Preying on Desperation

Published: January 30, 2016

The Pelicans have not met expectations this season. As they currently sit 3.5 games out of the playoffs and 4 games out of a bottom 5 record, the Pelicans are perhaps in the worst spot a team can find itself in. Nevertheless, this ball club has won 6 out of its last 8 contests and is inching closer to the 8th spot while simultaneously putting a serious gap between the bottom tier teams. And so while fans may be crying for a “tank”, the players and front office may not feel the same way.

Frankly, I think it’s a little too late jettison the cargo and try to recoup “assets”, and based on previous moves, I’m not sure Dell values draft picks as much as the armchair analyst does. Dell has always made his signature acquisitions in the form of trades, and if moves are going to be made, I believe Dell will look to acquire pieces that not only fit the team for the now, but also have potential to grow in the future.

Fortunately for the Pelicans, they aren’t the only disappointment this season. A quick glance around the league illuminates some of the rising levels of unease lurking in the shadows. As the deadline nears, pressure builds to make a move and I think that Dell can take advantage of that growing desperation coupled with the hot play of some key players on the Pelicans. Let’s take a look at some teams that probably aren’t very happy with where they are right now.

The Washington Wizards

Similar to the Pelicans, the Wizards find themselves 3 games out the playoffs in the east. After coming off a fairly successful 46-36 season and a run into the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Wizards looked ready to shed mediocrity and take the next step. John Wall was playing great basketball, Bradley Beal looked like a star in the making when healthy, and young Otto Porter seemed ready to fill the shoes of the wily veteran Paul Pierce after a very promising playoff campaign. Fast forward to now, the Wizards sit at a disappointing 20-24 just a few weeks before all-star break. In fact, things have gotten so bad in the capital right now that a players only meeting was held last night following their 117-113 loss to the Denver Nuggets. 

So how did they get there? Well for starters, Playoff Wittman became a real thing. The coach once known for a trodding pace and an allergy to the 3 point arc completely revamped the Wizard’s offense during the playoffs. Suddenly the Wizards were running up and down the court, launching threes, and whipping passes en route to a sweep of the Raptors. Small ball Wiz emerged as Pierce shifted over to the 4 spot alongside Porter at the wing. Despite falling in 6 games to the Atlanta Hawks, there was hope within the Wizards organization and fanbase that Randy Wittman actually knew what he was doing, and there was a game plan going forward.

Sure enough, as the entire league watched Golden State light the world on fire with small ball, Wittman let it be known in a radio interview this summer that,

“We would like to add a couple pieces. I’m not gonna lie about that.We need to solidify our bench a little bit more. We were a little bit too much up and down from our production off our bench last year, so I’d like to add a piece there. You know, I’d like to maybe get a little bit better at the stretch 4, the shooting 4. We have to be able to play with those teams like Golden State.”

Well the Wizards attempted to exactly that. In the offseason, they absorbed the contract of Jared Dudley into an existing trade exception, only sending out a protected second round pick. While media day was a buzzing with Wittman literally spouting buzz words such as “pace” and “possessions”, the organization was busy trying to figure out which one of their players they could pigeon hole into the stretch 4 role. Dudley started off the season injured, so Kris Humphries drew the straw and the start. This season Humphries has attempted more shots behind the arc than his entire 10 year career before. And as soon as Dudley got healthy,  the 6′-7″ combo forward took the job from Humphries. But the Wizards have sputtered on offense. And that is not supposed to happen when teams go small, and bigs step out behind the arc. Yet the Wizards rank 20th in offensive rating per basketball reference. Some of it falls on young Otto Porter failing to take the leap many expected he would take. Shooting a dismal 31.6% from beyond the arc, Porter has been hobbled and has a long way to go before opponents respect him as a consistent threat on offense. Poor Bradley Beal also can’t catch break, now out with a broken nose and concussion. He perhaps has more freak accidents than fellow draftmate Anthony Davis. Amid this, defense has predictably taken a step back as well. Not only does a poor offense compound defense, but by playing small you sacrifice rebounding and rim protection. The Wizards rank 28th in rebound rate and allow the 7th highest fg% on shots less than 5 feet away from the rim. Something has to give in Washington, so how can the Pelicans take advantage of this?

Enter Ryan Anderson. Perhaps the most obvious trade piece the Pelicans have, Anderson seems to fit the bill for virtually everything the Wizards need (save defense). While Dudley has been an absolute sniper from beyond the arc (46.3%), Anderson’s overall offensive skillset is head and shoulders above what both Humprhies and Dudley offer Washington at that position. Anderson not only gives them a guy who can stretch the floor, but can create his own bucket when things begin to fall apart. Anderson is also a great running mate for Gortat – who used to benefit greatly from the spacing Channing Frye provided in Phoenix. Wall is a crafty and quick point guard who would take Washington’s offense to new levels with Anderson and Gortat screening for him as a duo. But what would the Pelicans want in return?

In his podcast, Zach Lowe proposes a trade that would send Anderson to the Wizards and bring back Kris Humphries and 2015 draft pick Kelly Oubre. The rationale behind this trade being fairly simple – the Wizards would get their coveted stretch 4, and the Pelicans would get back a young asset at small forward and a vet who could fill the back up power forward role behind Davis. This trade made sense perhaps 2 or 3 weeks ago, when things were looking bleak for the Pelicans and the window was still a bit open to drop out of the playoff race. But with the Pelicans’s recent play, I’m not convinced Dell would be willing to take a clear step back this season in favor of acquiring an asset. But what about replacing Humphries with Dudley? The salaries remain virtually the same, and Dudley is an expiring as well.

Anderson has been on a tear, and many feel is a vital part of this team. But Dudley is a seasoned vet and extremely smart defender. His ability to nail threes would give us perhaps the most competent two way wing player we have had in years. Can Dell sell high and ask for more? Can he leverage John Wall’s publicly stated desire to play with a real stretch 4? If you ask me, it’s worth investigating.

The Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic hired Scott Skiles this summer with making the playoffs as expectations. Skiles carried with him the reputation of being hard nosed and getting his players to play gutsy defense. The Magic at this point had amassed a pretty young, yet talented core that consisted of full of versatile players and had grabbed yet another top 5 pick in Mario Hezonja. Management felt they were ready to take the next step towards competing and so Skiles was given the reigns to whip the youngsters into shape. Sure enough, the Magic started off hot, going 19-13 through the first 32 games – good enough for the 5th seed in the east.

Skiles had his players playing his trademark no holds barred defense and the Magic were finally in the top 10 in defensive rating. Skiles also seemed to have unlocked a lineup key by starting Fournier in place of Oladipo. This not only limited Oladipo’s minutes with Payton as neither can really shoot, but Fournier was on pace for a breakout year. But then came January and everything fell apart.

The Magic are in the midst of a 1-12 disaster spiral of doom. They have lost 8 straight and their upcoming schedule includes Boston, San Antonio twice, OKC, Dallas, and Atlanta twice. Things are not about to get easier, and the Magic are facing very serious decisions regarding which direction they want to take the season in. Currently the Magic are only 3.5 games out of the playoffs, despite trying their best to emulate the Sixers for this past month. Are playoffs still the goal? One has to wonder how much longer they can keep rebuilding. They already have 7 guys who are 23 and under and still are labeled as having “potential”. But do the pieces fit? The Magic have slowly learned that Payton-Oladipo lineups are a recipe for disaster. Sporting a net rating of -8.2, the Paydipo duo throws all spacing out the window as their defenders continually go under any screen they are a part of. Fournier has also cooled down considerably after his hot start, averaging only 11.3 ppg and shooting 34.9% from three this past month. Lets not forget Mario Hezonja exists as well. The fearless rookie has shown flashes of awesomeness, but remains a rookie. Prone to turnovers, bad shot selection, an getting lost on defense, Henzoja still has a ways to go before he can be contributor on a playoff team. But with him playing the same position as both Fournier and Oladipo, Skiles is desperately searching for a combo that works.

He has turned his attention to the frontcourt now where he’s attempting to start Aaron Gordon with Tobias Harris. On paper, this seems like a great idea. Harris is a versatile combo forward who can do a little bit of everything, and Aaron Gordon is an athletic freak who can guard either forward position. However, the two sport a net rating of -4.0, and operate in a lot of the same real estate. Opposing teams often hide their weaker defender on Gordon, knowing he isn’t a threat to shoot or create for himself. Harris signed a lucrative 4 year extension this past summer and Gordon is still in his second year, so the Magic still have a lot of time to get it right. But questions about how they fit next to Nikola Vucevic still exist, not to mention, we haven’t even talked about Channing Frye and Jason Smith coming off the bench.

The Magic have a lot of players that fill the same roles, and its unclear what their plan is going forward. But they desperately need a backup point guard, and more people that can shoot. It’s difficult to come up with a clear trade with the Magic that both teams would be willing to do, but can Dell leverage Anderson’s expiring contract with a combination of either a protected 1st round pick or 2nd round picks for Channing Frye plus a young asset? Could Tobias Harris be on the market?

I think a trade with the Magic is unlikely since they are still young and in no real rush to compete, but all it takes is one desperate GM and this tailspin is enough to push any GM to the brink.

The Houston Rockets

This is perhaps the most fascinating team to me. The Rockets last season were so bizarre, yet so talented. They reached the Western Conference Finals on the back of some truly incredible play by James Harden, and amazing team defense. Many people remember Harden putting up crazy numbers night after night, but what they don’t remember was that Houston had the 6th best defense in the league last year. This was despite Dwight Howard and Pat Beverley missing a large chunk of the season. Their role players had completely bought in and this was particularly highlighted in the iconic playoff comeback when the Rockets were trailing the Clippers by 20 points in an elimination game, and the bench blitzed its way to victory. The Rockets then went on to win 3 consecutive games to overcome a 1-3 playoff deficit.

In the offseason, GM Daryl Morey made some crafty moves to acquire the problematic point guard Ty Lawson as James Harden’s back court running mate. He also manage to bolster the bench by adding Marcus Thornton and re-signing K.J. McDaniels. All in all, the Rockets looked poised to make another deep run into the playoffs and finally get back injured players like Dwight and Montiejunas.

But then Rockets sputtered out to a 4-7 start to the season and fired Head Coach Kevin McHale on the first year of his extension. Things are bad in space city. They have managed to claw their way back to a 25-24 record, but have just dropped two straight on a 3 game road trip, with their lone win coming against an injured Pelicans squad by 1 point. What is going on with them?

Notably, their defense has dropped. The once stingy Rockets defense now stands at 27th in the league. Their role players seem disinterested at times, and Harden is expending too much energy on offense to offer much on defense. Dwight has regressed due to health reasons, and their bench isn’t offering them much on either end. The Ty Lawson experiment has not worked well. Lawson doesn’t look like the quasi all-star he was in Denver, and a lot may have to do with is off court issues with alcohol, and subsequently, the law. Beverley has regained the starting spot. The Rockets are also getting absolutely nothing from the power forward position. Terrence Jones showed a lot of promise his first few years but has been flat out bad for them is year. It’s unclear if it is because how he is being used, or because everyone around him is bad as well, but Jones’s play has dropped all around statistically. Averaging a career low 45.4%  from the field, Jones has also declined in rebounding rate and block rate, while turning it over more frequently than his previous years. It has been a pretty dramatic turnaround from his strong showing to close out the season last year where he looked like a legitimate two way option. In an effort to bolster power forward play, Morey acquired Josh Smith again from the Clippers. The acquisition did briefly lead a few Rockets wins, but Smith has been horrible since being back in Houston. He is shooting 28.3% from the field, jacking 5 threes a game and making only 15% of them! It has gotten so bad that Houston is starting Ariza at power forward and Brewer at the wing.

Things can’t be where Daryl Morey expected them to be. And knowing him, he is constantly looking for options to upgrade. Both Montiejunas and Jones are going into restricted free agency this summer, and it’s more than likely one of them will not be wearing a Rocket’s uniform next season. Morey is probably also worried about making a pitch to Durant and other free agents and will be trying to keep his cap situation flexible. This is why Ryan Anderson is a perfect candidate to give Morey the floor spacing power forward he has been coveting for years, but also an expiring contract that allows him to be flexible this summer. But what can the Pelicans ask for back? I think the natural piece to want back would be Terrence Jones. A potential two-way player who can handle the ball at the 4 spot. But Jones has been awful and his trade value is kaput. If Morey is desperate, can Dell entice him to give up Ariza as well? Dell has some sweeteners he acquired from the Ish Smith deal that could come in very handy in a situation like this. But it all depends on how desperate Houston is to be relevant again in the playoffs. With the recent Blake Griffin news, the Rockets might just be eyeing that 4th seed.

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