The NBA Trade Deadline is just over a week away. Between now and then you will read reports as GMs jockey around the league trying to build (or tear down) the roster they hyped up at media day just four months ago. And here the New Orleans Pelicans sit, two games out of the Play-In Tournament’s final spot. Zion Williamson hasn’t played a second. The team is 17-19 in games Brandon Ingram plays at least 10 minutes. Still, that 1-12 start looms over the whole season. Did Willie Green and company dig the hole too deep?
David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, Swin Cash, and the rest of the New Orleans front office sit at another interesting crossroads. If the Pelicans fail to make the playoffs (not the Play-In, the actual playoffs) they will retain their 2022 First Round pick and instead send their 2022 and 2024 Second Round picks to Charlotte as the final piece of the Devonte’ Graham sign-and-trade. Most teams in this position elect to lose enough and keep the draft asset. The Pelicans front office does not appear to be so motivated, as reports have them as buyers approaching the trade deadline. The most recent reported target is Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum. Eric Pincus at Bleacher Report had this to say.
According to sources close to the Pelicans, the team is heading into the deadline as a buyer focusing on the 2022-23 campaign. Zion Williamson, who has yet to play this year with a foot injury, is eligible for an extension this offseason. The team apparently views McCollum as the potentially ideal veteran scorer and leader to play alongside Brandon Ingram and Williamson.
Today’s piece is not about what has been reported. It is not me predicting what the Pelicans will do at the deadline. (If it was, my prediction is they will try and the deal won’t materialize because that is most often the case.) It’s what I think the Pelicans should do. It’s been a very long time since I did this, so I might be a little rusty.
New Orleans has two primary concerns in my mind. First, is Zion Williamson bought in to being here? The Pelicans can get a pretty good answer on that on July 1st when they plop a massive extension worth well over $200 million over five years on his lap. There are other concerns but none weigh as heavily as if the Pelicans should be building with him in mind. Constructing a team around a power forward in the NBA is playing the game on hard mode. It’s much easier to build around a primary ball handler. See the Pelicans struggles in the W/L column compared to the Memphis Grizzlies most recently, or trying to overtake the Portland Trail Blazers in the previous decade as evidence.
The second issue is the glaring hole at guard. Devonte’ Graham has performed more or less as well as he did in Charlotte. Extremely inefficient inside the arc, reasonably efficient but inconsistent beyond. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has taken a step backwards. Josh Hart is honestly a small forward. Jose Alvarado is the brightest spot and he’s an undrafted rookie that might not crack 5’11”. Kira Lewis Jr. blew out his knee after the most promising stretch of his young career.
How you solve problem No. 2 is very much related to what is going on with No. 1. A downhill guard that is more of a creator than shooter (read: De’Aaron Fox) makes less sense on a roster with Zion Williamson on it than a shooter in the vein of CJ McCollum. However, McCollum is on the wrong side of 30 with $69M owed in the next two seasons. Fox is younger (24), with four more seasons on his contract at nearly $135M total. He’s also shooting under 25% behind the arc this year and just 31.4% on his career. For reference, NAW is shooting 31.1% behind the arc this season.
Instead, my plan is to chase a guy that is young and can shoot behind the arc: Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton. Sexton was rumored to be available this off-season and the Pelicans were on the reported list of possible suitors. This year did not go as Sexton hoped approaching restricted free agency, with a torn meniscus in November and surgery ending his season prematurely. The Cavs, in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, are seeking to upgrade their rotation and their previous flirtation with dealing Sexton suggests they may not be willing to spend big to retain the young Alabama product.
Enter the Pelicans and the pre-emptive sign-and-trade. Collin Sexton, if he is traded by the trade deadline, could sign a new contract with the acquiring team this summer with full Bird Rights (a contract up to five years instead of four with 8% raises instead of 5%). He also counts as only $6.3M incoming salary instead of whatever his new contract would be in the first year if sign-and-traded this summer. As icing on the cake for the Cavs, they can get an asset (draft pick) like they probably will this summer but the incoming player could contribute now as they prepare for the playoffs.
2023 Pelicans 1st (Top 5 protected, if it doesn’t convey in 2023 Cleveland receives better of LAL and NOLA 2024 1st, also top 5 protected. If one (or both) picks land in top 5, Cleveland receives the lesser of the two)
Now, that may not seem like a lot for Collin Sexton, but considering it is a sign-and-trade, it’s fair value. Consider that the Hornets received a lottery protected first (that turns into two second round picks right away) for Graham and the Chicago Bulls received a lottery protected first (that is lottery protected through 2028) for Lauri Markkanen this summer. Neither of those picks have a chance of ever landing in the lottery.
The Pelicans are taking a step back in the short term if making this deal. Devonte’ Graham, for all his faults as a starting point guard (that get alleviated being the Cavs reserve point guard), has been a key cog in New Orleans best lineups. The purpose of this trade is not to get worse or to tank, but in the process, the Pelicans will likely get worse.
Why Sexton instead of McCollum or Fox?
The reason for making this trade (instead of one for CJ McCollum or De’Aaron Fox) is multifaceted. First, and most importantly, while McCollum and Fox have been rumored to be on the market, the willingness of Portland or Sacramento to take a step back is yet to be determined. It seems more likely that the Cavs are willing to part with Collin Sexton for help now than the Blazers or Kings pulling the plug on their rosters on reasonable deals.
Second, I think Sexton is the right blend of shooting (37.8% on his career behind the arc) and youth (23) to fit with franchise pillars Brandon Ingram (24), Herb Jones (23), and Zion Williamson (21). Both Sexton and Jones were freshman together at Alabama.
Third, Sexton will cost less (in terms of assets) to trade for since it is essentially an early sign-and-trade. Additionally, even a large contract extension starting in the $20-$25M range in year one is vastly cheaper than the contracts already held by Fox or McCollum. The motivation here isn’t to save Gayle Benson’s money, it is to give the Pelicans sufficient room below the luxury tax line to adequately fill out the roster while retaining more assets to acquire the necessary talent.
For instance, making no other moves (beyond giving Jose Alvarado a real NBA contract) the Pelicans would still be roughly $15M under the luxury tax if they signed Collin Sexton to a 4-year, $112M deal this coming summer (that starts at $25M a year with 8% raises). That’s enough space to either use the entire MLE with ease or utilize the Steven Adams TPE to acquire additional depth.
That roster isn’t perfect. You still want more shooting and ball handling unless Alvarado makes a leap in the coming weeks (and we’re all rooting for it). The assets you retained (at least one more first round pick, and probably a young guy like Jaxson Hayes or NAW) in trading for Sexton instead of McCollum or Fox in addition to the cap flexibility gives you the need ammunition to obtain more depth.
Adding a guy capable of scoring 20+ a night (Sexton averaged 20.8 PPG his second year and 24.3 his third on above league average efficiency) to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram sounds like a win to me. That he’s young and can shoot? And will probably be (a little) cheaper? That’s icing on the cake.