Published: January 30, 2021

Everybody get in here! Trade season has begun. This past week we received our first dose of major Pelicans trade news – the Pelicans are shopping around Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, and Eric Bledsoe. They might even be shopping much more! This should not be surprising for a team which has started 7-11 despite having promising young talent in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. So how do they right this ship? Should that even be the goal? Well I’m here to walk you through how the Pelicans should approach this year’s trade deadline and what they should be building for in the future. 

In order to get to the trade deadline, I’m going to have to start with the end goal. The Pelicans’ end goal should be to construct a roster that is a title contender around their star talent. There are many paths to contention, but in my opinion, the best path is adding more stars. Top end talent in the NBA has always been a difference maker and is inherently difficult to acquire in small markets. The Pelicans, through multiple trades, have now amassed a chest of draft picks and young players so they in theory should have multiple cracks at star level players if they play their cards right. The Pelicans’ decisions at this trade deadline should directly or indirectly contribute towards this goal. Please allow me to detail some of the paths the Pelicans can take in this pursuit.

Option 1: Just Trade For The Star

The easiest way to add a star for the Pelicans… is to trade for a star. If we look over to the Eastern Conference, there is a frustrated star averaging 35 points per game on the worst team in the league. I am not going to spend this column trying to sell you on Bradley Beal, the player, instead we’re going to focus on how the Pelicans can acquire him and the risks they may face.

Trading for Beal is a time sensitive issue. After this year, Beal only has one more year before he can opt out of his contract. This poses a few challenges. Firstly, the Pelicans would need to assess if he is a flight risk. If the Pelicans were a good enough team right now, pushing the chips in for a player of Beal’s caliber would be an acceptable risk even if he left at the end of his contract. However, the 7-11 Pelicans are not in a position where they can wantonly use valuable assets on a player who is a risk to leave. Establishing intel that Beal would be willing to stay or at least opt-in is critical.

The second area where time is an important variable for the Pelicans is the value of the picks themselves. Currently, almost half the league is unable to trade multiple picks or picks at all due to future picks owed. This includes just about every potential suitor for Beal outside of Boston. Take for example, Miami, who can’t trade a single future first without first removing protections on other picks owed. Tyler Herro is a great young player – but is Tyler Herro and salary filler enough for Washington? Likewise Golden State, Philadelphia, Denver, and even Utah are extremely limited in the future picks they can trade. The Pelicans have a serious advantage here.

The landscape of this changes a bit if the Beal trade drags into the offseason. Teams get more flexibility by being able to trade picks at the time of the draft and being able to trade one year further out. It’s not the end of the world if a trade ends up being made later, but it does make things a little more difficult for the Pelicans. The other factor here is the diminishing value of the picks the Pelicans own the closer they become to actuality. Oh by the way, Oklahoma City is lurking in the shadows with their asset pool as well. All these components combined give the Pelicans the biggest window to strike before the deadline. 

So how should the Pelicans structure a trade package? Unfortunately for them, they have been participants in adversely impacting the market for stars. The Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades have really skewed the market when it comes to the number of assets a team can expect in return for a star. Gone are the days where Paul George could be traded without a single first round pick involved. Multiple picks and swaps are a baseline, and the Pelicans’ offer will be measured against what they received for Jrue. The good news is that with how limited other teams are in what they can offer in terms of draft compensation, the Pelicans may see the price depress more than usual. It will still be hefty, but with 8 tradeable future firsts and 7 tradeable swaps, the Pelicans have quite the pool to dip into if they can receive an indication that Beal is willing to stay.

Beyond draft picks, the Pelicans can get quite creative with salary constructions. They have numerous salary sizes, expirings, and rookie scale deals to make the offer work in Washington’s favor. There are also ways they can get creative utilizing the various trade exceptions around the league and even Washington’s own disabled player exception they received for Thomas Bryant. If Washington puts a priority on salary relief – the Pelicans can help structure a deal that gives Washington no long term contracts and a large trade exception of their own. If Washington prioritizes young players – the Pelicans can layer in Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and even Kira Lewis. Despite not having one standout piece, the Pelicans have the flexibility to take the trade in virtually any direction and make an offer that is tough to beat. They even have the assets to go buy a piece from a third team that Washington may like. But in the event Washington is prepared to hold out on Beal until the offseason or even later, the Pelicans need to be prepared and make moves accordingly. 

Option 2: Make Trades That Make Trading For A Star Easier

It’s possible that Washington either doesn’t trade Beal or some other team ends up outbidding the Pelicans for the star. In that situation, the Pelicans should shift into improving flexibility and assets for future stars that might hit the market. This does not mean transition fully into asset accumulation mode and tank! This means being smart about roster decisions and perhaps turning expiring salaries, such as JJ Redick, into contracts that have an additional year on them in exchange for some small draft compensation. This also applies to other backcourt members in Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe. If there is positive value out there for players who are not going to be a part of the long term future, seize it. The deeper the asset pool the Pelicans have – the easier time they will have going after stars and other core pieces. 

Future salary isn’t a completely necessary piece – shedding salary will help the Pelicans create space to complete uneven trades in the future. For example, sending JJ Redick into Boston’s TPE or the Knicks’ cap space for small assets would free up the mid-level exception for available free agents and the buyout market. It would also free up room under the luxury tax that would allow the Pelicans to trade for large salary pieces without worrying about matching salary exactly. Flipping expirings for expirings + assets is also a path that the Pelicans can take without compromising future flexibility. For example, the rumored JJ Redick for Kelly Oubre trade.

There’s also the marginal benefit of freeing up minutes for guards – Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis, Jr. It’s both prudent to know how the young guards handle a larger role and showcase them as pieces that may interest a team with a star. I don’t believe either guard is at the stage where they actively make the team better on a large scale, but I also won’t complain if the Pelicans end up one or two slots higher for the draft lottery on the way to learning who the young guards are.

Option 3: Go Get A Short Term Core Piece

Short term core pieces are players like Steven Adams. They are consummate professionals who play a vital role both on court and culturally for the team while not being on the books for too long. Steven Adams ended up costing the Pelicans some draft capital, but I’ve always been a proponent of paying for the guys you want. These players raise the floor of a team and are usually tradeable for the duration of their contracts. They can also serve as important culture balancers when you eventually do end up adding a star to the mix.

There might be an opportunity this season to add short term core players without having to give up additional assets. Here are a few players I have in mind, including a couple I’d call about and be willing to give up assets for.

  • Harrison Barnes – Barnes is quietly having a good season in Sacramento. He’s a multiposition defender that the Pelicans have been searching for at the forward position who can also shoot and create a little. Barnes is in year 2 of a 4 year deal, and each year declines – making it very friendly to a team. He’s owed $22.2 million this year and he’s worth calling about if Sacramento wants to get out of his contract for the expirings the Pelicans have available.
  • Joe Harris –  You may be asking why Harris may even be available if Brooklyn just signed him to a 4 year deal. Well for the past week or so there has been a good amount of smoke blowing into media circles that Harris may be on the market. On the surface, it makes sense – the Nets are tilted so heavily towards offense there are diminishing returns when dealing mostly an offensive player like Harris. The Nets might be interested in trying a different defensive look or clearing off his salary. In either case, the Pelicans should call and find out what it would take to get Joe. Would a package of JJ Redick and Josh Hart be enough? Maybe with some second round picks? The Nets writers I have informally polled don’t hate it. He’s worth asking about.
  • Lauri Markkanen – A Lauri for Lonzo swap has been discussed quite frequently in the Twittersphere. The swap would be for two upcoming restricted free agents who did not receive an extension from their incumbent team. Both players may need a change of scenery to reach their potential. Lonzo provides the Bulls with an unselfish playmaking guard/wing who actually plays defense, while Lauri provides the Pelicans with a stretch big for Zion. The questions with Lauri are the same ones that surround Lonzo. Can he be consistent night to night? Will he be a liability in a playoff setting? It’s worth it for the Pelicans to try and find out. Markkanen can play with every member of the Pelicans front court and the Pelicans can even get weird by playing the Adams, Markkanen, Zion trio together if they wanted. His future contract will be a huge question – but if the Pelicans can sign him to a reasonable 3 year deal, this is a trade to monitor.
  • Aaron Gordon – Gordon is a player who has been sought after by many teams only to be rebuked by the Magic over and over. However, with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz out for the season, the Magic are struggling to stay within the play-in picture. Could this finally be the year the Magic become sellers? Maybe there can be a deal centered around expiring salary and draft compensation both parties can work out.
  • Zach Lavine – Lavine is a polarizing player, but his scoring talent is undeniable. He has a reasonable salary and has taken another leap this year in both playmaking and efficiency. The Pelicans do run a cultural risk adding Lavine if he’s not willing to share the spotlight with Zion and Ingram. I’m not sure what would be more entertaining – watching Zion and Lavine as the league’s most athletic duo, or watching Stan tear his hair out because of the Pelicans’ defense.


There are a ton of factors to consider when making moves this deadline. I firmly believe that changing the result of THIS season should not be a high priority when making moves. There are long term risks associated with every strategy and it’s part of what makes winning in the NBA so difficult. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good. One thing I want to touch upon is the cultural risk of bringing in a big star.

When you have a roster with two young stars still trying to establish themselves in the league, bringing in a big ticket player can upset the balance of the culture you’re trying to build. We saw it play out when LeBron went to LA and the young players looked out of sorts. Adding in Beal may cause Zion and Ingram to adjust in a way that is uncomfortable for them. It’s a risk that needs to be considered. However, this isn’t always the case. When Lebron joined a Cleveland team which had young Kyrie Irving who had yet to make the playoffs in his career, the friction didn’t manifest itself until many finals trips and a championship later. The same can be said of when Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers with a young Blake Griffin. Teams aren’t built to last forever, but in my opinion, top end talent is always worth the gamble.

Beal specifically is a tremendous plus culturally and on the court. One of the things that separates Beal from other stars is his tremendous ability to play off the ball. He can fit into any system and not be an ultra usage player if needed. I believe a core of Beal, Ingram, and Williamson would not only compete every year but would really give a good idea of what the future with Ingram and Williamson needs to be. Beal will exit his prime before either of the Pelicans’ stars, so there needs to be an eye on the future for more stars, but the present would be incredibly fun to watch. For once, I want the questions around the Pelicans to be “do they have enough to win a championship?” instead of “are they even going to make the playoffs?”.

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