As the wait continues for the naming of the seventh head coach in New Orleans Pelicans franchise history, fans are just as anxious to see what the team does to revamp the roster.
While David Griffin is correct in stating that the Pelicans have one of the most attractive openings in the NBA, featuring Zion Williamson, the reigning Most Improved Player in the league Brandon Ingram, some proven veterans (Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick), and plenty of talented but unrefined youngsters; there are some holes that must be plugged.
Just as this season has been unprecedented, the league’s truncated offseason could bring a flurry of activity as teams compete for a shallow pool of free agents.
The Pelicans’ on-court needs are fairly obvious. Rim protection, perimeter defense, and stability at the point guard position.
Finding reasonable options to fill them is the challenge.
Reasonable, being the key word.
Every fan, beat writer, and blogger has a wish list of players that they’d like to see with “New Orleans” written across their chest. The fact is, those wishes rarely come true.
These NBA playoffs have put the true value of roster construction on full display. Of the teams that reached the conference finals, there remains only four players that earned All-NBA honors, and two of those play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Finding the right fit has proven to be more successful than chasing a big name. Truth be told, the New Orleans Pelicans aren’t in need of a big name, they’re in need of professional basketball players.
They need players that are consistent, mature, and versatile. Most importantly they need toughness. Mental and physical toughness.
If the Pelicans are ever going to be in position to not bow down to their opponents, they first have to be able to stand up to them.
The probability is that New Orleans will make a trade or two to address their needs, and they have four draft picks to either utilize or package. Smart shopping for free agents could prove to be just as helpful.
So who are those reasonable options on the free agent market this offseason?
Lonzo Ball made tremendous progress last season, but he still has areas of improvement if he wants to nab his own max deal, whether in New Orleans or somewhere else. Of the remaining guards on the roster, Alexander-Walker is still too raw, and no one in the trio of Holiday, Redick, or Hart should be expected to run an efficient offense.
The lack of a solid veteran backup has been a problem for the Pelicans for years. That deficit has cost the Pelicans over the course of individual games and entire seasons. Finding someone who can adapt quickly to a new offense and provide leadership is key while the team adjusts to a new coach and staff.
Toronto point guard Fred VanVleet would be the obvious target, with his championship experience and knack for hitting big shots in key moments. However, it’s highly unlikely that the Raptors allow him to walk away for nothing.
An incredibly affordable option that could produce for the Pelicans is Trey Burke. Burke has bounced around, playing for five teams in seven seasons, but he was impressive during his stint in the bubble with the Dallas Mavericks.
In eight games to end the regular season, Burke topped double figures in scoring five times, including a season-high 31 points against the Houston Rockets.
He nearly posted a 4:1 assist/turnover ratio and converted 43 percent of his three pointers. Burke’s hot hand continued into the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers.
While extending the Clippers to six games, he averaged 12.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. He was lights out from deep, making 8-of-17 attempts.
Burke can attack defenses off the dribble, and has been a consistent threat from long distance during his career. Since 2017-18 he’s made 38.4% of his three point attempts, a mark that would have been fourth-best for New Orleans this past season. His effective field goal percentage of 52.6 bested the marks of both Holiday and Ball.
His Per 36 numbers compare very well with the best among this year’s best free agents, including playoff stars VanVleet and the Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic.
Per 36 Numbers 2020 Free Agent Point Guards
Burke isn’t a spectacular defender, but at his size, he’s also no slouch. This past season he posted a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of .05; better than his teammate Jalen Brunson, San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray, Ben Simmons, Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe, among others.
Considering the Mavericks already have Luka Doncic, Brunson and Delon Wright on their depth chart, Burke could step in as a primary backup in New Orleans and make an impact on both sides of the court. His cost will be low, his upside is high, and his age (27) should make him just the type of player the Pelicans are looking for.
Trey Burke went from national college basketball player of the year, to NBA All-Rookie First Team, to the G-League and back. He’s proven to be tenacious, and willing to fight to keep his career going. That’s the attitude the Pelicans need on their bench and in their locker room.
The New Orleans Pelicans were constantly at the mercy of any competent perimeter scoring threat.
Perhaps Brandon Ingram’s next step turns him into an above average defender, but in the meantime the Pelicans have to find players who can defend taller scorers at the three and four spots.
The free agent crop at small forward is not looking good. Many are too old or one-dimensional, more are overpriced.
Jae Crowder would be a long shot, but with the Miami Heat several million dollars over the salary cap, it isn’t impossible to imagine. At 30 years of age, Crowder still has strong years ahead of him. He’s a physical defender, rebounder and a capable outside shooter.
A bit undersized at 6-6, he can defend both the four in small ball situations and on switches. His $7M price tag, even with a slight increase, should fit into cap space or the mid-level exception.
Another interesting option is Memphis forward Josh Jackson. Jackson hasn’t lived up to his potential to this point, but the 6-8 swingman deserves a long, hard look.
After being inactive for the first 47 games of the season, Jackson put up some impressive numbers down the stretch.
During an 11-game run from Feb. 20 to Mar. 10, Jackson averaged 13.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.1 steals, in 21.2 minutes per game. His 37% shooting from distance was eight percentage points higher than his career average.
His finishing around the rim increased significantly. During his first two seasons, Jackson converted 55.8% of his shots within three feet. In 22 games this season, he improved that to 78 percent.
Defensively, he finished fifth on the Grizzlies in defensive box plus/minus over that span and held his opponents to 43 percent shooting.
But for some reason he was a non-factor after the hiatus. Jackson appeared in only four games for Memphis in the bubble, and averaged six minutes when he did see the floor.
It is a bit of a red flag for a young player to move to his third team in four seasons, but Jackson is looking for a legitimate opportunity to play. The Pelicans have the minutes, and he has a skillset that could shine in New Orleans.
Nicolo Melli was supposed to step in as the front court shooting threat that the Pelicans lost when they traded Nico Mirotic and let Christian Wood go in free agency.
The Italian import performed more like a Fiat than a Ferrari as a rookie. He was a hesitant shooter too often, and was among the Pelicans’ weaker defenders. And that’s saying something.
Though Wood is back on the market, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he returns to the Pelicans.
Juan Hernangomez and Patrick Patterson are two stretch bigs with low costs and more consistent perimeter shooting numbers that could open the court for Zion Williamson and the Pelicans’ guards.
Per 36 Numbers
Neither Patterson nor Hernangomez offer much as rim protector, but their rebounding and three point shooting numbers top Melli’s.
Patterson has veteran experience, and is used to performing in a reserve role. Since 2012-13, he’s had just one season where he made less than 36% of his three pointers.
Hernangomez has potential. He spent three seasons behind a very deep Denver Nuggets’ frontcourt rotation before being moved to Minnesota. In 14 games with the Timberwolves, he averaged 12.9 points and 7.3 boards, while shooting 42 percent beyond the arc on five attempts per game.
Minnesota is another team that may have to let a talented young player go due to salary cap challenges, and New Orleans could take advantage.
If the Pelicans are going to find someone to defend the rim, it likely won’t be in free agency.
Possibly the best available candidate to step in and be a deterrent in the paint is Nerlens Noel. Noel, the former Pelicans’ draft pick, is coming off perhaps his best season as a pro. He was a key cog in helping the Oklahoma City make their surprising run to the playoffs.
His advanced metrics were very solid, with Noel setting career highs in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, value over replacement, and true shooting percentage.
He does three things really well; block shots, rebound, and finish at the rim. All three would be welcome for a team that was practicing social distancing with anyone who drove through the paint.
There are no saviors to be signed this offseason, but the New Orleans Pelicans can continue to build around its core with effective and relatively inexpensive veterans. None would be asked to shoulder a load greater than they could bear, while still making contributions to winning basketball.
It’s a delicate balance between trying to win now and making hasty moves. The Pelicans absolutely have to win now. That doesn’t mean that you should expect to see them in the Finals next season, but another year without a postseason appearance only intensifies the pressure inside and outside the franchise.
Fans have watched that pressure crush the Pelicans before. They won’t be patient enough to watch it happen again.
A lack of capable, dependable role players has consistently been one of the team’s greatest impediment to winning. Time to start chipping away at that barrier.