Blowing It All Up (To Get Younger Edition)

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Published: January 8, 2016

Yesterday, our own Michael McNamara wrote an article about the difference between tanking and blowing it all up. “Tanking” has become polarizing due to the much maligned and highly ridiculed process that Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers are taking. And while the validity of that process is a debate for another day, fear of that process in regards to the New Orleans Pelicans is over stated. The Pelicans (and their fans, and their staff) shouldn’t be afraid of becoming the Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike the 76ers, the Pelicans have a star in Anthony Davis. What the Pelicans (and their fans, and their staff) should be worrying about is becoming the Minnesota Timberwolves of the ‘90s or the Cleveland Cavaliers of the ‘00s, both teams who had a star, but whose aging and injury riddled rosters helped aid the decision for the star to leave.

Both those franchises acquired a star through the NBA Draft (Kevin Garnett in the former, LeBron James in the latter) that later went on to be focal points of championship teams on other franchises. That is the nightmare. The stars’ departures were in large part due to placing veteran players around both these stars, helping them get deep into the playoffs (only to fall short), then to see those rosters age and falter, with no way to improve, while the stars hit free agency in their prime. This is why I am in favor of the New Orleans Pelicans using their roster pieces now, and their current situation (which would entail a high draft pick), in order to get talented young pieces to fit in Head Coach Alvin Gentry’s system, and complement Davis on the court.

The Pelicans like to tout the youth of their roster, but by acquiring youthful vets to surround Davis three years ago, the team now has players in their “prime” ages. Jrue Holiday is the youngest of those players at 25, but every other player in the team’s core is 26-29. That is not old, but that is in their prime. It is hard to foresee Tyreke Evans learning how to pass with more than 10 seconds left on the shot clock at this point in his career. Just like it is hard to see Ryan Anderson becoming a plus defender.

Davis has a 5-year extension kicking in next season that means these players are going to be 31-34 years old when Davis is a 27-year old free agent. But it also means the team can trade for some younger players now, who can grow with Davis, without having the pressure of winning now to appease him before his contract is up. Do any of the Evans, Anderson, Eric Gordon trio strike you as a star player that can raise the level of the team to championship contender? Do any of them look like the kind of player that would enable another player to come in, to be that secondary star (can Evans become useful off the ball?) Or that can learn a system that passes and defends well enough to let their strengths show and erase their deficiencies, enough to not need that star (i.e. Golden State Warriors lite)? Does Omer Asik possess any of these abilities? (#Levity)

They are good players. But they currently reside as the 2-6 best players on the team (and are the five highest paid players on the team). And depending on your opinion on Holiday, none of them should be as high as the third best player on a championship team.

But the Pelicans have a fantastic opportunity to sell high on some of these players. As of today, in the Eastern Conference, the third ranked Miami Heat (21-14) are only five games ahead of the 12th ranked Washington Wizards (15-18.) Which by the way, the Heat missed the playoffs last year and the Wizards went six games into the second round (so they could conceivably switch in a hurry). In the Western Conference, the 6th seeded Memphis Grizzlies (19-18) are only six and a half games ahead of the 14th ranked New Orleans Pelicans (11-23.)

This parity means that no one is selling. Teams that expected to be selling potential difference makers, like the Denver Nuggets with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, find themselves two and a half games out of the playoff race. Teams like the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons can end their playoff droughts as they are currently in 7th and 8th place in the Eastern Conference. On top of that, everyone is so close, that many of these franchises know they are one or two right moves away from jumping into the next tier. From playoff contender to playoff team; from dark-horse championship contender to championship contender.

The Pelicans can be the first team looking to sell on this season. The Sacramento Kings, being a half game out of the sacrificial lamb spot of the 8-seed in the Western Conference, has GM Vlade Divac apparently not even picking up his phone. The only teams obviously out of the playoffs, and are possibly selling, are the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers. No playoff team is looking at those rosters and thinking, “Hey, we can really win if we convince the Lakers to trade Swaggy P.” If Ish Smith can get the Philadelphia 76ers to win 3 games, can you imagine what Ryan Anderson can do? (Pause for all the Pelicans’ fans to mourn the trading of Smith, who captured many New Orleanians’ hearts.)

But some of those teams may be willing to trade a nice young piece buried on a roster for a team trying to win now, if they think they can acquire a player that can take them to the next level. The Oklahoma City Thunder have to go all in this year, with Kevin Durant being a free agent, how much would they give for an Eric Gordon type to finish games nailing open looks next to Durant and Russell Westbrook? Can the Pelicans convince them to give up last year’s lottery pick Cameron Payne, or prior first round picks Mitch McGary or Josh Huestis? Would the Orlando Magic, in strictly win now fashion after hiring the chakra-not-aligned coach Scott Skiles, be willing to trade unhappily coming off the bench Victor Oladipo for a veteran that works for the team more now? The Brooklyn Nets don’t have control of their own first round pick until after the Russian World Cup. And their pick goes unprotected to a division rival. You don’t think they’d trade wins now to keep LSU’s Ben Simmons away from the Boston Celtics? Could they be tempted to move Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is a rookie and was looking good until getting injured (and will be out until March)?

What is the alternative for Pelicans? Recently The Times Picayune’s John Reid wrote how Alvin Gentry said “We have not made one call about trading Ryan, nor will we.” Why? In the best case scenario short term, let’s say the Pelicans win all the games required to be a 6-8 seed (unlikely, but let’s enjoy the dream.) The Pelicans then play one of the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, and Golden State Warriors. Do the Pelicans win a game against any of those teams in a playoff race? Furthermore, what does that accomplish? Then Anderson and Gordon, who both presumably play well in order to make this run work, are up for contract. Someone is going to give Ryan Anderson the Orlando Magic Rashard Lewis special. Is Anderson worth close to 20 million? Can the Pelicans sign both Anderson and Gordon, and if so, is the mid-level enough to bring the team to the next step?

I want GM Dell Demps to have started making those calls last week. Why the urgency? Because the longer the Pelicans wait, the more of a chance that teams will lose enough to start selling, and the more the value of the Pelicans’ players start to decrease. If you’re a playoff team, do you trade your former or future first round picks for Eric Gordon if you can get Courtney Lee cheaper? Plus, the longer you wait, the more of a chance the Pelicans have of winning this year, and convincing themselves this season is not lost. And it is. The moment the Pelicans acquired Davis, they were no longer in the striving-for-the-playoffs business. New Orleans is now in the hunt for championships. And this team does not currently have the pieces that will win you a championship.

But franchises just don’t giveaway core pieces to championship teams, and the Pelicans don’t have a litany of picks to trade, like the Boston Celtics. So what the Pelicans have to aim for, are young players who haven’t carved their niche in their current situation. Young players that will be rejuvenated or unleashed by playing on a team with Anthony Davis.

By trading for young players now, the team would have them locked into contract long enough to know if they’d fit the system, get young players hungry enough to make multiple efforts on defense, to move around on offense. Yes making big trades in the middle of the season now doesn’t bode well for the playoff chances this year. No one expects a 21-year old to change addresses and become a star overnight. But even the losses that ensue would be a positive, for this may be the last time the Pelicans can get a lottery pick and it be acceptable (new coach, injuries, Davis is still only 22). And even if it’s obvious that the Pelicans won’t win the lottery and get LSU’s Simmons (reverse jinx!) the team can still get a potential filled young player that fits the team’s scheme better, after Demps and Gentry spend more than two weeks together between the NBA Finals and offseason.

The Pelicans need find players that can grow with Davis. Davis has tasted the playoffs, knows what it takes to get there. Finding younger players with the potential to be second and third best players in a championship team is the key. Getting a bunch of players on their rookie contracts, or who already play that way, would enable the team to implement Lead Assistant Coach Darren Erman’s system, which requires multiple efforts this team isn’t used to giving. Allowing the team to run the uptempo offense that Gentry and Demps covet. Before the season, Davis said at media day, “Every basketball player says they want to run, so we’ll actually see if guys will want to run now.” The team now knows who doesn’t like to run, or give efforts on defense. They now have to find players who can fit that system, to complement their star and coach.

By acquiring players on the upswing with Davis, they can mold the culture of this team, in a way that you can be quite sure that they wouldn’t lose on three days rest to a team on the second night of a back-to-back that is sitting out four starters. And you can build a team that plays to the strengths of its star player and heralded coach (and defensive assistant coach) as opposed to relying on them to bailing out the Pelicans.

You separate yourself from the pack in basketball (and in life) when you zag while everyone else is zigging. The Pelicans have a chance to set the market and acquire some great young players, who better fit on the court with Davis, and within the systems of Gentry and Erman. Here is to hoping they take advantage, and that the Pelicans can come back next year, with a team full of pieces, that can bring this city its first basketball championship in the future.

5 Comments

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  2. dschmid4

    January 8, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    I have really been struggling to get the trade machine to brighten my mood. Anybody having better luck?
    I’m in the trade everybody but Anthony Davis mindset right now. However Gordon, Anderson and Tyreke are the three I think we can trade for something good in return. I would be shocked to see picks for Gee or Daunte but then again, Ish Smith? Is there an organization that would possibly want Asik? I don’t see it. I would not need anything in return.  Would even take a couple players with similar length contracts.

  3. ChristopherRomaguera

    January 8, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Yea, the trade machine is the great equalizer. I’ve been looking at teams on the cusp of success that have disgruntled/disenfranchised players on their rookie contracts (or who are just buried.) Orlando, Detroit, Brooklyn, OKC, Chicago have all been fun for me.
    And there is no way you can trade Asik on his own right now without giving up a pick (no thanks.) Can maybe package him in a win now situation that doesn’t have time to care about money at the moment and needs a backup big.

  4. Michael McNamara

    January 9, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    dschmid4 I think “something good in return” is overly optimistic. What I would want is the opportunity them leaving provides for other players, not yet on this roster. Give a bunch of “royal jelly” to guys who are hungry and have never gotten it. Try to find the next Hassan Whiteside or even Jeremy Lin. Or Patty Mills or Danny Green. 
    I firmly believe that there isn’t much separating the 160th best player in the world from the 1100th best player. The difference is opportunity and fit. I would cut out the guys not projected for the long term and doing everything I can to change the culture and try and find a guy who just needs the opportunity and minutes. Then, add a draft pick who fits and develop him. Add free agents that fit like Atlanta did with Milsap and Carroll, not necessarily superstars. That would be my plan.

  5. BillBloom

    January 11, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    I must admit that I thought the Pels were going to be better than what we have seen this season.  Your proposal has merit, but its success will largely depend on who you’re trading for and how they fit into the system.  There’s no doubt that there are talented players out there, even out of the league, in the D-league, etc (ie. Whiteside, Tyler Johnson).  So, I agree with you that it may be worth a look-see to verify what’s available.

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