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Pelicans would be wise to target Jared Sullinger before trade deadline

Searching for a partner beside Anthony Davis.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The first piece I ever wrote on this site, then called At the Hive, advocated selecting Jared Sullinger. Thankfully, that was in January and by the time the draft rolled around I was fully on board with selecting Anthony Davis.

Of course, the New Orleans Pelicans (then Hornets) also had the 10th pick in the draft. Sullinger was 10th on the Big Board here, well ahead of eventual selection Austin Rivers. Sullinger plummeted down the draft thanks to concerns about his back and was selected by the Boston Celtics with the 21st pick. The Celtics were rumored to offer both the 21st and 22nd picks (eventually Fab Melo) to move up and select Rivers.

Rivers has been traded twice already in his brief career and is proving to be one of the least effective players in the entire 2012 draft. Sorting by Basketball-Reference's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) puts Rivers 58th out of 60 players. Sullinger, on the other hand, ranks 6th behind Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, Andre Drummond, and current teammate Jae Crowder. Sullinger will be a restricted free agent this summer. Davis, Lillard, Green, and Crowder have all already signed extensions. Drummond's eventual extension is a mere formality.

The Celtics have a developing problem with too many rotation-level big men. Danny Ainge is looking for a go-to scorer, preferably a big man. Ryan Anderson is about to be an unrestricted free agent and there are real legitimate concerns about how Anderson and Davis fit together. The defense is better this season; the pair is allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions on the year and an impressive 96.0 in the last ten games. I worry that is a flash in the pan with mountains of evidence they cannot form a solid defensive front court.

Beyond Anderson's limitations defensively there are real concerns about his ability to control the glass (see the fourth quarter game three against the Warriors) and his cost going forward. Some of projected Anderson could get a contract nearing the maximum and the Pelicans should not commit to paying the max for two players who are best played at "power forward".

So, let's make a deal!

Fire up the trade machine

I could see this deal expanding after January 15th to include Boston sending an additional player while the Pelicans send Alexis Ajinca. The Celtics (and their fans) have clamored for a true center since Kevin Garnett was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Boston taking on future salary would be unlikely considering Ainge's preparations but Ajinca's contract is meager and hardly dead weight. For now, let's keep it as simple as possible.


Pelicans send Philadelphia's 2017 second round pick, receive Dallas's 2016 first round pick.

Boston would do this to gain a top-flight scorer, clean up some of the rotation issues in the front court, and turn an almost current asset (the Dallas pick) into a future asset (the Philadelphia pick). You can ask Danny Ainge all about having too many first round picks as he did last summer. The Celtics will have three in 2016 without a trade so rolling that asset forward to a slightly less valuable one (although some would argue that early seconds have more value than late firsts with the salary scale) is a relatively minor cost in this transaction.

Now, why should the Pelicans want Jared Sullinger?

Sullinger is a monster on the glass. Anderson is pulling down 15.3% of available defensive rebounds; Sully is posting an impressive 28.1% rate. Diving into other advanced metrics Sully's +3.16 RPM ranks 9th among centers league wide with most of his impact coming on the defensive side of the ledger, where he rates about as effective as Omer Asik.

This goes beyond defense. Despite playing nearly 200 more minutes this season Anderson has accrued less than half as many assists (72 to 35) and approaching a third as many of potential assists (162 to 58) compared to Sullinger. This is not an aberration. Sullinger had 268 potential assists last season while Anderson (in more minutes) had just 116. Despite taking on far more playmaking responsibilities Sullinger keeps his turnovers down; posting a solid 12.5% rate this season. Sullinger does turn the ball over more than Anderson (Ryno's 10.5% rate this season is actually high compared to previous seasons) but that is natural considering all factors. Despite Sullinger attempting 127 more passes Anderson has five more turnovers. Anderson's low turnover rate is created by the sheer volume of shots he attempts.

Jared Sullinger is not without flaws. He is not a rim protector; opponents are shooting 57.7% at the rim with Sully defending. His shot selection includes far too many 3-pointers for a career 27% shooter behind the arc. This season he has struggled mightily on wide-open attempts, shooting just 26.1% (12-46) on looks inside the arc. Sullinger has struggled with his weight and is not exactly the picture of fitness. He will be a restricted free agent this summer and while his cap hold is just just north of $5.5 million he will cost at least double that to retain.

Sullinger's haircut is atrocious.

Sully Hair

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

I hope you didn't pay for that.

Jonas Jerebko is included to make salaries work. His contract next season is not guaranteed until July 3rd giving the Pelicans some wiggle room during the first few days of free agency. Expanding the trade after January 15th, when Alexis Ajinca can be included, would require Boston to send another contract to make things work within the confines of the CBA. Tyler Zeller's salary works but I do not think Boston trades away both Sullinger and Zeller for Anderson and Ajinca. I could be wrong though. Ajinca's actual rim protection along with a cheap contract could hold value to Danny Ainge.

Sullinger is not, in any way, a home run. I think it is time Pelican fans (and General Manager Dell Demps) started to dial back the expectations on a return for Ryan Anderson. Honestly, even this trade could be seen by Celtics fans as a stretch for including the Dallas pick. This is about fit and the future. Sullinger is 23 years old, just one year older than Anthony Davis. If it works out the Pelicans could have the front court set for a long time to come against both traditional and small ball lineups.

I believe the alternative, Demps waiting for the perfect deal and therefore not dealing at all, is dangerous. That's exactly how a team without boatloads of flexibility elects to overpay to keep Anderson despite obvious fit issues over the past four seasons. If Alvin Gentry is going to coach here acquiring a passing big man who can defend and contribute mightily on the glass should be a no-brainer.

The question is if Sullinger is that man.