On its surface, falling short of the postseason two years after moving one of the five best players in the NBA is forgivable, even predictable.
The Pelicans didn’t face a shortage of challenges extending beyond the on-court play though.
In 2019-20, the Pelicans were a top-10 team (net rating) the 36 games that preceded the Covid-19 stoppage of play. They had overwhelming odds of reaching the playoffs, according to Five Thirty-Eight. Zion Williamson’s family emergency tilted the odds before bubble play, and the team imploded from there, cementing Alvin Gentry’s fate. Had Zion been at full health, and New Orleans squeezed into the play-in and upended the Blazers, do we see the former head coach at the helm in 2020-21? Would the team have stayed the course, keeping Jrue Holiday and re-signing Derrick Favors, and passed teams like the Grizzlies?
Despite that 22-14 finish (before stoppage) and cohesive play before the upheaval in all our lives, David Griffin, the executive vice president of basketball operations, initiated a major overhaul on and off the court. We’ll cover that later.
In 2020-21, the Pelicans enjoyed much better injury luck, yet 78 games were lost to injury by their top five players during the final two months of the season.
- 25 games missed to Josh Hart
- 17 games missed to Lonzo Ball
- 14 games missed to Steven Adams
- 11 games missed to Brandon Ingram
- 11 games missed to Zion Williamson
Play stoppage and an untimely rash of injuries are not the only burdens the Pelicans faced in their first two years under the guidance of Griffin. There have been a fair number of questionable decisions made by the front office that could weigh heavily as we enter a make-or-break third season of Zion’s career.
Honorable Mention: Waiving Christian Wood
The Pelicans waived Christian Wood shortly following the Las Vegas Summer League in July of 2019 in which he did not suit up for reasons unspecified. At just 23 years of age, Wood had just come off a successful showing in his brief stint in New Orleans averaging 25.7 points, 12 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals per-36 over eight games. That Wood couldn’t garner a look at summer league or earn a training camp invite was confounding even at the time. According to Nola.com when asked why Wood did not earn minutes, summer league head coach Fred Vinson said,” Management is working through (it) with Wood’s agent.”
The Pelicans held Wood’s rights for the 2019-20 season at $1.6 million (non-guaranteed). Wood’s agent would have had little leverage. The following season in Detroit, Wood would score 22 points with 10.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 blocks and 0.9 steals per-36 in 62 appearances while shooting 56.7 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three.
12. Dealing Los Angeles Lakers’ 2019 first-round pick
It’s far too early to call this one. Griffin may ultimately win a trade that saw the Pelicans acquire a springy big man in Jaxson Hayes, a high-volume scorer with length in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and a potential high-end defender in Marcos “Didi” Louzada. The Pelicans also moved off of Solomon Hill in the deal.
Atlanta— Antonio Daniels (@adaniels33) January 29, 2021
DeAndre Hunter would’ve given the Pelicans exactly what they desperately needed though. An elite 3-and-D prospect who can both defend on the perimeter and create on the offensive end, Hunter already exploded through his proverbial ceiling before knee surgery put a hold on his season on January 29. A few days before that, Hunter went off for 34 points against the Milwaukee Bucks. In fact, Hunter was cooking with so much grease, the Bucks shifted Khris Middleton to his direction in the second quarter. Hunter even used his length to shoot over Giannis for spurts with a rare level of confidence. His variety of runners, floaters, mid-range jumpers and stepbacks gave the Bucks all they could handle.
NAW and Hayes may evolve into solid starters and Didi may contribute in time; Hunter could emerge as an All-Star level prospect as soon as next season.
11. Dealing Milwaukee’s 2020 first-round pick
Drafting in the back half of the first round is a crapshoot. Still, with the 24th pick, there were a number of intriguing prospects on the board, including the Pelicans eventual selection of RJ Hampton. Hampton impressed enough this year, especially in his brief Orlando tenure where he earned Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors by putting together an eight-game clip of 17/6/6 in May while shooting 43.5 percent from three.
Taken one spot after Hampton was New York Knicks jitterbug point guard Immanuel Quickley, who showed plenty in his initial campaign that he has a future in this league. Quickley averaged 21.2 points per-36 while shooting 38.9 percent from three.
Selected six and 11 spots later were Memphis Grizzlies teammates Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman respectively, each of whom emerged as NBA-ready rooks. Bane might be the more impressive of the two thanks to his combination of size (6’5, 215 pounds) and sharp-shooting stroke of 43.2 percent from three. Tillman has outplayed Brandon Clarke as of late, earning minutes over the sophomore who had quite the spectacular freshmen campaign himself in 2019-20. Either could have contributed and would have looked nice on the books at four years, $11.2 million (only the first two years guaranteed).
10. Signing Nicolo Melli
The acquisition of Nikola Mirotic swung the 2017-18 season after the loss of DeMarcus Cousins. His versatility and knack for knocking down big shots gave the Pelicans the added firepower they needed to advance to the second round before ultimately stopped by the wrecking ball that was Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. After dealing Niko at the 2019 deadline to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pelicans added a similar talent in Nicolo Melli the following offseason.
Thought of as a good shooter with a sky-high IQ and knack for creation through passing and instinct, Melli failed to deliver, especially this past season. He averaged a forgettable two points per game on a horrifying 25.4 percentage from the floor and 18.9% from three before being dealt to Dallas. The Pelicans invested a modest two years, $8 million but could’ve desperately used those funds for a contributor.
9. Keeping JJ Redick for 2020-21 Season
Mired in controversy for his comments regarding David Griffin after being dealt to a Mavericks team that didn’t meet his preference, Redick shot just league-average from three while averaging his lowest scoring total in 12 years.
Lost in his disastrous 2020-21 season was an understated solid initial campaign in 2019-20. Redick shot 45.3 percent from three, second among those who attempted more than three 3-pointers per game. In the bubble, he was the Pelicans most consistent player, averaging 18.7 points (second on the team to Zion) while shooting 46.2 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game.
This past November, Redick requested a trade after the Pelicans moved Holiday. It was clear then that the Pelicans were prioritizing development over immediate contention and it was widely known that JJ signed specifically with the intention of playing with Jrue.
“I don’t think you’re going to get honesty from that front office, objectively speaking,” Redick said on his podcast. “That’s not an opinion; I just don’t think you’re gonna get that. I don’t think what happened with me is necessarily an isolated incident. I think front offices around the league operate in their best interest. I get that. I understand that.”
So, why was Redick not moved earlier? His value was not going to increase. He made it known immediately he wanted out. For a team looking to lay the foundation of new culture, everyone needed to be on board. Instead, Stan Van Gundy watched JJ go through perhaps the worst slump of his career, at a time this young Pelicans team was desperate for someone to propel them to a few more wins early in the season.
8. Managing Zion’s Minutes in 2019-20
The NBA went to great lengths to include the New Orleans Pelicans in their bubble tournament that included 22 teams, an unusual number. The Pelicans had the best statistical odds of earning the eighth spot prior to the shutdown and the NBA appropriately gave them a similar easy finishing path to the playoffs inside the bubble. However, following a family emergency that required Zion’s immediate attention for 13 days, the Pelicans shifted his availability as the Pelicans prepared for night one against the Utah Jazz.
“I appreciate the fact that everyone wants him to play 40 minutes every night,” Griffin said via the Pelicans website. ”I can promise you he’s not going to. This isn’t complicated. He will not play significant minutes in the next game, and he may not in the following game.”
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Zion was ‘pissed’ about this situation as he earned just 15 minutes in a two-point loss (106-104) to the Jazz on opening night. How did the Pelicans respond in game two? A 23-point shellacking at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers — that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Zion played just 14 minutes. After an impressive bounce back victory against Memphis in which Zion played over 25 minutes, he followed that with under 22 minutes in game four against Sacramento in a loss. He played a total of 27 minutes over the final four games.
The heavy favorites to make the play-in posted a 2-6 record in the bubble, all but seemingly quitting after that first game against Utah. Outside of the matchup against the Grizzlies, the energy and focus was noticeably absent.
Griffin publicly suggested that Zion’s ‘ramp-up conditioning” was more important than competing for a play-in position, this coming several months after resting the superstar three months for a meniscus surgery that should have shelved him 4-6 weeks.
The decisions made were obviously in the best interests of the team’s foundational piece, but it undoubtedly had a hand in the team quitting on both the season and head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure.
7. Hiring Stan Van Gundy
I like SVG. He was one of my favorite opposing coaches to talk to during his time in Detroit. (I covered games in Orlando.) He wasn’t among the 12 favorites I had pegged for the Pelicans this offseason, though, which I wrote about in detail and can be found here.
Van Gundy would probably be the first to admit this team consistently struggled and for various reasons over the course of the season. The Pelicans brought him in to instill discipline and a defensive nature. Prior to the trade deadline, the Pelicans fielded the 28th-rated defense and never viably emerged as a playoff threat despite carrying two young All-Stars, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart in contract years, and three first-round picks who contributed little to winning — though they did show steady improvement.
The New Orleans Pelicans' players "are not vibing with" head coach Stan Van Gundy, according to @Sam_Amick.— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) May 25, 2021
"There's issues there," Amick added. https://t.co/wesO1DToSd
More harrowing has been the rumors that recently emerged suggesting the Pelicans are not ‘vibing’ with their first-year head coach.
One assistant NBA coach even reached out to me recently and asked if I had heard about any rumors that SVG could be on the hot seat after just one season. I have not, but that these conversations are happening is a troubling development.
Is this coaching experiment salvageable? Absolutely. Is it still a cause for concern? Definitely.
6. Overpaying for Steven Adams
Steven Adams is a solid dude both on and off the court. A delightful interview and a tough paint presence, Adams is about as tough a big man as you are likely to find.
The issue isn’t the player as much as the value the Pelicans moved to acquire him and the corresponding extension that arrived with him. Sent out in the deal was the 24th pick from the 2020 NBA Draft (Hampton), George Hill’s 46 percent 3-point average from 2019-20 as well as Frank Jackson, Josh Gray, Darius Miller, Kenrich Williams and two second-round picks. Hill would then be moved for an additional two seconds to Philadelphia bringing the total to four.
This is astronomical value for a traditional big who was wildly overpaid at a cap number of $27.5 million. Worse still, the Thunder were operating with a disadvantage of already having an overpaid center on their books after having acquired Al Horford from Philadelphia. The Thunder HAD to move Adams and the Pelicans were happy to oblige at a mystifying price point.
To guarantee Miller’s final year meant the Pelicans were pushed right to the brink of the luxury tax, which damned any chance of using the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, critical tools in flushing out a roster that was desperate for depth on the wing and in the frontcourt.
How did Adams respond after receiving an unprompted two-year $35 million extension? A modest 7.6 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27 minutes a game while piloting the league’s 28th-rated defense through March 26th (trade deadline). Adams graded in the 30th percentile in opponent points per 100 possessions this season. By contrast, a hobbled Derrick Favors graded in the 86th percentile in 2019-20 and he cost just two second-rounders to acquire.
Was Adams the only culprit for the team’s inept defensive play? Absolutely not, but after sacrificing critical depth, a first, four seconds plus a handsome extension, the Pelicans needed much, much more from him in order to justify the price.
5. Not including Kyle Kuzma in the Anthony Davis trade
4. Keeping Eric Bledsoe
Moving a fan favorite in Jrue Holiday was probably the only play given the tenuousness of his contract and the disparate timeline he and Zion shared. Earning three firsts and future swaps in addition to Bledsoe and George Hill isn’t a bad return for a 30-year-old who hasn’t earned an All-Star nod in eight years.
However, at the time, it was clear that there was little chance of the two veterans in advancing age would be content riding out the last few seasons of their careers in New Orleans alongside a blossoming group that had little to no chance of title contention. The Pelicans did their part in sending Hill to Oklahoma City before he found his way to Philadelphia at the deadline. The obvious error was in rerouting the wrong Bucks’ bags.
I Dont wanna be here— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 22, 2017
Bledsoe’s contract is burdensome, even more so than his play which we will touch upon later. Many think of the Jrue return as a king’s ransom but often fail to acknowledge the financial burden New Orleans was forced to assume for that bevy of picks. After paying near $17 million in 2020-21, the Pelicans will owe $18 next season and at least $3.9 in 2022-23. We just assume another team will be willing to take that on in exchange for meager compensation, but reality says different.
Hill was the obvious asset. Owed just $9.6 million this season and under $2 million guaranteed in 2021-22, Hill was essentially an expiring coming off a season in which he shot 46 percent from range, good enough for second in the NBA among those taking 2.5 shots per game or more.
The Pelicans could’ve desperately used Hill’s spacing, and evidenced by his move to 76ers for a pair of seconds, he was eminently more moveable.
3. Failing to Bench Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe appeared in 71 games for the Pelicans this season, starting 70 of them. He averaged 12.2 points, 3.8 assists, 3.4 assists and 0.8 steals while shooting just 42.1 percent from the field and 34.1 from three. These numbers are underwhelming given his drop off from his last season in Milwaukee, but his on-court overall effect was the more deeply troubling concern.
With Bledsoe on the floor, the Pelicans were 3.1 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions, which graded in the 36th percentile. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans were calculated as being eight wins worse over the course of the season with Bledsoe on the floor. He did this despite spending a large sum of his minutes with the starting unit, each of whom graded in the 63rd percentile (Adams) or better. By contrast, Zion (87), BI (83) and Lonzo (82) all graded in the 80s.
According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus standard, Bledsoe ranked 64th among all guards, 130th overall. Per Synergy’s net rating, he graded 284th in the NBA. Defensively, he graded in the 16th percentile in opponents points per 100 possessions while on the floor.
Then there were issues with his body language and overall effort at times, including the unforgettable end to a heartbreaking loss at the hands of the New York Knicks. In that postgame, Bledsoe admitted to media he “wasn’t paying attention.” This isn’t meant to suggest players aren’t allowed leeway for mental errors over an insufferably shortened 72-game regular season. That was a real challenge for every player. And yet, a measure of accountability must be held to reinforce commitment and uphold a standard for what players must bring in critical moments on the floor.
Bledsoe wasn’t helping the Pelicans win this season. The Pelicans were at no point in real title contention. So, why did Bledsoe continue to earn more minutes than NAW, Kira Lewis Jr., even Josh Hart, who is entering a critical offseason in which the Pelicans need to decide on his future? Speaking of critical, assessing Lonzo’s Ball pairing to each of these young players could have been the difference to whether the Pelicans elect to re-sign him or not.
Keeping Bledsoe around and then failing to bench him at any time is beyond reproach. Frankly, it deserves a darn good explanation.
2. David Griffin Press Conferences
David Griffin has a penchant for stirring controversy with his comments when doing so is unnecessary. He has an innate desire to pump up players publicly, which sounds nice in a vacuum but also burdens them with unnecessary expectation. He also at times can take an antagonistic approach. Neither technique seems to benefit, and while his comments may be well-founded in nature, would probably go better left unsaid.
Griffin on expectations: "We're here to beat people's asses."— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) September 30, 2019
“The issue with Anthony was, and we had no way of knowing it at the time, the kid had no desire to overcome adversity whatsoever. As soon as it was hard, he was out,” David Griffin said of Anthony Bennett in 2017. “I’m the one who got sold the bill of goods, and I bought it hook, line, and sinker. You fuck up sometimes.”
“Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable,” Griffin said of his tenure in Cleveland with LeBron James. “Literally the moment we won the championship, I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money.”
“Sometimes you need to be given permission to dominate people,” Griffin said of Holiday in 2019.
“So you are not trying to trade Jrue Holiday?” Jen Hale asked. “Clearly not,” Griffin replied.
Jrue was traded the following offseason.
Is Jrue Holiday available if the price is right?@JenHale504 caught up with @dg_riff for answers to this and more during tonight's game.#WontBowDown | @PelicansNBA | @Jrue_Holiday11 | @ZionWilliamson pic.twitter.com/mmTD46I6pM— Bally Sports New Orleans (@BallySportsNO) December 18, 2019
“As a selfless, 27-year old elite rim protector, with what we believe is untapped offensive potential, he is just entering his prime. We believe he will be a vital piece of our nucleus moving forward,” Griffin said of Favors.
Favors joined the Jazz the following offseason, without much fanfare.
Everyone would do well to have a leader in the front office rally around his troops, but when some of those key players change addresses less than a year later, the comments come off a little disingenuous.
In regards to Zion’s injury near the end of the season, while the thought was correct overall, the tone echoed an emotionally charged rant not based entirely on fact.
“I’m really frustrated because this was avoidable. We told the NBA through every means available to us, through sending in film, through speaking to everybody in the officials department and everybody in basketball operations, that the way they were officiating Zion was going to get him injured,” Griffin said of Zion after fracturing a finger, resulting in a $50,000 fine.
Play Zion Williamson fractured his left ring finger Tuesday vs Warriors. pic.twitter.com/eJOMNwfk00— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) May 7, 2021
While it is absolutely true that Zion has not been officiated correctly during his brief NBA tenure, this isn’t going to earn the attention that Griffin wants. There is nothing in this clip that suggests Zion was specifically targeted. It appeared to be a fluke injury.
Making a fiery speech to win some PR points with the city and the locker room is an example of saying things with the right intentions, but things could backfire. Calling Jrue an MVP, saying it was his team, and labeling Favors as a part of your nucleus only to then move on from them doesn’t promote stability. It suggests fragility.
Each incident is innocent enough alone, but when they start multiplying, it gets noticed. It could eventually damage the family image that Griffin has spoken fondly of in the past. If players don’t believe Griffin will be true to his word, can they trust him? According to Redick at least, that answer is a definitive ‘no.’
If Griffin truly wants to serve the city of New Orleans and its basketball franchise, he’d do better to steer away from certain types of comments.
1. An Unhappy Zion
David Griffin has one undeniable priority: make the one-of-one superstar happy. But based on Zion’s comments at the end of the season and his vocal frustration with how his situation was handled in the bubble, it’s hard to imagine he’s thrilled with how everything has unfolded thus far.
"I'm glad you asked that, actually. New York is the mecca of basketball. I love playing here." - Zion Williamson— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) April 18, 2021
(via @YourAverageKel, h/t @Kazeem) pic.twitter.com/Gemwxd3jOk
“It’s disappointing. I’d be lying to you if I said anything else,” Zion said on missing the play-in.
“My stepfather taught me different..doing the same thing over and over is kind of insane. So, I’m not going to sit here and say ‘we’re close.’ The reality of it is, it’s very disappointing not to be a part of the play-in.”
On a Make-or-Break 2021-22
The Pelicans will soon enter year three of the post-AD era and Zion’s young career. This offseason is critical. The Pelicans have decisions to make on Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart as well as James Johnson and Willy Hernangomez who both impressed in limited time.
“It’d be dope,” Zion said of Lonzo signing an extension to stay in New Orleans according to CBS. “Me, Brandon [Ingram] and Zo, the three of us have a great relationship. I really would want Zo to come back. He knows that.”
“But you know, like I said, the reality of the situation is Zo is a grown man, so he’ll make the decision that’s best for him. The only thing I can say is, I hope he stays.”
If Zion wants Lonzo back, Griff should strongly consider wanting him back too. Zo’s price tag may make that difficult, which is yet another reason this offseason is so critical to get things right. Overspending could further tie up the books with an unwanted contract, but losing Ball for nothing that disappoints a superstar who has already expressed his frustrations is miles from ideal.
The Pelicans also need to desperately find a trade partner for Bledsoe, a challenge considering his price tag and his play in 2020-21. They have $95 million on the books with those decisions still to come as well as top-10 pick who will cost $5 million if not traded. Moving Bledsoe last offseason would have been a challenge but possible given his All-Defensive image. That illusion is gone now, perhaps along with his best playing days.
David Griffin and the rest of the front office must choose wisely this offseason without compromising the future. The Pelicans cannot fail to reach the playoffs again or the rumblings and discontent could grow to a dizzying volume.
Thanks for reading! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Fanduel for your playoff sports betting. It’s got the sleekest, easiest-to-navigate interface we’ve come across. And you know we’re rooting for Milwaukee to get Jrue that chip. Cheers!
For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.