If New Orleans can manage to defy the odds and land a spot in the top five, they'll be able to add the final piece they've been missing and elevate to possible championship contenders. If they can't, there won't be much else they can do to improve given the team's limited resources.
The Pelicans have a 4 percent chance of falling inside the top five in this year's draft. Otherwise, the pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers as the final part of last year's Jrue Holiday trade. While the Pelicans' chances are slim, there have been instances where teams defied the odds.
Back in 2008, the Chicago Bulls entered the lottery with a 1.7 percent chance of winning the Derrick Rose sweepstakes and still emerged victorious. In 2007, the Portland Trail Blazers had slightly better odds at 5.3 percent, but they still managed to jump from seventh to first.
The example that should give Pelicans fans the most optimism occurred in 1993, when the Orlando Magic landed the first overall pick despite a 1.5 percent chance of winning the lottery (All lottery odds courtesy of RealGM.com).
As the May 20th lottery gets closer, the question becomes: What's at stake for the Pelicans? Here's a look at both ends of the spectrum.
If They Keep The Pick
If the Pelicans manage to keep the pick, they'll be able to add a second potential superstar to go along with blossoming forward Anthony Davis. Suddenly, we start talking about a possible frontcourt of Davis and Kansas center Joel Embiid or an inside-outside punch of Davis and either Duke's Jabari Parker or Kansas' Andrew Wiggins.
Hang on for a second. That thought just gave me chills.
This offseason, New Orleans has two glaring needs to address. They need a starter at center, assuming that they'll keep Davis at the 4. They also need a small forward with Al-Farouq Aminu likely leaving via free agency.
Oddly enough, the three best players in this draft happen to play one of those two positions. Embiid would keep Davis at his natural power forward spot, while Parker or Wiggins would give the team another option on the perimeter.
The Pelicans flew under the radar last season, mainly because injuries decimated the team's potential. When healthy, New Orleans can trot out a core that includes Davis, Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
Say what you will about how awful and overpaid Gordon has been since coming over in the Chris Paul trade three years ago. It speaks to this team's depth that he's possibly the fifth-best player on the roster.
Now, you're talking about the possibility of Gordon being the sixth-best guy on the team after one of those three rookies gets added to the fold. The team will still need better fortune with injuries, but how is this for an opening day starting rotation:
- Center: Joel Embiid
- Power Forward: Anthony Davis
- Small Forward: Tyreke Evans
- Shooting Guard: Eric Gordon
- Point Guard: Jrue Holiday
Then, you throw in Anderson (one of the best shooting big men in the game) as your sixth man. Plus, a possibly re-signed Anthony Morrow and an improving Austin Rivers to help bolster the bench.
Or, what about this for a starting lineup:
- C - Davis
- PF - Anderson
- SF - Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins
- SG - Gordon or Evans
- PG - Holiday
The sixth-man role goes to whoever loses the battle at shooting guard between Evans and Gordon. Based on how the two played when given the chance to start, Evans would get the nod.
In 22 starts last season, Evans averaged 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. He also shot just under 50 percent from the field. As for Gordon, he contributed 15.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 64 starts. He shot just under 44 percent from the field, including 39 percent from three.
Both men would be expensive reserves. Gordon will make a little less than $15 million next season, while Evans is owed around $11.3 million.
Regardless, if New Orleans has a top-five pick this June, the team's narrative changes. Suddenly, Davis has a running mate to grow with for the next decade and the Pelicans look like a team that could make serious noise in the West.
If They Don't Keep The Pick
In some ways, this year's lottery is more important to the team's future than when they won the chance to draft Anthony Davis in 2012. The top priority of any basketball team is to build around its franchise player.
Throughout the Pelicans' history, they have had four "franchise players:" Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Paul and now Davis. If you want to make the case for Glen Rice, I won't argue with you.
Regardless, the then-Hornets failed to build a championship contender around any of those first three names. One by one, each of those cornerstones found greener pastures elsewhere.
Mourning was traded to the Miami Heat after just three seasons with the Hornets. After five seasons, Johnson was dealt to the New York Knicks. Chris Paul gave the team six seasons, but he left in the midst of his prime also.
The Pelicans can't let the same thing happen with Davis. If the Pelicans come up short in the lottery this year, there is no "maybe next year." As we've seen with the current drama between Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves, young superstars are only going to wait around so long for the team to get their act together.
Now, Davis hasn't expressed any interest in playing elsewhere or demanded the team improve dramatically this summer. Nor should he. He's only played two seasons and he, much like the rest of the team, still has some growing to do as well.
However, the window of opportunity doesn't stay open forever. As great as Davis was last year (20.8 points, 10 rebounds and a league-leading 2.8 blocks per game), those seasons get quickly forgotten when you don't make the playoffs.
When people talk about Michael Jordan, they don't care as much about him averaging 37.1 points per game during the '86-'87 regular season as they do about his six NBA championships. The same for Kobe Bryant. Scoring 81 points in a single game doesn't mean as much when a trophy isn't on the line.
If New Orleans hands over this year's pick to Philly, the Plan B for improving this summer is rather underwhelming. The Pelicans have $57 million in payroll committed for next season, per ShamSports.com. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, the 2014-15 salary cap is expected to be around $63 million after the $5 million increase.
For all you math experts out there, that leaves New Orleans with about $6 million of cap space to play with. There's no point in talking about the luxury-tax threshold (which jumps from $71.7 million to $77 million) because no marquee free agent will force the Pelicans to overspend.
Do you think Carmelo Anthony has Bourbon Street on his list of places to visit during his free-agent tour this summer? Do you see Kevin Love clamoring to be traded to the Big Easy? The answer is no. This is the plight of playing in a small market.
That's why teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs put so much emphasis on drafting well. When you aren't a free-agent hotbed, you better be able to bring in some promising rookies.
With that option off the table this year for New Orleans, the highlights of the summer will likely be re-signing Anthony Morrow and/or overpaying someone like Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker. Those may be sound moves, but they don't quite get the blood pumping like seeing Jabari Parker shake commissioner Adam Silver's hand while wearing a Pelicans hat.
The team must also find a way to stay healthy. Last year, every notable member of the roster was bitten by the injury bug. Even Pierre The Pelican, the team's mascot, managed to catch a bad one. Here's the who's who of the walking wounded:
- Anthony Davis (missed 15 games with various ailments)
- Ryan Anderson (missed 60 games after injuring his neck in January)
- Jrue Holiday (missed 48 games with a stress fracture in his tibia)
- Eric Gordon (missed 18 games, mostly due to knee troubles)
- Jason Smith (missed 51 games with knee and shoulder injuries)
- Tyreke Evans (missed 10 games and is currently recovering from offseason knee surgery)
As if that dilemma isn't bad enough, the team is faced with potential drama of Evans and Gordon's fight for the starting shooting guard spot. Head coach Monty Williams suggested in his season-ending conference that the two might compete for the position.
"I don't want to speculate but it is part of the equation. Eric is a guy that can score the ball and anything I say right now is going to be blown out of proportion," Williams told John Reid of The Times Picayune. "But I have thought about Tyreke in a starting role. For whatever reason, it clicks for him. When you look at Tyreke and his effectiveness as a starter, you can't just sneeze at that. It's a valid conversation."
When asked if he was OK with possibly coming off the bench, Gordon didn't seem warm to the idea:
"I won't get into that because I thought they brought me here to lead and set the tone for the team."
While a switch to Evans as the starter is understandable given Gordon's lack of durability and effectiveness, the potential for bad blood is not something a young team trying to get better needs. It doesn't help matters that Gordon's albatross contract (two years, little over $30 million left) makes him nearly untradeable.
The only saving grace, as BourbonStreetShots.com's Michael McNamara points out, would be for Gordon to agree to decline his $15.5 million option for 2015-16. That would turn his contract into an expiring deal this year and make him a little easier to move.
"What if Gordon’s deal was an expiring? What if, instead of being on a 2 year/$30.4 million contract, he was on a 1 year/$14.8 million contract? Would that make him much easier to trade?" McNamara asked.
The bottom line is that, if New Orleans doesn't get the pick, the chances of improving from this past season's 34-48 record seem bleak. With limited cap space and no draft picks, the Pelicans' best chance of getting better is hoping the core remains healthy.
That may be asking a lot, especially with Anderson coming off neck surgery. Ultimately, a lot rides on this offseason one way or the other. If they can't get in the top five, Williams and general manager Dell Demps need to have an excellent alternative plan.
The Pelicans have made the postseason just once in the four years since Williams came to town. They've missed the playoffs the last three seasons. It's hard to fathom Williams still having a job if that number goes to four straight.
The same goes for Demps. While he's added some nice pieces during his tenure, he's made a few mistakes that have handicapped the franchise as well. Last summer, he pushed all of his chips to the middle of the table and gambled Holiday was the one piece keeping the team from the playoffs.
As it turned out, he was wrong. Now, his best chance of getting some chips back depends on New Orleans defying the odds and landing a top-five pick. If they can't, the Pelicans could become the latest in a string of exciting young teams that never quite lived up to the hype.