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Advantages and challenges facing New Orleans Pelicans this offseason

A comprehensive look at what lies ahead

2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

{This in-depth article was written by guest contributor Garrett Ohlmeyer. Please be sure to follow him along @Gohlmeyer!}

With 8:30 left in the fourth quarter, the New Orleans Pelicans had a chance to tie their improbable first round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns at 2-2. The NBA world outside of New Orleans may not have known Jose Alvarado’s name yet, but they would soon.

As Sun’s guard Chris Paul inbounded the ball, Alvarado picked him up full court and the city’s sea-of-red crowd slowly inched out of their seats as the game clock ran down, eventually forcing an eight-second violation on Paul, who has deservingly earned the nickname “Point God” over his 16-year career. That energy led the Pelicans to an eventual win and the negative national narrative around this team began to shift.

Despite the Pelicans losing the next two games, the experience gained from their playoff run exemplified the Won’t Bow Down mentality this team failed to live up to the two seasons prior. New Orleans never went the tanking route that many fans and media clamored for after starting the season 3-16 while without their young phenom, Zion Williamson. Under similar circumstances, teams have historically folded with aims of a high draft pick to help them come back stronger the following year.

Alvarado, paired with Herb Jones and Trey Murphy, gave the Pelicans a trio of rookies who provided positive contributions throughout a playoff series against one of the best regular season teams in the NBA. While progression is never linear, these three players highlighted the depth of this young team. The Pelicans have the makings of a core that could make a Memphis Grizzlies-like jump last year, or a Phoenix Suns-like jump the year prior.

Most offseason previews and discussion around the 2022-2023 New Orleans Pelicans start with Williamson’s health and contract situation. To go a little deeper, this preview will assume Williamson will sign a max contract over the summer and will be relatively healthy — I know, big ask — but if the Pelicans want to contend for championships, this is the most likely (though not the only) route to take. With that being said, this offseason is less about making big moves, and more about setting up and building on a sustainable successful core.

A Core has Been Established

Let’s start by taking a look at the main contributors from the Phoenix Suns series and how long they’ve been suiting up in New Orleans. We already mentioned the trio of rookies. CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. came over at the trade deadline. Jonas Valančiūnas and Devonte’ Graham arrived via trade this past offseason. Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes, and to a lesser extent Naji Marshall, were the only three players in New Orleans last year who saw regular rotation minutes in the playoffs. Pair that with a rookie head coach who is the third man at the helm in three years for the Pelicans and it should be no surprise that the team started the season off at a snail’s pace.

That level of roster turnover is rare outside of rebuilding teams, which Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin made clear the Pelicans were not. But the team needed to shake off the somewhat toxic stigma created in Stan Van Gundy’s locker room.

This past year, head coach Willie Green has been at the center of a cultural shift. Roster turnover is not needed now, but that doesn’t mean small moves can’t be made around the edges. Giving Green, and the majority of the core, a whole offseason together should pay huge dividends and lead to much fewer struggles at the start of the next campaign.

Barring another set-back, the big addition to next year’s roster will be Williamson, who will need to be treated similarly to a free agent addition. While Williamson is the longest tenured Pelican, he has only played alongside four players currently on the roster. Incorporating Zion shouldn’t be too difficult considering he should replace Jaxson Hayes, who filled a similar, albeit much smaller role in the starting lineup. As currently constructed, the Pelicans starting unit and appropriately named, second line, are as follows:

Starting lineup Second Line Injury replacements
CJ McCollum Jose Alvarado Naji Marshall
Herb Jones Devonte' Graham/Kira Lewis Jr Willy Hernangomez
Brandon Ingram Trey Murphy Garrett Temple
Zion Williamson Larry Nance 2022 8th overall pick
Jonas Valanciunas Jaxson Hayes

The only change to the starting lineup is Williamson replacing Hayes — a change that could drastically improve the already star-studded squad. Hayes was the clear weak link in the starting lineup so replacing him with a near-30-point-per-game scorer will do wonders.

McCollum, Jones, Ingram and Valančiūnas posted a +9.0 point differential, which was in the top 93 percentile of the league last season, according to Cleaning The Glass. Including Hayes in the mix drops that number to +7.1, and when you look at those four without Hayes on the floor, it jumps up to +10.9.

While the starting lineup seems set in stone, the bench has room for tinkering. The important thing is that the Pelicans ensure any changes don’t put them over the luxury tax and make it possible to remain under that line the following year as well — but more on that later.

Who is Expendable?

The Pelicans could certainly go into the 2022-2023 season standing pat. They have the talent and depth to play through a few injuries. With Kira and Zion expected to return to action, and a top 10 draft pick being added to the roster, New Orleans will already have a few new pieces to integrate. There are several other players with question marks on how productive they will be moving forward though.

At the top of that list sits Devonte’ Graham. He was brought in to complement Williamson by spacing the floor. With Williamson out, Graham’s role ended up being much different. He was asked to create more than he originally would have had to. This likely contributed to a regression in his field goal percentage, which declined for a third year in a row. When his outside shot isn’t falling in particular, Graham doesn’t bring a ton else to the table and has to be hidden on the defensive side of the ball.

With the addition of McCollum, emergence of Alvarado, and flashes shown by Lewis prior to his injury, Graham’s streakiness makes him expendable. There’s definitely a case to be made that he would look better next to Zion, but at the same time, minutes for Graham mean less for these other three guards.

Graham and McCollum are a poor fit on the floor together as well, particularly because they are both undersized and not great defenders. Having one on the court alone is fine though, and McCollum should be maxing out his minutes before Graham sees the court.

Alvarado and McCollum may not be ideal to share the court together when looking strictly at their height, but their playstyles complement one another better than McCollum and Graham.

Graham is owed nearly $36 million over the next three years and is arguably seen as a negative asset at this point. With Zion still on his rookie deal next year, Graham’s contract isn’t a primary concern. However, that’ll change a year from now when Zion will be on a max deal or close to it. So it’s not paramount to move him yet, but it would open up some minutes for Lewis Jr. or someone else.

There may be similar fit issues when playing Lewis Jr. and McCollum together, but Kira’s limited minutes has shown more energy and hustle on the defensive side of the ball than Graham.

Before injury struck, Lewis Jr. showed flashes of being a De’Aaron Fox-lite-type player. While he’s been mentioned by some as expendable, his injury and small sample size of flashes have hurt his trade value, so keeping him is a very low opportunity cost.

An expendable player with a little more value than Graham or Kira is Jaxson Hayes. Hayes looked much more comfortable last season after being moved to the power forward spot. Despite the flashy plays, Hayes was inconsistent and still looked lost at times defensively. Hayes was originally drafted to be a vertical-spacing rim protector who could play next to Zion Williamson, but he’s turned into someone who may be best suited to play the same position and similar role as the former first-overall pick.

It also seems Hayes desires a larger role in the offense. At the end of season press conference, Hayes cited he plans to work on his shot and expand his offensive game more this summer. The Pelicans already have elite offensive talent in McCollum, Williamson, Ingram and Valančiūnas. This is a large reason Herb Jones is such a great fit in the starting lineup. The Pelicans don’t necessarily need another big to take usage away from the four top guys.

This isn’t to say that Hayes wouldn’t be welcome to continue growing with this team, but with the addition of Larry Nance Jr., who is already the type of experienced dirty-work player who fits perfectly alongside offensive talent, Jaxson seems more expendable than ever. On top of that, all three power forwards are entering the last year of their contracts.

The main reason to keep Hayes would be if the front office and coaching staff trust he’ll develop into a true five at some point and won’t fetch too large of a second contract from a team looking to pry him out of New Orleans.

After spending the bulk of the second half of the season in the starting lineup, Hayes’ value may be at a high point right now as well, which may be the biggest reason to consider moving him this summer. While Hayes was the weakest link in the starting five, he did show flashes that may make a young rebuilding or retooling teams’ mouth water. Next to the right playmaking guard and some 3-and-D wings, Hayes would have a much greater chance to maximize his offensive potential and become the scoring stalwart he seems to desire. It just doesn’t seem like that role is going to exist for him in New Orleans next to Williamson.

Hayes is still a very raw basketball player, and may still be a year or two away from figuring a lot out at the five. While deciding on Hayes this offseason isn’t a necessity, the Pelicans need to figure out how long they are willing to wait for his development, and how much they would be willing to pay him on his next contract.

Where are the holes?

Some may believe this New Orleans team is ready to compete for a top-4 seed next year and has no needs heading into this offseason. Yes and no. The Pelicans have earned the right to enter the summer feeling confident with how the campaign concluded and ready to run it back.

The biggest takeaway to remember is that if the right player isn’t available, there is no need for desperation and make a move like Griffin did last summer where he had to attach future assets to move Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. That being said, there are still a few holes on the roster that could afford an upgrade.

As mentioned, Hayes is much more comfortable at the four, a position he would have to share with Williamsom and Nance Jr. moving forward. While Hayes and Nance Jr. can both play the five, Hayes hasn’t developed the defensive chops and Nance Jr. is more of a small ball five, which is great, but isn’t always what’s needed.

The Pelicans could benefit from bringing in a true rim protector for their bench to hold down the defensive side of the ball. This type of player would complement Valančiūnas as well. While not necessarily an outright negative on defense, Valančiūnas is known for his offensive post game. He isn’t a great rim protector and can be taken advantage of in pick and rolls. Having someone on the roster to offset these weaknesses would provide more roster versatility for Willie Green next year.

The other area of need is a guard with a little bit more size to boost the playmaking or shooting. Currently, all of the true guards are under 6’3”, with Alvarado the only one who is a true positive on defense. While it feels that Alvarado is a lock to see regular minutes off the bench because of that ability and to handle some floor general duties, and McCollum is a wonderful leader and an offensive juggernaut, Graham and Lewis Jr. offer little variety.

Although Alvarado’s hustle and defense helped compensate for his lack of size, and the speed/toughness that an Alvarado and Lewis Jr. backcourt would provide is at a minimum worth exploring, having more length in the backcourt to defend and rebound would be ideal. Moreover, the Pelicans had success playing tall ball with one of the undersized guards running the show.

Another need that’s been mentioned, largely by national media outlets, is that the Pelicans require a true point guard, citing McCollum as more of a shooting guard. This notion doesn’t quite hit the mark, though. With Zion coming back, there will not be a lack of ball handlers and playmakers in New Orleans. At the same time, there has been a trend away from teams running true point guards/facilitators, especially when teams have stars at other positions.

Alvarado has proven himself as a capable facilitator coming off the bench, and the starting unit never really struggled to find their own offense. This was all without Williamson, who would inevitably take some pressure off Ingram and McCollum. Those three players have shown the capability to play both with and without the ball in their hands, and while incorporating Williamson into the lineup may have some growing pains, it doesn’t mean they need someone to strictly function as a facilitator.

Draft Strategy

This is not a draft guide, but it’s important to note that a major decision rests with the 8th overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. With no huge glaring needs, the Pelicans should feel comfortable taking the best player available and figuring the rest out later. The Pelicans don’t necessarily need someone to come in and contribute right away, but adding someone who can contribute over the next four years on a rookie-scale deal could be huge.

It’s much easier to build a team when players on cheap contracts are able to provide positive contributions, as witnessed last season. This is the main reason why I believe the Pelicans will keep this draft pick rather than trade it for an established player. Unless the Lakers bottom out — which may be looking more likely than it did six months ago, this should be the last time the Pelicans have the privilege of a top 10 draft pick for the foreseeable future.

Next month’s draft has a distinct top 3 players and then tiers after that. There has been some noise that teams after Orlando, OKC and Houston may be willing to trade their pick. So if the Pelicans have their eye on someone who isn’t likely to fall to No. 8, a deal could possibly be struck.

Since New Orleans likely won’t be picking this high again in the near future, it may be worth identifying the guy they want outside of the top 3, and dipping into the war chest of draft picks or using young guys like Hayes or Lewis Jr. to move up.

The Pelicans chose to do the exact opposite in 2019, flipping the Lakers’ fourth overall pick to the Hawks to later select Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. With the benefit of hindsight, taking Darius Garland there would’ve been a great move. Trading up wouldn’t necessarily result in a better player as three years ago, but it gives the Pelicans the opportunity to prioritize a guy they want to see in their uniform.

Of course, there is no need to act desperate. Solid players should be available at 8, like Jalen Duren, Bennedict Mathurin or AJ Griffin. But if the front office is in love with Shaedon Sharpe, who recently set the record for highest vertical in NBA history, they shouldn’t hesitate to explore moving up a few slots to draft him, providing a more expensive rookie contract doesn’t hurt the overall plan and move the team over the luxury tax line.

Sustaining Success

The emergence of the Pelicans trio of rookies has put New Orleans in a unique opportunity to have three or four large contracts without needing to dip into the luxury tax for a couple of years.

Without diving too deep into the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the luxury tax is a set number above the salary cap that disincentives teams from having salaries above that number by requiring ownership to pay a tax that scales with the amount over the luxury tax they are. That scaling gets larger after three consecutive years of being over the tax line — this is called the repeater tax.

Most owners of teams competing for championships are willing to dip into the luxury tax as long as they remain competitive, but there is more hesitation when being asked to pay the repeater tax. While some owners are more stingy than others, Pelicans owner Gayle Benson is reportedly willing to pay what needs to be paid when the time is right.

For some teams, building a competitive team requires them to dip into the tax to fill out their bench while paying multiple max or near max contracts, which can be upwards of 25% to 35% of the salary cap.

The Pelicans have one year left on Williamson’s rookie deal. Assuming he signs a max contract, he, Ingram, and McCollum alone will equate to roughly two-thirds of the luxury tax line for the 2023-2024 season. That season is also the last year of McCollum’s deal. Only time will tell if McCollum will be deserving of a similarly hefty contract afterwards, but the idea is that the Pelicans would like to have a big 3, or big 4 if you include Valančiūnas, who’s roughly $15 million a year contract ends at the same time as McCollum.

Decisions made this offseason may seem simple, but the wrong decision could truly come back to haunt this team in the future. Extensions won’t be on the table for just Williamson, but potentially McCollum, Nance and Hayes as well. Remaining under that luxury tax line should be a high priority while the team has quality role players on rookie deals, so Benson can avoid facing the decision of paying the repeater tax for as long as possible.

If Alvarado, Jones, Murphy, Lewis Jr. etc. continue to improve or even maintain their current level of play, they are looking at serious paydays in a couple of years. In order to keep this core together for as long as possible, Griffin will need to avoid the luxury tax until it’s time to potentially pay as many of the young guys as possible

With Zion still on his rookie deal next year, there is little risk of being in the tax for the 2022-2023 season; however, without any moves, the Pelicans current contracts would be flirting near the luxury tax line in 2023-2024 when he’ll be on the first year of his next, more expensive contract.

As mentioned previously, there’s no requirement to make a number of important decisions this offseason, but the team needs to decide whether to keep Nance Jr. and Hayes soon. Retaining both would likely put the team over the tax line without some contract maneuvering. From there, keeping McCollum and Valančiūnas around would almost certainly put the team over the tax in 2023-2024. Regardless, Graham’s contract sticks out as one that will soon need to be moved, if not this summer, then either at the trade deadline or the following offseason.

On the positive side, Herb Jones and possibly Lewis Jr. are locked up on rookie deals until 2024-2025, and Alvarado and Murphy until 2025-2026. This year’s first-rounder, if the Lakers’ 2022 pick is kept, would also be under team control until 2026-2027. Having these five players on rookie deals, along with Naji Marshall and potentially Willy Hernangomez, who have shown they are capable of filling in when the injury bug hits, gives the Pelicans the unique possibility of keeping their big 3 together. There’s legitimate hope they can remain a top-4 Western Conference contender while also staying under the luxury tax for at a minimum of the next two years.

From there, if Benson is willing to dip into the tax for a couple of years once it’s time to pay the young guys, the window for this team to compete could be larger than most without having to make too many cost-saving cuts and moves. Future picks allow further flexibility for Griffin to get off of any bad contracts or upgrade positions as needs become more apparent.

The Pelicans’ future is here, but there’s no reason to rush anything. A team that fought back from a 3-16 start to earn a playoff spot and trade punches in the first round with the Suns is going to add Zion Williamson and a top 10 draft pick when the next training camp opens. Time will tell, but that may be exactly what’s needed to raise them to the upper echelon of the league — and mechanics will be available to keep the bunch together for a good period of time.

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 @Gohlmeyer.