Energized and fine-tooled, a Washington Wizards 107-94 barrage Jan. 29 left the Pelicans dejected. The locker room chair seemed too small for the slouching colossus that occupied it. Shaking his head, a reflective 23-year-old Anthony Davis rattled off familiar phrases of execution and consistency, and lack thereof. Emotions fully collected, he admitted he felt mentally drained.
“You can’t just have little short breaks of scoring, you have to score the whole game to compete with them.”
The Pelicans then returned for All-Star Weekend riding a 3-1 road stint, and a postseason appearance in play, though statistically improbable.
The recycled talking-points and dumb-founded explanations lingered which reiterated the routine what-if conversation; the end-goal remained the same. What can the front office do to put its star in the best position to consistently win?
In a package-dumping, league-shaking and mouth-gaping trade first reported Sunday night, the Pelicans acquired three time All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, veteran forward Omri Casspi in exchange for rookie shooting guard Buddy Hield, veteran forward Tyreke Evans’ three month contract, guard Langston Galloway, a top three protected 2017 first round pick, and Philadelphia's 2017 second round pick.
“This is an exciting time for Pelicans fans as we continue our quest for long-term success,” Dell Demps said in a press release Monday Feb. 20 that formally announced the deal.
The franchise ranked last in value exchanged a hodgepodge of assets for a statistical superstar big man to pair with the franchise’s own. In a locker room filled with calm, eager voices, the front office just injected itself with an emotionally charged energizer bunny.
The Pelicans’ front office has been very active this season to improve the state of the team. General Manager Dell Demps took advantage of every opportunity that floated his way, even among unfamiliar circumstances.
Major shakeups to the roster’s core started this summer, when the front office relinquished Ryan Anderson (Rockets for four years $80 million) and Eric Gordon (Rockets for four years $52 million) among the likes of New Orleans’ cast of the Walking Dead cast members: Norris Cole, Kendrick Perkins, Jordan Hamilton, Alonzo Gee, and flipped Luke Babbit for future potential draft rights.
Dell Demps officially decided to tinker the organization’s nucleus by throwing a four-year $48 million contract (second largest to Davis) to relatively unproven wing Solomon Hill, a projected defensive hound. Demps then brought in young fringe guards in Galloway, E’Twaun Moore and resigned Tim Frazier on the cheap. After selecting another guard in Hield, a log jam came about. After retooling its backcourt, Demps scooped up a motivated Terrence Jones on a one-year flier he intended to use as an audition to the league for a payday this summer.
The retool fit into a free-flowing offensive system head coach Alvin Gentry commands on paper, though the team badly missed the one steering the ship. Starting point guard Jrue Holiday took a leave to start the season when his wife Lauren Holiday was on the mend. With Holiday out, and likely spark plug Evans out to injury, Demps acquired a hungry Lance Stephenson on a one-year flier to bring some energy and playmaking.
The move did just that, but the Pelicans started the season by losing its first eight games in a row. Stephenson made it six games before an injury forced the front office to drop the journeyman, and auditioned guards Archie Goodwin, Anthony Brown and Reggie Williams. Each juggled their way in and out of the roster as relative non-difference makers and Holiday and Evans soon became available.
The Pelicans then became a near .500 ball club but had glaring holes. Demps capitalized on signing playmaker Donatas Montiejunas after it became apparent Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik needed to be removed from the lineup — big men better suited for the previous Monty Williams’ model.
Davis played most of his minutes bodying the biggest opponent on the floor. It admittedly took a toll on him and he became less productive on offense. A healthy Holiday emerged as a consistent two-way threat, though the team’s consistency wavered and progress stalled. Playing 16 minutes in one game and 33 the next, it became apparent that Hield could not make up the scoring margin nightly at this stage of his career.
“When Buddy is not able to play anymore, he brings so much to our team offensively and we just have to still find a way to try to win that game,” Davis said postgame after its Feb. 12 road loss to the then-Boogying Kings. “That was a game that we needed. We’re chasing them for the eighth seed.”
By making the move Sunday night, the roster’s core now consists of players in the 23-28 age range, with Asik and his hands the oldest at 30. The front office reportedly is not done tweaking his team, with workouts scheduled for a batch of free agents later today.
Dell Demps attempted to pair Davis with talent before and sacrificed in-house development and future assets to corral talent and speed up the ill-defined “process.” With Anderson and Gordon’s return to The Blender this coming Thursday, the upgraded roster will inevitably be measured by the prior models and be tested a total of 25 times more on the remaining schedule.
If a postseason appearance is earned in April, the DeMarcus Cousins’ trade will invariably be remembered favorably by most. If not, expect plenty of further tinkering to attempt to get the Pelicans sailing on the proper course.