Well, it’s certainly been awhile! Thanks to the effects of Hurricane Ida, The Bird Writes was forced to go on a hiatus, but now we’re back. And talk about good timing. The start of training camp is less than two weeks away. Before focusing on previews and predictions of various kinds though, let’s first address this growing trend of tying players in need of new homes around the league to the Pelicans.
It’s widely known that free agency did not pan out entirely as hoped for David Griffin and company. This does not mean, however, that New Orleans should be eager to pounce on everyone who becomes available. If there’s one lesson that must be heeded from last season, fit matters, both on the court and cap sheet. So some need to stop trying to speak certain things into existence. For instance, the Pelicans are not ideal landing spots for either Ben Simmons or John Wall, two names that have been mentioned in the same breath as New Orleans this week.
Consider the players linked to the Pelicans around the start of free agency: Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Jackson, Doug McDermott, JaMychal Green, Lauri Markkanen, Bryn Forbes ... detect a pattern yet? All of these players are capable of spacing the floor. Simmons and Wall, on the other hand, not in the slightest.
This is one important distinction to make right off the bat if you recall Griffin’s statement that the franchise was going to prioritize shooting, toughness and basketball IQ this offseason. Then there’s also the reality that Simmons, a wonderfully gifted player in many respects, still remains somewhat of a project thanks to an incredible reluctance to shoot the basketball or make correct decisions under extreme pressure; and Wall is on wrong side of 30, not as effective as he was before his Achilles injury, and on a contract that owes him over $90 million the next two seasons.
Simmons’ defense is world-class, but expensive non-floor spacers next to Zion Williamson have proven to be liabilities. Wall is a great distributor, but allowing him to pound the air out of the ball would keep the rock out of Brandon Ingram and Z’s hands far too often. And that’s what it boils down to: if a player who is given a significant chunk of the cap and responsibilities on the court does not complement the skills and attributes of the Pelicans’ top two players, then what are we doing here?
Seriously, the current plan is obvious. It’s the reason we witnessed a number of changes to the roster, which sometimes came at a price this summer. Why assets were used to send out Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. Why an asset was spent to add Devonte’ Graham. Why Trey Murphy and Herbert Jones were selected in the 2021 draft. And, yes, why there wasn’t a great effort to re-sign Lonzo Ball.
Now there’s no doubt that Ball has become a good NBA player. His jump shot is vastly improved and he’s not yet reached his prime. However, a costly contract price, a desire for a greater role within the offense, and the massive swings in consistency seemingly from game to game, his fit was not as glove-like in New Orleans as many want you to believe.
Not counting the final three games of the regular season — when the play-in odds were basically nil so there was no need to play hobbled regulars, the Pelicans posted an 8-6 record when Lonzo Ball sat in 2020-21. Conversely, the team went 2-6 when either Ingram or Williamson were unavailable during the first 69 games on the schedule.
Did you know that the team field goal percentage was higher (48.6% vs 47.5%) in non-Zo games during that span too? Or that the defense allowed close to 4.0 points less per game (111.4 vs 115.4) without Ball in the nightly rotation?
Again, this isn’t meant to be an exercise which submarines Ball’s worth. He was a useful cog and the Chicago Bulls will benefit from his inclusion. However, it’s fair to question what his future value to New Orleans at his market rate was before the trade happened. Personally, I sit in the camp that Devonte’ Graham will be more valuable to the Pelicans going forward — hey, it helps in the grand scheme of things that the front office signed him at a really great price — despite not being as established of a passer, rebounder or defender as Ball.
To be perfectly honest, I think too many mistakenly focused only on the Pelicans whiffing on all the big free agent names and/or the return from Chicago in the Ball trade because the current roster is a favorable composition of players around the two cornerstones.
On top of my belief that Graham will prove more beneficial to Ingram and Williamson than Ball, Jonas Valanciunas is a definitive upgrade at center for the makeup of this roster than Adams. For those who watched often know the truth full well, not needing to rely on Bledsoe, Nicolo Melli or JJ Redick are real wins. Then if Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes take that proverbial step forward in their third season after finishing their sophomore campaigns strongly, Trey Murphy III proves summer league wasn’t a fluke and he can contribute something positive right away, and Tomas Satoransky, Josh Hart, Willy Hernangomez and Naji Marshall provide average production in their minutes, there’s a much deeper team that fits reasonably well around B.I. and Z. Teams can always use more shooting, but if Willie Green can coax this group to give the type of effort necessary on both sides of the floor, posting a .500 record in the standings feels ridiculously realistic. Remember, there was enough talent on last season’s roster to beat eight of the ten winningest teams at least once.
So, yeah. It might make sense for a team to take a chance on Ben Simmons and fix what ails him mentally. Or give John Wall a new lease on life once the Rockets attach enough assets to make a deal worthwhile. But in both of these instances, the New Orleans Pelicans are clearly not the team that should take such a leap of faith.