Pelicans Prepare for a Big Choice

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Published: April 12, 2017

The New Orleans Pelicans have been under the gun since it was clear that Anthony Davis was going to be what was hoped prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. The first attempts to build a roster showed promise, but they fizzled from a combination of bad luck and risk. New hope emerged for a Davis-filled future in New Orleans when Dell Demps traded for DeMarcus Cousins, one of the best big men in the game. Cousins is not the answer, but he changed the puzzle they were trying to solve.

From that moment, the team-building starts (mostly) over.

Assumptions

I’m assuming Gentry and Dell are sticking around for next season. I assume they will be under tremendous pressure this coming season or they will hit the bricks, potentially before the end of the season. I see them both getting a crack and making this new look work. If I’m wrong, some of what’s below may need revision. It’s Gentry’s last guaranteed year coming up, so he’s coaching for a new contract or the option to get picked up. For the same reasons, firing him early to get the candidates to start thinking early has value. So, they need to look good wire to wire. That said, coaches are told to stay at home for a season all the time. Lastly, it’s conceivable one of the top coaches will knock on the door and just take the job he wants. With Cousins, the chances of that increased from very, very small to very small.

The Foundation

Anthony Davis is the center of it all. His departure signals a wholesale regime change and a different business model, and not one I think they are ready for on Airline Drive quite yet. Cousins is the next most talented person on the team and rare specimen on top of that. Some worry about fit and attitude is appropriate. I get it, but that’s overblown. He needs to get in shape, and the staff needs to sort out how to use the two big men both together and apart in an NBA that going small pretty successfully.

I’m not worried that Holiday is able to depart in free agency this Summer. To be clear, I do not think he will leave and I’m fine with Holiday on this team even though I know he’ll be paid his max salary or close to it. Some might think he’ll walk, and a greater number may lament his return, but I’m not worried about either unless he can be replaced by a better combo guard. Jrue has filled the role of a point guard for a while, but that was on teams without better options, without the need for a strong point guard in the same way Gentry’s system needs a point guard, and with high dollar guys who could play the 2 but not the 1, like Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. Jrue’s strength is that he’s pretty good all around. When he’s a primary guy in a position of need, he comes up lacking. Otherwise, this flexibility is an asset, and it’s made even more valuable as the Pelicans routes to goodness narrow and number fewer as time marches on.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s it. 3 guys.

The Needs

Now, some may feel the next step is to look at the rest of the roster and say whether they will stay or go. I’m not looking at it that way. I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it, and I don’t think that’s how the Pelicans are looking at it. For instance, it’s clear that they like Cunningham, and he gets minutes which in part reflect that. So, one would think it’s more likely than not for Cunningham to hang around, especially considering the investment he represents. That’s a sunk cost, however, and should not be a discriminator among choices going forward; that is, that’s true whichever road they choose, so it does not distinguish between options. If you need to drop Cunningham to upgrade, you don’t blink at dropping him. Continuity effects are directly addressed.

So what are the needs?

Gentry’s system is predicated on good, high-volume ball movement leading to decent shots complemented with good defense. With a good, not great, defense and so much passing, turnovers have to be limited. The better the defense, the more slack the team has on the other end. Decent shots will lead to a certain amount of scoring and a slightly faster pace. If the shots are only decent shots, you need better than decent shooting, at least spot-up shooting. The big men area capable of creating offense and are capable defenders. Holiday also fits the mold.

So, you need a better point guard (and I’m not alone in saying this . . . McNamara and others were saying this for a while) and wing defenders who can pass and spot up. In the course of this, you may also have to work around the edges in the front court depending on what it takes to meet those needs.

Preparation for the Choice

The choice before the Pelicans actually has a few levels to it.

The main choice is of course: Who will their major acquisition be this offseason?

I’m presuming they will target one major acquisition and the rest will be more role players (even if they start each game they play in). They need to not only target the right kind of player, they need to actually pick the right player, the right person. Players need to have certain timbre to the personalities to play with a guy like Davis or a guy like Cousins. Playing with both is a harder problem.

In addition to picking the right attainable player, they have to have the mechanism to actually acquire the player. The idea that the team is choosing to operate under the cap or not based on anything other than trying to acquire a specific player is illogical. It’s putting the cart before the horse. That said, the team needs to prepare itself to go either way so it has the maximum number of options this offseason.

The recent roster moves all fit this model. Offloading Galloway cleared up salary next season. Since they wanted the Casspi option but were not wedded to Casspi, opening up the possibility of losing his Bird Rights once he signed with another team or signed into next season was acceptable, since Casspi was not the primary target. Signing players like Cook, Crawford, and Toupane with nonguarantees gives the team and player a mutual look without locking the team into either path to acquiring their prime target while allowing the roster to have some measure of depth and continuity. A good camp this offseason is critical, too.

All the moves are pointing toward this choice. They have one shot.

They better hit.

Hard.

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