Late last week, the New Orleans Pelicans wrapped up their off-season by officially signing Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway, Cheick Diallo, Alonzo Gee, Buddy Hield, Terrence Jones, and Tim Frazier. Eight new contracts and just two, Gee and Frazier, are returning members of the roster from last year. With 15 players under contract, it is unlikely we see much movement from Dell Demps in the coming months. The off-season limit is 20 players, but the NBA requires just 15 on opening night.
To an extent, there were a few minor surprises. Alonzo Gee was signed with the remaining cap space meaning Terrence Jones is almost assuredly on a minimum contract. Initial reports were that Jones would use that remaining space instead. Did the recruiting of Anthony Davis assist in getting Jones to take less and bring back Alonzo Gee as well? It appears to be the case.
The Pelicans payroll will eclipse $97 million this season, a significant increase from previous years. However, thanks to a massive influx in league revenue, it is likely the franchise will be more profitable than ever. By percentage, New Orleans is spending about 104% of the salary cap; down from 117% (check that) for the 2015-16 season. Additionally, Tom Benson will pay for just one head coach this year rather than both Monty Williams (his final guaranteed year was last season) and Alvin Gentry.
Offensive firepower has been sacrificed for defensive versatility and simple availability. Gone are Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson; two capable scorers who were capable of producing 20+ points on a given night. Also gone are their notable defensive shortcomings which were prevalent each and every possession; consequently, more will be asked of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. In addition, Buddy Hield will be given every opportunity to put points on the board, a chance he will surely relish.
Recent free agent acquisitions Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore, and Langston Galloway will find shots available. But clearly those players were brought on board to fix an ailing defense.
New Orleans has ranked no worse than 16th on offense and no better than 22nd on defense since Anthony Davis arrived. Even playing Greivis Vasquez, Al-Farouq Aminu, and both Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis as rookies, heavy minutes could not knock this franchise below league average offensively.
Associate Head Coach (and "defensive coordinator") Darren Erman should find himself at home on a roster full of grinding defensive players with limited offensive resumes. In Erman's last season with the Boston Celtics, 2014-15 saw a ragtag bunch of role players and castoffs claw their way to .500 on the back of a feisty defense. Isaiah Thomas, who joined the Celtics at the trade deadline, immediately assumed the role of the go-to player on offense. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday are far superior options, A and B to anything those Celtics had available.
Boston's last two seasons hold the blueprint for what the Pelicans hope to become. A whole far greater than the sum of the individual players. If Solomon Hill turns into a reasonable facsimile of Jae Crowder, there's certainly hope. New Orleans can reasonably put five plus defenders on the court at once without sacrificing spacing to an unplayable degree. A lineup of Holiday-Moore-Pondexter-Hill-Davis can switch everything and harass opponents out to 94 feet. Langston Galloway and Dante Cunningham can also easily fit onto the floor, providing far more small-ball depth around the Davis-Holiday core than has ever been available before. That's without mentioning Buddy Hield (if he progresses significantly on defense) or Tyreke Evans (if he's able to get through his recent knee injuries).
Alvin Gentry's reputation is built on offense. Can he keep the offense humming with a collection of defense-first role players surrounding Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis? That is the bet Dell Demps made this summer.
From my vantage point, it is a solid bet with less risk than offering a huge contract to a more marquee free agent name like Chandler Parsons or Harrison Barnes. Either of those players would have cost New Orleans the entirety of their cap space, which instead was spread out to Hill, Moore, Galloway, Gee, and to get Cheick Diallo on a three year contract.
After years of injuries depleting the roster, putting all of the cap space in one less than glamorous basket is an enormous risk. Will it pay off? That's more difficult to predict. The Western Conference figures to be much deeper this season. Teams long looking outside the playoffs expect to compete this year including the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday are the real keys to this endeavor. If both remain healthy and play to their prodigious ceilings, this team will make the playoffs. If they don't, it is far less likely. Are Davis and Holiday worth that bet? We all find out starting in October.