It’s Time To Slow Things Down

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Published: August 25, 2020

As I watch the Portland Trailblazers get hammered by the first seeded Lakers on national TV, I can’t help but think how far away the Pelicans are from competing. The NBA hiatus allowed a Blazers team, which had reached the Western Conference Finals the year prior, to get healthy and steal the 8th seed from a snake-bitten Memphis team. What the Blazers really stole was the rights to a beat down by the Lakers and a worse draft pick.

The Blazers weren’t the only team that showed renewed vigor in the bubble – the Suns and the Spurs shined as well. The former went an incredible 8-0 and were the darlings of the ball while the latter found a new small ball style that juiced a boring offense. Both those teams were missing key players due to injury as well. Zooming out of the bubble, the Golden State Warriors have had time to fully heal and have been blessed by the number two overall pick. Virtually everyone around the league expects them to move that pick for a player or players ready to contribute in the narrow title window Steph Curry still provides.

The West is a brutal place and the Pelicans are looking at a conference where all 15 teams might be competing for 8 elusive playoff spots. So what’s the rush? Look I’m not saying bottom out completely in a Hinkiesque fashion. The Pelicans with Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson should be too good to do that anyway. I am saying that the Pelicans shouldn’t be seeking to trade assets for players that might contribute now. In fact, doing the opposite by selling off players for assets that expand your treasure trove is something I’m advocating for. Optimists will argue that the team really turned the corner from December to March, and so health combined with internal growth should vault the team into playoff contention. Yet a run built on the back of fluky three point shooting and a fortunate schedule doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in me. If anything, the bubble play should have washed away any remnant optimism from March.

At the center of this discussion to slow things down lies the Jrue Holiday decision. Frankly it may be time to move on. Management made the right call to try and make this Jrue’s team shortly after the Davis trade. He was not only their longest tenured player, but also their best. There needed to be a figure who would act as a pillar of stability for the newly traded ex-Lakers while taking the pressure off of Zion Williamson. The process here was the correct one but the results left them wanting for more. 

The Pelicans made a play for the culture, but how much did it really work out? Despite no public venting or finger pointing to the media, the Pelicans team still found a way to lose 13 straight in December. Through JJ Redick’s own admittance, this was a team that simply didn’t talk. What started as a well meaning attempt at keeping balance in a young locker room by bringing in savvy vets, devolved into an environment that didn’t commit in either direction – winning or development. Coaches who came into the season with the idea of winning felt handcuffed when they were urged to play younger guys such as Frank Jackson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker over proven vets in E’Twaun Moore. These issues were magnified tenfold in the bubble, with a microscope focused on each game’s outcome. Vets like JJ who left their family to come win were instead left watching a coaching staff struggle to balance who to play how much at the behest of the front office.

Compare this culture to a Memphis team who smartly shifted into asset acquisition mode by moving long time point guard, Mike Conely. There were no mixed messages in Memphis – the Mike Conley move clearly signaled an end to the Grit and Grind era. Memphis instead rallied around their young stars in Ja Morant and Jarren Jackson Jr. They too acquired savvy vets, but didn’t spend assets or cap space to do so. Instead they leveraged every bit of cap space they had to squeeze picks out of other teams and then later flipped the vets they acquired for even more at the deadline. No one would argue they had a worse culture, or built worse habits than New Orleans.

Jrue served his role as best he could and the Pelicans are now in a position where he will be one of the hottest commodities in the offseason. The return on him may never be higher, as teams such as Denver and Brooklyn lustfully gauge the market for the star defender. The time to capitalize is now, even if it means acquiring players and picks you know you are going to be flipping later. Will the on court product take a step back when you trade your singular best defender and only reliable creator? Most likely. But this is the best time to take a minor speed bump in the rebuilding process. 14 other teams in the West are going to be fighting tooth and nail for those playoff spots. Taking a small step back while reloading on assets may be the best possible move for long term sustainable success.

The messaging around how the Pelicans choose to do this will play a role in if the team rallies like Memphis did this season or checks out like the Knicks do annually. The messaging cannot even hint at tanking. Instead, the Pelicans need to lean fully into their stars – Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Solidify the young players as stewards of this team, much like Memphis did. Brandon Ingram will be commanding a max level salary this summer, and with max level salary comes max level responsibilities. Turn the keys over to him and ride him as your exemplar player. Ingram may not be cut from the same vocal cloth leaders like Damian Lillard are, but he’s a player you can coach in any which way. The Spurs often rode Tim Duncan only to turn to other players on the roster and say “If Tim, an MVP, isn’t above reproach, neither are you”. Let Ingram take the same responsibility. As Zion blossoms, let him take that responsibility too. He can’t be sheltered forever. Perhaps real expectations are the kick Zion needs to take his conditioning seriously.

Slowing things down is a decision the Pelicans must make before they make any other this summer. It will impact their decision on Jrue and it will impact their decision on who to hire as their next coach. Veteran coaches such as Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni won’t want to go through a rebuild so it’s important to nail this decision first. With how the West is lining up to compete, with what Jrue’s market will be like, what is there to lose by pumping the brakes a little? It’s not like there are season tickets to sell given the state of the world.

The major elephant in the room is the start of the 2021 NBA season. Adam Silver is already searching for an opportunity to delay the start in order to get fans in the door. But how long can they hold out hope before league partners and the players association starts getting antsy? If the NBA were located in virtually any other developed country, maybe this would be possible, but there are 5.6 Million COVID cases in the US and counting. In all likelihood, the NBA is starring down the barrel of another season with E-Fans. This is a rare time for a small market to not be responsible for selling tickets to local fans and corporate partners. And while I’d like to believe that ticket selling never plays a part on organizational decisions, it’s an important business component that ownership considers. There won’t be many opportunities to remove the fan component almost entirely so this is one the Pelicans should take full advantage of. Slow things down and enter 2022 as not only the best young team in the league, but also the one with the most assets. The end game here is title contention – not just making the playoffs. In order to pursue such lofty goals, maximizing assets in the short term gives the Pelicans the best shot in the long term.

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