With the NBA Summer League concluded and the brunt of free agency completed, the doldrums of the offseason are here. The FIBA World Cup, Drew League, BIG 3 and The Basketball Tournament and other events are currently taking over the scene until the association fires back up in late September.
Last week, Basketball Insiders started a “Grading The Offseason” series by breaking down six teams and the type of summer each has had. To kick off this next round of reviews, we’ll take a look at the brand new version of the New Orleans Pelicans.
Entering the year, the Pelicans had high hopes. While they did lose key contributors with Rajon Rondo and a rehabbing DeMarcus Cousins electing to sign elsewhere, the organization was able to bring in a motivated Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton to ease the roster hit. The core of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and those two seemed to be a solid group on paper.
Of course, as the season progressed, that changed. Playing the up-and-down pace that Alvin Gentry loves, the Pelicans were getting it done on the offensive end. Davis had been putting up the ridiculous numbers as usual, while Holiday was scoring and dishing with the best of them. Randle fit like a glove with his new team and was a force on the inside, as well as an improved shooter on the outside. Mirotic stretched the floor and, before getting hurt, Payton looked as comfortable as ever.
Then, chaos ensued. Shortly after the new year, Davis made his intentions clear that he wanted out of New Orleans. As the team was hovering around the postseason hunt, the turmoil caused a noticeable distraction and an awkward predicament that left many with a sour taste in their mouths. Up to the trade deadline, the rumors ran rampant regarding Davis’ desire to land with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
General manager Dell Demps refused to give in to those demands though, asking for the steepest of prices to even field a call from LA’s front office duo of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. The Lakers offered a majority of the franchise’s young core and a package of picks in an attempt to entice Demps, but he didn’t budge. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson reportedly wanted nothing to do with moving Davis, and she got her wish … at least for the remainder of the season.
New Orleans did trade away Nikola Mirotic and in return received Stanley Johnson and Jason Smith in a three-team deal. Still, it wasn’t enough to bolster a middling, banged-up squad. One week following the deadline, Benson fired Demps and replaced him with Danny Ferry in the interim.
Sure enough, the playoffs became an afterthought quickly. Gentry began playing guys to get a glimpse at what they could bring to the table. On the positive side, Jahlil Okafor made the most of an opportunity, as did upstart rookies Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson.
However, finishing with a 33-49 record and facing an imminent rebuild, the Pelicans had work to do to straighten out the organization’s direction—with or without Davis.
New Orleans wasted no time in finding a mastermind to fix one of the most difficult situations in the league. Less than a week after the conclusion of the regular season, the franchise hired David Griffin as its new executive vice president of basketball operations.
Lady luck shined on the Bayou at the NBA Draft Lottery a short month after, as the Pelicans scored the No. 1 pick with only a six percent chance to do so. Griffin chose Trajan Langdon, a fast-rising front office assistant in the Brooklyn Nets system, as his general manager. Ahead of the NBA Draft, former WNBA legend Swin Cash joined the fray as vice president of basketball operations and team development.
It wasn’t long before Griffin and his team addressed the turmoil surrounding Davis. In mid-June, the Pelicans struck a blockbuster trade to send the disgruntled superstar to the Lakers as he had desired. In return, they received a king’s ransom as a part of a three-team agreement including the Washington Wizards.
After all of the re-routing was done, New Orleans had brought in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and the fourth pick in the draft, plus a pair of future first-round draft picks and the ability to swap another first with the Lakers in 2023.
It would’ve been foolish to believe the Pelicans were done there. The week of the draft, Griffin struck a deal with the Atlanta Hawks to offload Solomon Hill’s large contract by using the No. 4 selection acquired in the Davis trade. The No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 picks, along with a conditional 2019 first-rounder via Cleveland, were sent to NOLA in exchange.
At the end of it all, New Orleans wound up with three highly-touted rookies: Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The franchise also took intriguing 20-year-old Brazilian prospect Marcos “Didi” Louzada Silva in the second round as a draft-and-stash.
That was one portion of a busy summer. The other was making a couple of striking moves to add experience to the locker room. Longtime sharpshooter J.J. Redick quickly came to terms on a multi-year contract with the Pelicans during free agency moratorium. Darius Miller returned on a separate multi-year deal. Italian forward Nicolo Melli decided to make the journey over from Euroleague and signed with the team for two seasons in addition.
More recently, New Orleans decided to go after Derrick Favors and were successful in doing so with another trade with the Utah Jazz. All it took to get the job done was a pair of future second-rounders that the franchise had previously acquired from Golden State. Zylan Cheatham and Josh Gray were also inked to a couple of two-way contracts.
The theme of the Pelicans’ summer has been roster turnover. With a completely revamped and re-tooled group, Griffin did yeoman’s work regarding the task he had been assigned.
PLAYERS IN: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Nicolo Melli, Darius Miller, J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada (draft-and-stash), Zylan Cheatham (two-way), Josh Gray (two-way)
PLAYERS OUT: Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Solomon Hill, Cheick Diallo, Ian Clark, Stanley Johnson, Dairis Bertans, Christian Wood, Trevon Bluiett
A new era of Pelicans basketball is on tap next year. There is a palpable excitement within the franchise, as there should be. The phrase “fresh start” applies almost all around. Ball, Ingram and Hart haven’t been in the league for long, but they’ve seen enough floor time to be considered young and experienced. We’ve seen plenty of glimpses of how talented they are. Now, it’s time to see whether or not they can carry those past learnings and turn into leaders collectively.
As those three figure out how to mature in that respect, New Orleans will have the organization’s rock in charge—Jrue Holiday. Coming off what probably should have been an All-Star season, the veteran 29-year-old will be depended on as the new number one option. More importantly, he’ll be the top voice in the locker room to guide this up-and-coming contingent of youngsters. Far too long has Holiday’s consistency and improvement gone unnoticed, and you can bank on seeing a sensational year from him.
Holiday will have help from Redick and Favors, two guys with over a decade of experience in the NBA, in that leadership aspect. E’Twaun Moore is still around and an underrated contributor. They’ll have quite the cast of first-year talent as well, namely that guy Zion who everybody is frothing at the mouth to see play—and no, one short stint at summer league was not nearly enough.
Hayes and Alexander-Walker displayed instant chemistry in Las Vegas, and they could make up a significant piece of an exciting second unit. Granted, Hayes will likely be developed slowly behind Okafor and Favors, so we might not see too much of the promising big man in year one.
With the kind of roster this team has, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pelicans make an immediate return to the postseason. Yes, there’s a heck of a lot of competition in the Western Conference, but they’ve reset the temperature in that building. There is confidence that a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.
New Orleans is going to come out of the gate fast and furious, sticking to Gentry’s style of play. Living in transition and embracing ball movement, it’s going to be a blast to watch this particular group—a mixed bags with loads of potential, plus proven talent—mesh over the course of its first season without Davis.
As difficult as losing a franchise player is, this is by no means your typical rebuild.
It’s a reload.