Should the Pelicans Just Run It Back Next Season?

Published: March 23, 2015

There is nothing that gets a fan base more excited than change, or even the possibility of change. Even when a franchise is winning, a tweet, or a message board post about that team possibly acquiring a new player will get more views than any other topic by a wide margin. The thinking is that the right player can turn a bad team into a good one, or a good team into a great one, or even a great one into an elite one. After the Heat won two straight titles, one of the biggest topics on Miami message boards that summer was whether the Heat could add Carmelo the following summer. It’s just what we do, and there is nothing wrong with it.

But it is not always the right thing to do if you are an NBA GM.

The Atlanta Hawks finished a disappointing 38-44 last season under first year Head Coach Mike Budenholzer, and despite pushing the #1 seed in the East to seven games, many of their fans supported wholesale changes. Al Horford had been unable to stay on the court two of the three previous seasons, Paul Milsap and Demarre Carroll were going into the last years of their contract, and Jeff Teague was a guard in his mid-20’s that had shown flashes of greatness but had never been able to be great consistently. The Hawks were a mediocre team by most metrics, finishing with a -0.5 point differential. On top of that, they had little to no cap room and a first rounder in the late teens, so there didn’t seem to be a way to add a major piece to their squad without sending a couple of core guys out.

But a funny thing happened last summer. They did add two major pieces, and no I am not talking about Thabo Sefolosha and Adreian Payne. I am talking about Health and Continuity. Their top 8 guys have missed a total of 44 games combined this season (Horford missed 53 by himself the year before), and several of those have come because of rest due to the fact that Atlanta is so far ahead of everyone else in the Eastern Conference. The other thing they added was continuity. Guys got another training camp together. They bought into the systems and became that much more comfortable with them now that they had another year under their belts.

They went from 18th in offensive rating to 6th. They climbed from 14th to 8th on the defensive side of the ball. And all they did personnel wise was send out Louis Williams and add Thabo Sefolosha. Trust me, this isn’t an article about how great Sefolosha has been for the Hawks, and how he turned them around. In fact, he has been pretty bad this year and hasn’t been a difference maker in any single aspect. He has played the fewest games of all their rotation players (45), is shooting terribly from deep (29%), and has continued his decline defensively as well. He is not the reason Atlanta is better; Health and Continuity are.

The Pelicans Copying the Hawks Model

The Pels have a quasi All-Star player who hasn’t been able to stay on the court recently (Jrue Holiday), another mid-20’s guard who runs hot and cold (Tyreke Evans), and a couple of quality players about to enter the last season of their contract too (Gordon and Ryan Anderson). They have a handful of guys in their rotation who have only been through one training camp with Monty (Asik, Ajinca, Babbitt, Pondexter) and a few more who haven’t been through any (Cunningham, Cole). And forget about training camp, the Pelicans players who are considered the core of this franchise haven’t even been able to play together when the games actually count.

Dell Demps put the ‘Finishing Five’ together two summers ago. Guess how many games they have played since coming together. No, seriously, go ahead and guess……. TWENTY-FIVE! Twenty freaking five. Guess how many minutes? 189. To put that in perspective, the Cleveland Cavs main lineup (Kyrie-JR Smith-Lebron-Love-Mozgov) have played 382 minutes together this year. Oh yeah, and two of those guys were added in January. In two months, the Cavs main lineup has played together twice as much as the Pelicans have over the last two years.

Looking at other core members, Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis have only been on the court together for 1800 minutes these past two years. Again, to put that in perspective, Lillard and Aldridge played together for nearly 2400 minutes in the 2013-14 season alone. The Jrue-AD-Asik three-man trio, which figures to be our defensive foundation moving forward, has played less than 600 minutes together. I can go on and on with these depressing lineup statistics, but you get the point. This Pelicans team is nearly impossible to evaluate, because we have never really seen this Pelicans team – at least not the one that Dell Demps built. If you actually look at the team Demps built, you will see something very impressive. The starting lineup he put together this year are outscoring opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions. The problem? They have only played together for 169 minutes this year, which is 22% of the amount of time Golden State’s starting lineup has spent together this season.

To borrow from an old adage one of my professors used to use, the Pelicans are putting the bicycle together as they ride it. They are constantly swapping parts as they go along because they have been forced to due to the dire circumstance. Do you think Dell Demps intended for Jimmer Fredette and Austin Rivers to get more minutes than Jrue Holiday this season? Of course not, but they have. In fact, I am sure he thought that Jrue, Tyreke, and Gordon would eat up almost all of the guard minutes, but over 2000 minutes have gone to Jimmer, Austin, Elliot Williams, Gal Mekel, Russ Smith, Norris Cole, Toney Douglas,and Nate Wolters.

The Hawks had to do some similar things last year when Horford went out, and as a result they found some rotation players in Pero Antic and Mike Scott that might not otherwise got the minutes. Having Jrue Holiday and others go down has given opportunities to Norris Cole, Dante Cunningham, Alexis Ajinca, and Luke Babbitt that they might not otherwise have had, and perhaps they (and the team) will be better off for it next season. Imagine the depth that the Pelicans could have next season if they get everyone healthy, and everyone goes through another training camp together. The Hawks are 12-13 guys deep with players who know their system and fit into it. The Pelicans can get there too if they bring this roster back.

The Logistics

If the Pelicans want to bring everyone back, they can. They have Omer Asik’s Bird Rights, they have Early Bird Rights on Alexis Ajinca and Luke Babbitt, they can make Norris Cole a restricted free agent, and they would have the Mid-Level Exception or the Bi-Annual Exception to re-sign Dante Cunningham if they wanted to. Everybody else on the roster is under contract, assuming Eric Gordon opts-in, which he is likely to do. So, New Orleans can bring everybody back without much fear of going into the luxury tax, which is projected to be around $81 million. And if they get close, not all of those guys are necessary. If you assume that Ryan Anderson will be 100% next year, then there might only be room for one between Babbitt and Cunningham, though as we have seen, having depth is always nice.

The Alternatives

As I have written before, the Pelicans have far more flexibility this summer than it looks like they have on paper. Eric Gordon has played well enough this season to be an intriguing option for numerous teams. And if it comes to it, the Pelicans can always stretch him. Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson could easily be moved too if the Pelicans just want to dump their contracts, and they can always choose to let all their free agents walk if they prefer that route. Really, they can get this roster down to Anthony Davis, Quincy Pondexter, and Jrue Holiday if they wanted to and that would give them about $45 million in cap room to fill in around those guys.

But a change that drastic is probably unlikely, especially if Dell Demps is at the helm. But if he is let go, then anything is possible depending on the philosophies of the new GM. Many of the top free agents are likely to stay (Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordon), or are restricted (Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler), or would only leave for a bigger market in all likelihood (Kevin Love). Having a ton of cap room sounds good in theory, until you realize that it will likely just result in overpaying middle tier free agents to get them to leave. And then, you just have the same issue of having to fit all of these pieces together that have no experience playing with one another. If you are getting a massive upgrade in talent, sure, go ahead and hurt the continuity. But if the talent is relatively the same, what’s the point?

The Pelicans Should Give It One More Go

Monty Williams is going into the last year of his contract. So is Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The cap is going to take a huge leap in 2016. Anthony Davis is still evolving into the player he will become as he enters his prime and we don’t fully know what that will look like. Will he add Dirk (range) or Duncan (low post) to his game? Maybe both? Add all that to the fact that you don’t even really know what you have with this core except for some really great numbers in a small sample size, and why not run it back?

If the Pelicans are put into certain situations where it kills their flexibility in future years to run it back next year – i.e. Norris Cole gets a 4 year offer we have to match or Babbitt gets a big offer, then maybe you let a few pieces go, but those types of things aren’t likely. The most likely outcome is that the league doesn’t see our fringe pieces as incredibly valuable, or at least not as valuable as they are to the Pelicans. They fit with the culture and are starting to know the systems. Now, all they need is a little more time on the court with the same teammates night in and night out. When the Pels went from a 39 win team in 2007 to a 56 win in 2008, all they added was Morris Peterson, Health, and Continuity. Similar changes in Atlanta, and now they are the 2nd best team in the league, on pace to add 20+ wins despite minor roster turnover.

Sign me up for that.


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