The shadow of Anthony Davis hangs over the New Orleans Pelicans and their up-and-down season. Is there anything they can do to change course at the trade deadline?
The looming free agency of Anthony Davis has kept a tight grip on the entire NBA, and the New Orleans Pelicans will feel its strain in full as the trade deadline approaches. The team has made it clear it has no intentions of trading Davis at the moment, and in all likelihood, the star will play out the rest of the season for a team eying another playoff run. The Feb. 7 deadline represents an opportunity to continue building around Davis and convince him of something viable and sustainable in New Orleans — something the franchise has yet to do in Davis’ seven-year career.
They have tried. Julius Randle has provided surplus value on the mid-level exception he signed this summer, while Nikola Mirotić proved a vital addition before last year’s trade deadline. Jrue Holiday is one of the most reliable two-way point guards in the league and will merit All-Star consideration this season. But those pieces don’t amount to a championship contender, in part because three of the Pelicans’ four best players don’t fit together on the court. New Orleans has outscored opponents handily when Davis plays with one of Randle or Mirotić, but positional overlap prevents Alvin Gentry from playing all three together for an extended amount of time. The trio of Davis, Randle and Mirotić is a surprising plus-25.5 points per 100 possessions in 52 minutes together, though it remains unclear how that lineup might hold up under playoff scrutiny.
That positional squeeze forces the Pelicans into playing lineups with weak links for lack of better alternatives. This team remains perilously thin on wing options, which leaves Gentry searching for answers on a near-nightly basis. More often than not, that involves leaving Holiday defending a much taller superstar and thus, the rest of the team scrambling to keep up with everyone else. Davis helps cover for many of his teammates’ defensive shortcomings, but even he can only do so much. A team with elite defensive bookends should not be this flimsy defensively, yet New Orleans ranks 26th in defensive efficiency. Even a capable two-way player with the size to match up with wing scorers would be a significant boon, but no wing on the roster combines size, shooting and defensive prowess in a way that solves any problems.
Holiday provides a close facsimile despite standing only 6-foot-4, but cannot carry an entire defense himself. E’Twaun Moore is undersized and looks creakier by the week. Darius Miller has been invaluable on offense, but just the opposite defensively. The inverse goes for Solomon Hill. Playing Hill at power forward alongside Miller would allow New Orleans to keep both shooting and defense on the floor, but cuts down on the time available to superior players Randle and Mirotić.
Rotational wings are supremely scarce and don’t come cheap, but anything less likely wouldn’t move the needle for the Pelicans, who need support there in the worst way. There is risk in striking an ambitious deal before the deadline because of the possibility that Davis doesn’t remain on the team beyond this season. Sacrificing an asset now to upgrade around Davis now could leave the cupboard utterly bare should he bolt later, while standing pat with this would only help induce his departure. The argument for prioritizing the present is that Davis is a generational talent — the sort New Orleans may never find again. If superstar talent is the greatest advantage in the NBA, teams should do all they can to maximize every ounce of their star’s prime, even if it sets up a painful rebuild once that window closes.
The Cavaliers are living the consequences of that approach. The Pelicans are surely mindful of the bleak possibility of life without Davis, and holding onto assets as insurance will limit what they can get on the trade market. In truth, the time for New Orleans to make bold moves to upgrade the roster was years ago. Now the Pelicans can only do their best and hope it’s enough.