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Grading the New Orleans Pelicans 2020 offseason

How would you judge the additions of Kira Lewis Jr., Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and cast of free agents?

2020 NBA Draft Photo by Courtesy of Kira Lewis Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

With no more foreseeable offseason moves on the horizon, it’s time to hand out grades on the New Orleans Pelicans offseason as a whole.

Kevin: A-

Long before Stan Van Gundy was even a sparkle in our eyes as a head coaching candidate, he joined Zach Lowe for a Bubble Preview Podcast focusing on the New Orleans Pelicans — in which he broke down the strengths & weaknesses of the Pels and individual players. A lot of his focus was on Lonzo Ball and his incredible ability to rebound and turn those rebounds into points in transition, but also his shortcomings in the half court. Lonzo is a very bad PnR player and timid when it comes to attacking the paint. Kira Lewis Jr. should fill those gaps, in time.

Kira could be Lonzo’s eventual replacement on the roster, but Van Gundy seems to have plans to utilize Lonzo more off-ball in the half-court. Lewis allows for this to work (eventually), but also is his own potent weapon in transition due to his incredible speed and vision. Pairing him with Ball and Zion Williamson on the break will give defenses fits.

Lewis may also provide some solid perimeter defense (even if he isn’t switchable) — which we definitely lost in the Jrue Holiday trade, and while Lewis seemingly fills a need, he was also arguably the best player on the board. He’s a tad undersized for my ideal backcourt player; however, he’s young, and even if he doesn’t grow in height, he should be able to add on some much needed weight and muscle. I was disappointed we didn’t trade up and play a game of risk, but for staying put, it’s hard to find a better fit and prospect for Trajan Langdon and David Griffin at #13.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The series of moves that followed the draft have provided some clarity as well as some murkiness. On our The Bird Calls podcasts, we’ve often discussed the lack of rebounding, interior defense and toughness on the Pelicans. After a wild series of additions to the Jrue Holiday trade, Langdon and Griff addressed those issues by bringing in comic book-like strength and toughness with Steven Adams.

The analytical natural fit next to Zion may be a 5 that stretches the floor and opens up the paint for Zion to work defenses over. However, we should remember that Zion was able to put up historically efficient numbers while playing next to Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes, both of whom weren’t scaring people on the offensive end.

Adams is a rebounding machine, who also plays selflessly — boxing out so Westbrook could pile up triple-doubles for years. He is now paired with Zion to form what is probably the strongest frontcourt in the league. Opponents will feel a Pelicans game for days after the final buzzer sounds.

Adams isn’t just a rebounding, screen setting, and shot at the rim deterring brute, he is a very solid playmaker who OKC media has said has been working on his corner 3 for some time now. I’m not counting on these areas being a large part of his game, but should something pan out, it’ll add a whole new dimension. While I understand that the extension the Pels handed Adams in the trade limits flexibility in the next two years to some degree, I believe it is a very fair price and am well aware we aren’t a free agent destination. Not yet anyways.

If a choice of Eric Bledsoe or George Hill was an option, I would have gone with Hill. His price tag is a bit lower and would have allowed the Pels to add some more talent while avoiding the tax. I love the leadership qualities Hill brings and his shooting would be a great security blanket should JJ miss time or leave after the season. To me, he would have been a better version of Jameer Nelson in SVG’s Orlando offense. That being said, Bledsoe is no slouch.

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Bledsoe fills in a lot of Lonzo Ball’s gaps, allowing Zo to shift to a more backcourt Lamar Odom role. Lonzo can rebound and push in transition. Bledsoe can run the PnR and other offense in the half-court. Should their shooting trends maintain, Lonzo can provide catch-and-shoot threes while Bledsoe can pressure a defense by taking threes off of the dribble. Bledsoe also attacks the rim, collapsing the defense to create cleaner looks for teammates. Playing Lonzo more off the ball could allow him to put more energy towards defending — and when teamed with Bledsoe, who is coming off of two seasons where he earned first and second team all defensive selections, could replace a lot of Holiday’s on-the-ball defense on wings. Offense hasn’t been a problem for New Orleans over the last six years, but shoring up the defense inside and at the point of attack could pay huge dividends in the win column.

Several members of our Bird Writes crew don’t see Bledsoe as a buy-in guy or long for the roster, but I’m not so quick to write him off as at least a 2-year stop-gap while Kira Lewis and Nickeil Alexander-Walker jockey for the lead guard job.

There were several free agents I had targeted that New Orleans missed out on, some due to the cap sheet implications of the Adams deal, but a favorite target of mine, Harry Giles III, signed with Portland for the minimum. That being said, Willy Hernangomez is another rebounding and screen-setting monster that should at least light a fire under Jaxson Hayes’ ass — if not make him a trade piece to acquire more wing or stretch big depth. Hernangomez is a ballet-footed bully-ball technician in the post. He can definitely get minutes in a healthy rotation, but also allows SVG to run the same offense should Adams miss time.

I’m also a fan of the Wenyen Gabriel signing. I loved what I saw out of him in the bubble, and my summer league buddy, Steve Dewald — an editor at Blazer’s Edge — immediately sent me a DM telling me how much we will love him. Gabriel is already impressive defensively, but he appears to have some offensive abilities that can be developed further.

I was hoping for more help from a combo forward that leans more into the three role, but the cap sheet has really stiff armed any upgrades there. I’m not as concerned as others because I see how Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo in three-guard lineups can fill that role pretty well. That being said, I still covet any of the Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter cluster of young Atlanta wings — who are now even more log-jammed with the Hawks’ offseason additions — though a trade to get them would now require sending out either Melli (your lone stretch big) or Jaxson Hayes (your potential long-term solution at the 5) to create space under the tax. Unless, of course, Bledsoe is eventually moved — though that puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on the Pels’ young point guards.

All in all, if you add up the drafting of Lewis, the additional unprotected firsts from the Holiday trade, locking up Ingram and Adams and if we get an engaged and bought-in Bledsoe — even with the lack of a scary stretch big and some weakness in wing depth — you’d have to feel good about the way this roster is being shaped. It has vision and purpose and has pieces that should establish an identity. You’ll never not have question marks, but this roster has very few if any non-NBA-rotational pieces and has a really good amount of talent in the top 8 of the rotation. The only gripe is a lack of flexibility, but free agency is not going to be the way this team is built for the foreseeable future.

David: B-

I wasn’t very high on Kira coming into the draft, but all of my favorites were already gone right in front of the Pelicans. Given the talent on the board, I feel like David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, and company picked the best player available. Langdon emphasized that approach in the post-draft press availability late Wednesday night.

Later in the draft, I was really getting excited that Saddiq Bey could fall close enough to #24 for the Pelicans to trade up and snag him. Did I like him at #13? Absolutely not. At #19 if the Pelicans turned their remaining assets into a move up? Sounds great.

The same thing that happened in the late first round repeated early in the second as Tyler Bey from Colorado slid to #36 and the Mavericks — three selections before the Pelicans pick at #39.

However, what the Pelicans DID do is roll over their picks. The team is already young, so continuing to push their picks further out for an eventual big trade makes sense. Between that and drafting Kira, the franchise appeared to be demonstrating there is a long-term vision and they are sticking to the plan.

A couple days later, I wasn’t so sure. Instead of getting a 2023 first round pick from Denver to go with George Hill, both were quickly flipped and shipped out together, along with two second round picks and a bunch of bottom of the roster fodder, to Oklahoma City for Steven Adams.

I like Adams a lot. I like that the Pelicans are trying to build a different kind of basketball team. New Orleans is looking like a souped up version of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies earlier in the decade. That team was a small market miracle. They made the playoffs SEVEN straight years. I do not buy this idea that the only way to build around Zion Williamson is with a stretch big man.

And yet, I wonder. Two Milwaukee 1sts, two swaps, Eric Bledsoe, and Steven Adams for Jrue Holiday. Essentially that’s the deal. The picks are doing a lot of heavy lifting to make this deal look great. In the end, was that the best deal on the table?

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s say the Brooklyn Nets were playing it tight and didn’t have Caris LeVert on the table. Maybe the offer was something like Dinwiddie, Prince, Allen, #19, and a future pick. New Orleans comes into this season adding a legitimate starting center in Jarrett Allen, and 3&D wing of the future in Saddiq Bey at #19, Taurean Prince as another big wing, Spencer Dinwiddie as a microwave off the bench, AND they would still have the cap flexibility to use the MLE. Jarrett Allen at a number similar to what Adams signed his extension for ($17.5M/yr) would be reasonable and Allen is five years younger.

That version of the Pelicans is younger, has the flexibility to use the entire MLE without coming close to the luxury tax. This version of the Pelicans are right up against the luxury tax and cannot even fill all 15 roster spots without paying it. Allen is every bit as good of a rebounder as Adams is and a far better rim protector, with much less mileage on his tires, and at an age, 22, where he lines up better with Zion (20) and Ingram (23).

We don’t know yet what the actual offers were to the Pelicans. Once again, they are trying to thread the needle and win now by acquiring veterans, and later, with this pick heavy return. In the end, I give this off-season a B-. The cost of acquiring Adams (Hill, Denver 2023, two seconds, and essentially both the MLE and BAE) is too high. I’m not sold on Eric Bledsoe wanting to be here, and I am concerned that it’s unlikely he will fetch much in the trade market. If one day the Pelicans use those Milwaukee picks to trade for a super-duper star, though, then the bet would have been worth it.

Oleh: B-

Considering my hopes of seeing the Pelicans draft either Onyeka Okongwu or Patrick Williams and address their glaring deficiency on the roster with a versatile, impactful big wing defender fail to pan out, it’s impossible to give a grade in the A range at this juncture. That said, selecting the best player available in Kira Lewis Jr. and filling voids in the starting lineup with Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams — while receiving several good future assets in the Jrue Holiday trade — deserve a positive head nod.

For Stan Van Gundy to be able to make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball, David Griffin needed to find a reliable anchor in the paint. A freshly extended Adams checks more boxes than had the Pelicans re-signed Derrick Favors or added some stopgap. For instance, all those who were in favor of an Aaron Baynes-SVG reunion, realize the big Aussie is on the verge of turning 34 years of age and has missed 62 games the past two seasons. Must I remind anyone just how crippling Favor’s unavailability was to New Orleans?

Bledsoe makes for a far more debatable new fit and not from a skillset perspective. Will the player who once famously all but tweeted that he wanted out of Phoenix buy into his new surroundings? Does he have any desire to mesh with the Pelicans young core of Zion, Ingram and Lonzo? He reportedly signed an extension with Milwaukee last summer rather than test free agency because he was happy on the Bucks.

“Right now, we jellin’,” Bledsoe said when asked why he didn’t wait until free agency to sign the extension. “I’m around a great group of guys. They like brothers to me. They took me in with open arms last season, and it’s paying off right now, so why not?”

He was considered a cornerstone alongside Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. A season later, Bledsoe finds himself on a New Orleans franchise that has made the playoffs once in the last five years. Oh and he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Count me among the many who don’t foresee Bledsoe coming close to finishing out the remainder of his contract with the Pelicans; however, can Van Gundy get him to play ball until Griffin finds him another home? I truly hope Bledsoe has matured to the point he’ll act as professional in New Orleans as he would in Milwaukee, but I don’t think anyone is to be blamed for having doubts.

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

As for the free agent signings, the minimum deals to Thornwell, Hernangomez and Gabriel don’t elicit strong excitement — and I like gambling on the potential of Wenyen a lot. Watching proven defenders like Jae Crowder, Kris Dunn and Maurice Harkless go for the full MLE or less, hurt.

At the end of the day, will the 2020-21 Pelicans be a more productive team than Griffin’s first go round? We should certainly hope so. Improvement in the young core of Zion, BI, Zo, NAW and Hayes alone should blaze a path to a stronger winning percentage. But how much the newest additions can boost that group to greater heights, especially outside of Adams, isn’t obvious.

Travis: B+ (A+ if Zion Matches the Hype)

All in all I like the Adams for Favors move, paired with the long-term max deal with BI and a growing Zion. It’s hard to grade the coach, yet, but don’t forget about a likely more consistent defense because of SVG. This team will have to see if Zo pairs with Zion as well as it appears in half-court alley-oops, and how their shooting and speed mix with bruising Steven Adams, master half-court mid-range shot greater Ingram, and new All-NBA defense muscle man Eric Bledsoe.

Losing Jrue Holiday is certainly going to shift much more offensive responsibility to Ingram, but others off the bench can help keep the offense active with JJ, NAW, Hart, or even Kira Lewis. It’s hard to judge an off-season when the single-most important aspect to winning at a high-level is the development of Zion Williamson. If he comes out and proves to be all he’s hyped, this off-season will have been a win simply due to that development.

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