The Pelicans have moved from "win soon" to "win now", trading assets that would be valuable in the future for assets that can help New Orleans make the playoffs next year. There are a number of reasons why:
1. Dell Demps is on the hot seat. With back-to-back disappointing seasons for New Orleans, both Demps and Monty are feeling the squeeze, but Loomis and Benson are more likely to send Demps packing. The mandate is clear: make the playoffs or the Pelicans are getting a new GM.
2. Tom Benson is old. It's hard to sell a long-term rebuilding plan to an owner that was born in the Coolidge Administration.
3. The front office wants to keep the attention of the football-first New Orleans fan base. As Tom Ziller notes, the Pellies saw a big rise in ticket sales last season and they want to build on that momentum.
As a result, Demps is frantically making moves to ensure that the Pelicans make the playoffs next year. The long-term strategy, however, is very murky - it appears that the plan is to not worry about the future until next offseason. Let's take a look at the moves Demps has made so far.
The Asik trade will be the centerpiece of the Pelicans' offseason, and it's a perfect example. Demps traded a valuable asset (the 2015 first-rounder) for a player that will be useful next season but becomes
a restricted an unrestricted free agent next year. The trade sets up a lose-lose situation: if Asik plays poorly, we wasted a draft pick on a bad player, but if Asik plays well, he'll be so valuable as a free agent that New Orleans will be unable to retain him. By trading the draft pick, the Pelicans lose a cost-controlled unidentified player that could pair with Davis for at least four years as the Brow matures. In return, the Pelicans receive one season of an excellent defensive center. The trade makes sense for next season, but it will likely leave New Orleans bereft of assets in July 2015.
The Pierre Jackson for Russ Smith trade follows the narrative, as well. To open up cap space for the Asik trade, Demps will have slash salary. Likely, Austin Rivers will be packing his bags. Without Rivers, Monty lacks a point guard that can come in off the bench and play serviceable defense. Frankly, size-obsessed Monty was never likely to play Jackson, who stands at 5'10". However, Pierre lit the D-League on fire last season. He's a unique player - he's proven himself in a professional league that just yielded a first-round pick, but he also has an undefined ceiling. He's certainly more valuable than your average second-round draft pick, but Demps traded him last night for exactly that.
The reason Demps traded for Russ Smith makes perfect sense for next season - he's a defensive specialist with enough size to keep Monty happy. Since he's already 23, he's mature enough to step in immediately to back up Jrue Holiday after Austin Rivers leaves. He specifically fills a need for next season, but he has a low ceiling and is unlikely to become a long-term solution at the backup point guard spot. Demps once again traded an asset that has significant long-term value for an asset that has significant value next season but little value for the long haul.
It was frustrating to watch Demps make these moves in a draft where teams like the 76ers and the Suns were loading up on future assets, the Spurs got a steal on a player that fits their system perfectly, and Hollinger's Grizzlies picked up two highly underrated players that will likely blossom in Memphis.
I'm beginning to worry that the Pelicans are going to wind up like the Timberwolves instead of those other teams. Landing an incredible talent in the draft, Minnesota didn't surround Kevin Love with talent for the first two years, made major whiffs in the draft, were plagued by injuries, and then went hog-wild in free agency trying to surround Love with a team that could make the playoffs. Every single step backfired, and now they're trying to get pennies on the dollar for Love, just as New Orleans had to do with Chris Paul.
With all their draft picks gone, the only way I can see the Pelicans making a serious run at a championship is to have Anthony Davis be truly transcendent and convince big-name free agents to come to New Orleans, potentially taking a pay cut. Now, that's not a terrible strategy - the Pelicans have a surprising amount of cap flexibility over the next two years as the Asik and Gordon contracts expire over the next few years and open up $24M in cap space. Nonetheless, putting together a championship team when Davis is on his max deal would be a lot easier with some cost-controlled players that Demps could have drafted with the picks he sent away to increase the odds he keeps his job.