The New Orleans Pelicans are building to contend for a postseason berth, but the team must upgrade a few important areas during the offseason.
Frustrated by injuries throughout the entire 2013-14 campaign, New Orleans finished 14 games back of the eighth seed. But as the current playoffs are showing, there is a strong competitive balance between the top and middle of the Western Conference.
And that does not necessarily bode well for the Pelicans, who need to let unnecessary pieces seek other options, acquire a sharpshooter and solidify their bench.
Fortunately, the franchise can address the trio of issues for the 2014-15 season by three interconnected transactions.
Led by drive-and-kick point guard Jrue Holiday, New Orleans is built to space the floor offensively by drawing defenders into help positions. Plus, Anthony Davis provides a true post presence, demanding attention on the block.
As a result, the defensive movement is begging for the Pelicans' wings to attempt open triples. Despite a pair of key players bringing down the percentage, New Orleans was still the league's sixth-best team from beyond the arc.
Other than an injury-prone Ryan Anderson and impending free agent Anthony Morrow, however, the roster needs an elite three-point shooter. Morrow was an excellent shooter, but his lackluster defense should be avoided.
Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu can slide into open positions, but the 23-year-old is a poor fit within the system. He connected on only 13 of 48 trifecta attempts last season, which is a glaring issue.
The Pelicans' offensive spacing is sufficient, but Aminu simply cannot knock down shots.
New Orleans' front office must decide if a player known for his defensive impact and rebounding prowess is worth re-signing for around $4 million per season. If he walks, Aminu must be replaced with a defensive-minded, yet capable shooter.
Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha is the model of what the Pelicans should pursue. Though the former second-team NBA All-Defensive honoree will be a free agent, it's unlikely he doesn't return to OKC.
Regardless, Sefolosha and combo-guard Avery Bradley are two logical options, while small forward Trevor Ariza represents a pricey potential addition for New Orleans.
Of course, the Pelicans can create cap space by dangling shooting guard Eric Gordon on the trade market in order to bolster the bench. According to HoopsHype, Gordon demands nearly $15 million for each of the next two years.
Most of what Gordon brings to the team, Tyreke Evans does more efficiently.
When Holiday needs a breather, Evans becomes the main ball-handler. He constantly attacks the rim, taking a ridiculous 75.7 percent of his 897 attempts within eight feet, per NBA.com. Conversely, where Evans made an abysmal 22.9 percent of his looks outside of that short distance, Gordon knocked down 38.9 percent, courtesy of NBA.com.
But its defense suffers when the duo is on the court simultaneously.
Per 82games, the five-man unit of Davis, Anderson, Evans, Gordon and Holiday played 91 minutes together last season. While the group posted the team's top offensive points-per-possession rating of 1.25 the lineup ceded a team-worst 1.20 points.
According to Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune, head coach Monty Williams addressed this issue:
If you look at the numbers with those five guys defensively, it's not a five that's going to get it done consistently. But it is a five that can cause a lot of trouble for other teams. ... To be honest with you, the sample size with those five guys is really too small to evaluate. Those guys are lethal on one end of the floor, but we have to be better on both ends. That to me is where our improvement has to grow this summer.
But for a team striving to improve its defensive presence, paying both Evans and Gordon $11-plus million each year is counterintuitive.
New Orleans, which finished with the league's 10th-worst record, must be gifted an opportunity to participate in the 2014 NBA draft. Unless the team secures a top-five pick during the lottery, the Pelicans' protected pick will be headed to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of last season's trade for Holiday.
Should the Pelicans acquire a draft pick or wait for undrafted free agents?
If—by some miracle—New Orleans lands near the top and keep their selection, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Arizona's Aaron Gordon would be the optimal fits. Jabari Parker is a more explosive offensive talent but is essentially mediocre on the other end, whereas Wiggins and Gordon are regular contributors defensively.
With that being said, expect the Pelicans to lose their first-round pick to Philly. What's more, the head-shaking 2009 trade that sent a second-rounder and Antonio Daniels to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Darius Songaila plagues New Orleans this season.
However, Gordon could be swapped for a pair of second-round picks, which would certainly be beneficial for the near future.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman ranks Oklahoma State's Markel Brown as the No. 43 prospect, and he would be an adequate addition on both ends of the floor. As a senior, Brown nailed 37.9 percent of three-point attempts, and his quickness allowed him to be a pesky defender.
So, after Aminu and Morrow are not re-signed, the Pelicans need to acquire a replacement that fits Williams' system on offense and defense. In turn, Evans occupies a bigger role, and a rookie like Brown is added to complement the team's solid core following a Gordon salary dump.
And if the Pelicans can stay healthy next season—looking at you, Holiday and Anderson—the offseason upgrades would boost the promising young team's chances in the playoff hunt.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from Basketball-Reference. Advanced stats and shot charts specifically attributed.
Follow Bleacher Report NBA writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.