The New Orleans Pelicans are now 14 games under .500 and five and a half out of the playoff picture. They battled heroically against the Los Angeles Clippers but fell in overtime. That is an ideal result as the Pelicans need to slide further out of playoff contention before trades for the future will begin. As long as there is a whiff of playoff hope on Airline Drive the front office is going to be reluctant to begin the process of tearing the current roster down. Losses now are not about lottery odds nearly as much as declaring the season lost. Only when that is unavoidable will reloading begin in earnest.
There are weaknesses to address on this roster. Expiring contracts that could return future value should be on the block. More versatile wing defenders are in dire need. This team also needs to get a little younger (and faster) to take full advantage of superstar Anthony Davis. Let's take a look at who should go and who should stick around.
Before diving into specific moves I hope the Pelicans make, I want to outline a general blueprint I hope they follow. The exact moves and trade partners will almost certainly (considering the track record above) be different from what I suggest but that need not be a bad thing. There are three players I think are critical to moving in the next seven months for the long term health of this franchise. Others I suggest are about making salaries work, or attempting to extract greater value out of specific transactions.
Ryan Anderson - This is simple. Anderson's contract expires after this season, he is going to get more expensive, and he plays the same position Anthony Davis prefers to play. Anderson and Davis have shown a little promise since the team starting winning a little bit, especially on defense. Posting a 102.6 DRtg together spread over 423 minutes is a significant improvement over 106.7 in 877 minutes last year or 109.4 in 324 minutes in 2013-14. The offense, however, has taken a big step back.
It just doesn't work. Anderson can be traded between now and the deadline to recoup some future assets to help build a winner around Davis. The alternatives are to pay him to stay (he won't be cheap) or let him walk in free agency. Some have suggested doing a sign-and-trade in the summer; that's not going to happen. Anderson is not a restricted free agent and everyone in the league is going to have loads of cap space. The possibility that a team forks over assets in a sign-and-trade in July is incredibly slim. Trade Anderson now. Ideally the Pelicans will not take on future salary and receive a pick in the middle-to-late first round.
Eric Gordon - Also on an expiring contract. New Orleans might not be able to get another first round pick for Gordon, but I don't think a wave a picks is necessarily best for the team. Packaging Gordon with another player could give the Pelicans greater flexibility under the salary cap this summer or even net a promising younger player still on a rookie contract. Gordon, like Anderson, is not the future on this team.
Tyreke Evans - He isn't the point guard to run Alvin Gentry's offense. His contract continues to decline next season, making it a valuable chip to move out to the right trade partner. Evans isn't the future, he's a ticket to mediocrity. I could be convinced on keeping Evans around if he is willing to accept being a super sixth man for the team. Considering the "success" last season with Evans starting I do not expect he would be willing to do so.
Alexis Ajinca - He's on a bargain contract for a big man. Adding Ajinca to a trade would increase the potential return. Moving his contract for the Pelicans' sake is about unnecessary surplus on the roster. Moving Omer Asik requires adding more assets to make a team stomach his contract. Ajinca does the opposite. Oh, and Asik is actually playing much better lately.
Why aren't you trading?
Omer Asik - It's the contract. Moving Asik means sacrificing a future asset for potential cap space. There might be an amnesty clause by 2017. The 2018-19 season I think is the target year for the Pelicans to be contenders barring Davis making another amazing leap. New Orleans should be in the business of acquiring future assets (like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or an additional 2016 first round pick) instead of sacrificing them to simply create cap space. Also, Asik is playing better and Anthony Davis prefers to have a big man around to protect him. Ajinca can be moved, Asik cannot. Acquire assets, not just cap space at the cost of future assets.
Jrue Holiday - He's better than Tyreke Evans, he's more versatile, and he has a better relationship with Anthony Davis. Davis is shooting 51.22% (eFG%) on passes from Evans (655 shots) and 56.26% on passes from Holiday (447 shots) in the last three years. That's a significant difference despite rumors of this unbreakable bond between Evans and Davis.
Any juicy draft pick in the first round works with Holiday. Select a point guard like Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray, or Wade Baldwin and Holiday easily slides off the ball. If Brandon Ingram, Buddy Hield, or Furkan Korkmaz are headed to the Crescent City then Holiday can remain at the point. Get a wing who struggles to shoot like Jaylen Brown or Ben Simmons (please!) and a back court of Holiday and Pondexter provides spacing AND defense. There's a reason Holiday is on the untouchable list.
I think it's now safe to say Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday are untouchable. Everyone else is up for grabs as #Pelicans near midway point.— Scott Kushner (@ScottDKushner) January 10, 2016
Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham - Both are on really cheap contracts and provide much needed defense on the wing. Additionally they provide age and experience on a roster that will ideally get much younger by this summer. I don't think you can add Pondexter or Cunningham into a transaction like Ajinca and get an additional asset or an improved asset.
Everyone else - They're available, but I don't think the rest of the league is interested at all. Norris Cole is building a wall of bricks around potential deals one midrange jumper at a time. Alonzo Gee has gone into witness protection. Luke Babbitt, Toney Douglas, and Kendrick Perkins rarely play.
At lunch I will spell out two trades I think will help rebuild the Pelicans in a relative hurry with a focus on getting younger and better on defense.