The New Orleans Pelicans are 18-28 and 2.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. At this point, making the playoffs is still within-play and a reasonable goal. To what end purpose simply “crashing the postseason” would have at this point is less clear, but there is the notion that a team with (arguably?) the league’s best big man should at least be postseason-worthy.
If all the Pelicans do is strive for an inevitable sweep, though, has much of anything actually been accomplished?
Perhaps, at this point, the postseason is a noble enough goal.
New Orleans made it two seasons ago on the season’s final day, in defeating the San Antonio Spurs to claim the No. 8 seed in a surprise over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last year was less kind, but a return to the 2017 playoffs could lend a little legitimacy in the pursuit of any top tier free agents. At least there would be the notion of building on some form of success.
The Pelicans still have a few assets that could be turned into young prospects or picks with the right GM listening.
Jrue Holiday may have battled a lot of injuries, but when he is healthy, he is still a fringe All-Star level point guard, and teams like the Philadelphia 76ers may be willing to part with young talent to plug in an experienced and skilled playmaker like Holiday.
At this point, regardless of whether New Orleans does or does not make the playoffs, the team’s 2017 draft pick is likely to fall outside of the top-10. Barring a major tanking effort, that does not seem to have been forthcoming as New Orleans is going to finish with a better record than likely four Western Conference teams and probably another four or five in the East. So, expect the pick to be as high as 10th or at worst, 16th.
That means New Orleans is not going to score another franchise-changing level talent. That is fine. Davis already is one, and no team should get too greedy because hope is not a plan. At this point, keeping Davis in town is of paramount importance, while the hope of luring a second superstar only looms as a stroke of luck that, may or may not, materialize at all.
Beyond the fact that New Orleans must keep Davis, it must keep him healthy. He has had an extraordinary amount of pressure placed on his young shoulders, shoulders which he seems insistent upon putting through the damage of charging into the stands after loose balls. Davis’ back is ailing, but he has shown few signs of letting up, nor arguably of being kind and smart to his body. Part of it is beyond his control: the Pelicans are a dreadful basketball team sans Davis. When he sits, New Orleans generally loses control of the game and the offense has a tendency of becoming stagnant and foul.
The alternative to Davis high-posting often are forced jumpers by players like Solomon Hill and Terrence Jones. The influence that having an 'instant-double' adds is profound and it creates shots for everyone.
The hope, of course, is that Buddy Hield eventually becomes just that for the Pelicans. He has shown flashes as rookies tend to, but sustaining stretches has been a problem even for a mature first-year player like Hield. His shot selection has generally been good, though, and he won the most recent NBA Rookie of the Month award.
But has Hield lived up to the pre-draft expectations?
That’s tough to say.
A lot of people were hedging Hield win the Rookie of the Year Award, yet Joel Embiid is more or less running away with it. To compare Hield’s success to the 76ers phenomenal rookie is no fair measuring stick, but many would still say the jury is out on just how good Hield can be.
People are billing Embiid as legendary talent; no one is ready to cash that check yet on Buddy. Perhaps in time, we are talking about a perennial All-Star, but no one is ready to put Hield on any sort of mantle as Hall of Fame bound, and that is fine for now. The Pelicans will endure endless chatter over whether the right decision was made to pursue Hield over Jamal Murray in the draft, but at this point, that really is not a primary focus.
It is about making Hield work in New Orleans; Denver has their own issues and problems and Murray is in a crowded backcourt there, too. The Pelicans legitimately may have the best or second-best player in the actual draft class, with Hield’s top competition outside of Murray being Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks. This was not a particularly loaded class, and getting a hit should be valued for just exactly what it was.
The Pelicans now will have a more ambiguous task this draft with a later pick and several positions of need but a better talent pool to choose from. The team could use an upgrade at small forward, but pairing a different and better big with Davis is perhaps just as worthy a cause. Terrence Jones has shown that he may command upwards of $12-15 million (comparing him relative to guys that just got the same or more, that is), and the Pelicans certainly can look to put a different 4-man with him moving forward.
Jones makes an interesting choice in his own right, but consistency has proven to be his biggest issue and there really has not been any resolution in that area with Jones only occasionally having those monster nights, but mostly disappearing often against mediocre opposition.
Without delving heavily into the draft at this point in time, a few forwards that could net the Pelicans’ interest are Harry Giles of Duke, Bam Adebayo of Kentucky, Jonathan Isaac of Florida St. and Josh Jackson of Kansas.
Giles has the highest upside, but he has been batting knee injuries in his freshman season at Duke. His stock has fallen to roughly around where New Orleans will be able to grab him now. Giles would be a definite solution at power forward in going with a younger guy whose upside exceeds that of Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas even.
The Pelicans would roll the dice to some degree, but once a team is selecting in that portion of the late lottery, that can be done. Giles could form an incredible tandem with Davis on both ends of the court and the Pelicans would have one of the more powerful 4/5 tandems in recent history — if both he and Davis remained healthy.
Adebayo would be a power-5 to slide Davis to the 4-spot to face up more. Adebayo is powerful, mini-Shaq-like, and his drop step usually produces a look at the rim, be a dunk or two free throws. ‘
Will it translate at the next level? That is, of course, a little less certain, and Adebayo currently is not a polished product on the block. His repertoire appears limited, but it is difficult to tell when he has to employ little more than a powerful drop step to get to the rim. He could be as good as the likes of Al Jefferson with a little work, but he does not have the explosive natural abilities that would make him unattainable. Even if New Orleans drafts at the lower range of where they may be, Adebayo will likely be a consideration.
Jonathan Isaac of Florida State is a nice stretch-4 with the shooting and athleticism to really flourish the way the league is trending. At 6’10” he plays a lot like a small forward and is very quick, and he has already been linked to New Orleans in ESPN’s first mock draft of the season. The Pelicans could keep Davis at the 5, and allow Isaac to roam the perimeter as a 4 who can still hit the boards and defend well despite a slight frame. He will need to add some bulk, but that statement ends up applying to the majority of young power forwards.
Lastly, Josh Jackson would be the scoring small forward that New Orleans may need most of all. The Kansas freshman has a high upside and would seem to be a good fit next o Hield as a 2/3 combo. The two could be interchangeable, though Jackson would clearly be the small forward. His defensive potential is as good as his scoring, and he has nearly a 6-foot-10 wingspan, which should enable him to cover the rangy 3-men that are the creme of his position. Ideally, he could be every bit as good as the likes of Paul George, but he also may be unattainable for New Orleans as it is pretty conceivable Jackson goes in the top-eight.
No matter what the case, there are going to be some great options for the Pelicans in the draft, if that is where this is all headed. With the No. 8 seed in the West more or less wide open, though, it is really anyone’s guess even at this juncture in late January. I do know, however, that things could be a lot bleaker in New Orleans. Right, Anthony Davis?