said for putting him in a position to be successful, giving him an opportunity to do what he does best, an opportunity to work from within his wheelhouse. That's probably not the case so long as he's coming off the bench.

Adding Depth

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    The Pelicans actually ranked eighth this season in points scored (according to Hoopsstats.com), but that probably says more about Monty Williams' Spurs-influenced philosophy than it does the actual quality of New Orleans' bench. The team ranked fifth in average bench minutes. That suggests that Williams spread his minutes around—not that he had the depth needed to do so.

    Overall, the team ranked just 18th in scoring, a hair ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers. The Pelicans' defense ranked 20th in points allowed.

    You can blame those rankings in part on injuries, but names filling in and playing big minutes probably aren't the names you want headlining a second unit. Brian Roberts picked up the slack in Jrue Holiday's absence, playing over 23 minutes per game on the season.

    Greg Stiemsma played over 18 minutes per contest. Alexis Ajinca averaged nearly 17. And despite his 19 minutes a game, Austin Rivers' PER remained a lowly 11.3.

    One way or another, the logjam in the backcourt (Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon) should result in a productive sixth man unless one of them gets traded. The bigger questions are at the other positions, where the Pelicans are thin at virtually every position. 

    They need depth on the wing and in the paint. When Anthony Davis sits, the Pelicans are in trouble. A healthy Ryan Anderson helps resolve that to a degree, but he's more of a spread 4—not the kind of post presence New Orleans needs.

    As for the wing, New Orleans needs one of two things to happen. Either Al-Farouq Aminu needs to take another step forward in his development, or this club needs a better starter at the small-forward spot. Aminu's 13.1 PER isn't especially impressive for a starter at such an important position. Though the 23-year-old is known primarily for his defense, he's got to become more of a perimeter threat in a lineup that needs to feature Tyreke Evans—himself challenged from beyond the three-point line.

    There's still time for Aminu to develop, but the Pelicans will be in a win-now mode next season. If Aminu isn't going to further that cause, he could be an offseason (or early-season) casualty.

Trusting in Monty Williams

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    It would be easy to give up on Monty Williams at this point. We've watched him oversee some subpar performances.

    But there are a few things we should remember before dropping the guillotine. He's coached a revolving door of a roster, having to adapt to new names and faces. He's dealt with more than his fair share of injuries. And he's a young coach—still learning along with his team.

    Williams intimated as much nearing the season's end, according to The New Orleans Advocate's Jacob Unruh:

    It can either be a tragedy or an opportunity. I just choose to look at all of these situations as a great opportunity to get better as a coach, be in situations and learn from them. Had I had a team winning 50 to 55 games every year all four of my years as a coach, I don’t think I’d be as equipped as I am to go forward.

    The Pelicans' relatively strong play in March should also go a long way in establishing Williams' legitimacy. This is a team that could have easily quit on its coach, an organization that could have turned its attention to the draft months before the end of the season.

    But that's not the kind of culture being inculcated in New Orleans. NOLA.com's Jeff Duncan suggests the club's late-season resurgence should say something about the job Williams has been able to do:

    The Pelicans' recent surge is a positive sign for head coach Monty Williams, who has come under fire in recent weeks as his team struggles to another sub-.500 finish. Even though they're out of the playoff hunt, the Pels clearly haven't quit on Williams or tuned him out. They continue to play hard, something few teams in their position can say at this stage of the season.

    Here are some of the teams the Pelicans knocked off in March: the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks—all playoff teams. They also beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in April after eight-straight losses. Note that those losses came during an unreal stretch that included contests against the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and Thunder.

    March is probably a more fair metric by which to measure Williams, and the Pelicans' 9-7 record wasn't too shabby. It won't redeem another lost season, but it speaks volumes to Williams' ability to keep his team focused during tough times.

    Even when those times get a little easier, that's a nice virtue to have leading the locker room.