After their first postseason trip in four years, the New Orleans Pelicans decided to run back the roster last summer, re-signing four of their own free agents. In hindsight, that decision turned out to be a grave mistake. Even when the team was momentarily healthy in December, the Pelicans only managed to post average results under new head coach Alvin Gentry.
In the middle of January, Dell Demps expressed his disappointment with the team's performance and that included with members of the core. However, the general manager promised that he wouldn't make any trades for the sake of making changes if they didn't improve the team. Sure enough, the trade deadline came and went without fanfare -- much to the dismay of many -- with the likes of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson remaining in uniform until the final game of the regular season.
Fast forward to the present and that appears to have been the wisest choice. Had Demps executed a trade, it likely would have further burdened the team's 2016-17 salary cap space with a player who didn't sit high on the wish list. So, while everyone was dreaming about the addition of another draft pick or some other form of youthful but unproven potential, the front office was keen on making specific wholesale changes inside the locker room, a feat best accomplished with as little hindrances as possible on the upcoming financial sheets.
Come to think of it, things could be even rosier. For months, Tyreke Evans has purportedly sat on the trade block, but with the recent announcement he is going to miss the start of next season, his troublesome right knee has eliminated that avenue... at least for the time being. Regardless, the Pelicans roster will have at least six fresh faces and Tim Frazier, a late season signing that was extensively praised.
The front office had a priority: populate the roster with high character players. Mission accomplished. Equally as important, Demps and company were able to change the culture with a commitment in the neighborhood of $25 million dollars spread out among five free agents. That's nearly what Harrison Barnes or Chandler Parsons will make alone next season!
Remember when Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walked away from the Portland Trail Blazers and Nicolas Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets? The offseason grades were not pretty. For example, Matt Moore, Zach Harper, D.J. Foster and Grant Hughes slammed the team with a D+ or worse. Oh, don't get me wrong, they had plenty of reasons to think a team that had won 51 games was going to take a significant step back. However, when that didn't transpire, Kevin Pelton's grade and accompanying justifications made for the correct outlook.
Nobody suffered a greater talent drain this summer than Portland, which lost four of five starters between free agency and trades. Yet once Aldridge's departure became inevitable, a change of direction was the right move for the Blazers, who would have struggled to compete in the West without their star. By pivoting quickly, the Blazers positioned themselves to rebuild around point guard Damian Lillard, who signed a five-year extension that will kick in during the 2016-17 season. Aminu and Davis figure to prove good values as the cap rises, and Vonleh has the chance to be Aldridge's long-term replacement at power forward.
The Blazers lost a ton of star power, but instead of scrambling to replace names, they focused on making smart signings that would not smother Damian Lillard yet remain solid enough to surround him with a cast that could grow and win together. The emergence of C.J. McCollum should not be forgotten, but it was the moves in free agency that allowed Portland to return to the playoffs. Despite winning seven fewer games, the 2016 Blazers squad advanced further than the Aldridge-Batum-Matthews-Lopez core, and at one point, threatened to sit tied 2-2 with the best regular season team of all time, the Golden State Warriors.
Last year a specific argument emerged in a corner or two of the New Orleans fanbase. Claims were made that the Pelicans were more concerned with points, offense and entertainment value than striving towards a championship. Yeah, seriously. Never mind the fact that all one had to do was look at the return of Omer Asik to realize the team wasn't primarily concerned with just providing some sideshow spectacle.
Anyways, for all those who advocated that silly opinion, what do you think now? The names of Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, E'Twaun Moore and Terrence Jones will not have fans reaching for their phones to renew season tickets. The incoming group is by and large known for working hard, and even more so, making defense a priority -- the considerably less glamorous side in basketball.
Here's the reason why the series of offseason moves were so mightily important for the Pelicans, though: Teams fail to become a free agent destination not because of locations but win/loss records. Most game-changers do not prefer to enter an environment where they are asked to be saviors, rather they want to join a team that has distinguished themselves from the pack and sit just one or two moves from legitimacy.
Ask yourselves, why do the Warriors or San Antonio Spurs manage to continually score outstanding personnel? Why did Kevin Durant flee the Oklahoma City Thunder, fail to meet with the Washington Wizards and wind up in the Bay?
Evan Turner reportedly had six or more suitors, yet he decided to sign in Portland. We should believe that had the Trail Blazers had the down year that was predicted by so many, this free agent signing wouldn't have transpired.
The pursuit of a championship, becoming one of the league's elite teams, is a process. An organization has to differentiate itself from the pack before making that proverbial next step and that normally involves winning. Following a disappointing season, the Pelicans didn't have many routes available to get back to the postseason quickly. In fact, they only had one considering the amount of changes necessary -- luring lower profile candidates and ones who didn't mind coming to New Orleans to deals that most other teams did not make.
Now, if the Pelicans prove to be a winner again, more doors will open, just as it did this offseason for the Blazers when they nabbed Turner and Festus Ezeli. If not, New Orleans made a string of moves that didn't hamstring the future and they should be able to undergo another small reboot in a year's time if necessary.
The New Orleans Pelicans promised changes, specifically wanting to impact defense and winning. Time will tell, but on paper they seemed to have nailed making the essential changes. Just as Portland did one year ago around Lillard, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday are now surrounded by plenty of new names that still have the potential for growth, know their roles and provide the skill sets that were missing one year ago. If it all goes according to plan, future faces should be more recognizable in a year's time, and more importantly, the good times will be rolling soon enough inside the Smoothie King Center.