Breaking Down New Orleans Pelicans' Offseason Blueprint
With the New Orleans Pelicans sitting out this year's NBA draft, the team's focus now shifts to finding other ways to improve this offseason. It has a strong core already in place but still needs to add a couple of pieces in order to compete in a tough Western Conference next season.
The 2013-14 season didn't go quite as the Pelicans had hoped. After mortgaging the future by bringing in the likes of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, injuries decimated the team, and the Pelicans ultimately finished with the 10th-worst record in the league at 34-48.
The good news is that former No. 1 overall pick (2012) Anthony Davis made huge strides en route to earning his first All-Star appearance at just 20 years old (he's now 21). He averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and a league-leading 2.8 blocks per game.
Davis has a solid supporting cast around him in Evans, Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The problem is injuries denied this group a chance to mesh together. However, even with the core expected to come back healthy, the team remains a work in progress.
That's why this will be an important summer for general manager Dell Demps. After missing the playoffs the past three seasons, patience is running low in the Big Easy. Demps and Company won't be able to use poor health as a crutch for very long.
Here are five things New Orleans must do this offseason in order of importance from least to most.
5. Let Brian Roberts Walk and Replace with Pierre Jackson
Second-year point guard Brian Roberts got a chance to show the team what he can do when starter Jrue Holiday suffered a season-ending leg injury in January. He definitely had his moments in the second half of the season.
Roberts averaged 12.5 points and 4.5 assists during the month of February. He followed that up with 12.9 points and 3.5 assists in March. Ultimately, the Dayton product finished the season with 9.4 points and 3.3 assists per game.
He also led the league in free-throw percentage by converting 94 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.
This summer, Roberts is a restricted free agent. As well as he played at times, the 28-year-old has limited upside, and the team should find a better alternative to be Holiday's caddy next season. That alternative should be last year's second-round pick, Pierre Jackson.
Jackson had quite an interesting year. After being traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to New Orleans on draft day, the Baylor guard decided to start his post-college career in France. Before ever playing a game overseas, Jackson returned home to play with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA's D-League.
Jackson thrived in the D-League, averaging 29.1 points and 6.2 assists in 31 games according to RealGM.com. That included a 58-point performance on February 4, which was the league record for most points in a single game.
While Jackson's future in the pros is up in the air, he definitely caught the attention of Pelicans GM Dell Demps.
"He's (Jackson) an interesting one. He played really good in the D-League. I think he was the leading scorer. We’ve followed him and been in contact with him," Demps said in April, according to The Times-Picayune's John Reid. "Can I promise Pierre Jackson is going to be on our team next year? I can’t say that right now. But he’s definitely an asset. He's done everything and exceeded expectations."
While a little small at 5'10" and 180 pounds, Jackson is very quick and athletic. He may not replicate his D-League numbers in the pros, but the 22-year-old is certainly worth a flier. He'll also likely come cheap, which is an added bonus for a Pelicans team with limited cap space.
Roberts may be the more proven commodity, but Jackson's youth and upside make him the more worthwhile option.
4. Find a Starting Center
The center position is one of the Pelicans' most glaring needs this offseason. The team tried a number of options out at the 5 spot, but all underwhelmed for one reason or another.
It started with Jason Smith, the longest-tenured player on the roster. Smith was an adequate starter (9.7 points, 5.8 rebounds), but his season was cut short by a knee injury in February. From there, it all went downhill.
Greg Stiemsma had trouble staying on the court because of foul trouble. When he was on the floor, he wasn't very effective. Alexis Ajinca was signed midseason and had some moments, but he's not a long-term option.
There was also rookie Jeff Withey. Despite being one of the older rookies in last year's class at 24 years old, the former Jayhawk still looked pretty raw. At best, he's nothing more than a possible backup.
In his end-of-the-season press conference, head coach Monty Williams addressed the team's need to find Anthony Davis a frontcourt mate:
"I am aware of those games midway through the season when you play against Charlotte and Al Jefferson goes for 30 then the next day you play against Nene and he goes for big numbers," Williams said, according to PelicanDebrief.com. "Those are tough games to swallow because you would like to have somebody in the middle on a night in and night out basis that you don’t have to help as much on defense. I think those are the best defensive teams where they have a guy at the center position that can hold his own."
According to ShamSports.com, the Pelicans will have $57 million on the books next season. With the cap expected to be a little over $63 million, per ESPN's Marc Stein, that leaves New Orleans with very little wiggle room to find a starter-quality big man.
Re-signing Smith makes the most sense given his familiarity with the team. Plus, since he's coming off knee surgery, he's not likely to fetch much more than the $2.5 million he made last season. Some other bargain-bin options include Nazr Mohammed, Elton Brand and Cole Aldrich.
None of those names gets the heart pumping, but the Pelicans don't need a superstar inside. They just need someone who can lighten the load on Davis in the paint.
3. Find a Starting Small Forward
Small forward has been New Orleans' biggest area of need for quite some time. The team has been getting by with Al-Farouq Aminu the past two seasons, but he's better served as a small-ball power forward.
Now, Aminu is a free agent, and the Pelicans would be wise to replace him with someone a bit more versatile offensively. Aminu was solid as a defender and rebounder, but his weak outside shot left a lot to be desired.
Much like with the team's need at center, a lack of financial resources will limit the team's chances of locking down one of this summer's premier options. That means no Carmelo Anthony or Luol Deng. No Rudy Gay or Gordon Hayward.
In fact, unless the team can free up some cap space, it'll probably be out of the running for second-tier guys like Trevor Ariza, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The more likely names in New Orleans' price range are Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, and Michael Beasley.
One possibility that's a bit intriguing is Jordan Hamilton, who played with the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets last season. Hamilton didn't see much playing time with either team, but he has some potential.
He's young (23 years old), athletic and has decent size for the position (6'7"). He's also a capable shooter from the outside (career 36 percent shooter from downtown). His lack of a proven track record means he shouldn't be too expensive either.
If the Pelicans can free up some space, two-way players like Deng or Ariza would make the most sense. With that being unlikely, taking a flier on a prospect like Hamilton wouldn't be the worst gamble in the world.
2. Re-Sign Anthony Morrow
In fairness, re-signing Anthony Morrow gets crossed off the list if the veteran shooter decides to opt in for next season. However, at 28 years old and coming off a nice bounce-back season, it seems likely that he'll test the market.
Morrow averaged 8.4 points per game with the Pelicans, but his importance goes beyond the numbers. On a team decimated by injuries, Morrow was one of the few constants. He played in 76 games for the Pellies, which was the second-most on the team behind forward Al-Farouq Aminu (80).
Toward the end of the season, Morrow's shooting and knack for hitting clutch shots proved invaluable. The Georgia Tech guard saved his best for the final month. He averaged 15.1 points per game in April and shot nearly 45 percent from behind the arc.
The need to bring back Morrow isn't lost on coach Monty Williams:
"Anytime you can resign guys who can shoot the ball well, it’s got to be a priority," Williams said, according to Darrell Williams of The New Orleans Advocate. "But you can’t fight what the league is going to do. I’m sure there are other teams around the league right now who are looking at him as a guy they want to add. I’m sure (general manager) Dell (Demps) and his staff are looking at all those options."
Morrow's slick shooting was one of the key reasons behind New Orleans finishing as the sixth-best three-point shooting team in the NBA (37 percent). He gives the Pelicans solid scoring coming off the bench and insurance for the inevitable Eric Gordon injury.
However, as Williams pointed out, Morrow is likely to be in high demand. It will be tough to convince Morrow to stick around for the $1.1 million he's slated to make next season and even tougher to fend off potential suitors given the team's lack of funds.
Still, if possible, the team needs to do whatever it can to retain one of the few consistent options it had this season.
1. Trade Eric Gordon
The decision to match the Phoenix Suns' max offer to Eric Gordon was a necessary evil that will go down as the biggest mistake in Dell Demps' tenure as GM of the Pelicans. As the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade, Demps couldn't let Gordon walk for nothing after just one season.
So, he got conned into paying an oft-injured shooting guard a little over $14 million annually. To say that it hasn't worked out so far would be a gross understatement. After initially sulking over staying in NOLA, Gordon's time with the Pelicans has been hampered by injuries.
He played in all of nine games during his first season with New Orleans in 2011-12. He followed that up by playing 42 games in 2012-13. This season, he managed to play 64 games, which was his highest total since his rookie season with the L.A. Clippers in 2008-09.
Now, the team braces for its next Gordon-related hurdle: his inevitable unhappiness over being moved to a bench role.
Gordon was outplayed so badly by new addition Tyreke Evans this season that head coach Monty Williams has mulled making the former Hoosier a $15 million sixth man.
"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 said, according to The Times-Picayune's John Reid. "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.''
How does coming off the bench sit with you, Eric?
"I won't get into that because I thought they brought me here to lead and set the tone for the team," Gordon said.
Evans averaged 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 22 starts this season. Gordon, meanwhile, averaged 15.4 points in nearly three times as many starts. Gordon's the better shooter (39 percent from three compared to Evans' 22 percent), but Evans is better in nearly every other category.
The Pelicans' worst-kept secret is they've been shopping Gordon for a while now. It started at last year's trade deadline, according to a tweet from ESPN's Chris Broussard, and likely hasn't stopped since.
The problem with finding a trade partner is obvious. Nobody wants to pay nearly $31 million over the next two seasons for an oft-injured guard who hasn't lived up to his potential in six pro seasons. At least, not without sending back someone equally as bad in return.
That means New Orleans is looking at someone like Chicago's Carlos Boozer or Milwaukee's Larry Sanders in exchange for Gordon (assuming the Bulls or Bucks are even interested). Gordon could always make life easier on everyone by agreeing to opt out next season, thus making his albatross contract a little easier to move.
Regardless, getting rid of Gordon has to be the top priority, even if it means taking 20 cents on the dollar for him. If he was "brought here to lead," as he says, it hasn't happened in three seasons. Plus, things are only going to get worse if or when Evans usurps him in the starting lineup.
By moving Gordon now, there's a little more wiggle room to improve this summer as well as space to ensure Anthony Davis won't be leaving New Orleans anytime soon by giving him a hefty contract extension.
Obviously, it won't be easy, but we've seen teams take on bad contracts before. The Brooklyn Nets did it with Joe Johnson. The Orlando Magic did it with Gilbert Arenas. Someone, if desperate enough, will do it for Eric Gordon.
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