While the New Orleans Pelicans have enjoyed a winning season and are very much in the playoff hunt, they are rapidly approaching a critical offseason. Many of the moves the Pelicans have made since landing future MVP Anthony Davis have centered on putting complimentary players around him. Unfortunately, a lot of these moves have not worked out as planned.
The Pelicans matched a maximum offer sheet for Eric Gordon when Davis was drafted and injuries have generally robbed him of the parts of his game that made him potentially valuable. Hamstrung by that, the Pelicans swung a trade to sign Tyreke Evans and send out Robin Lopez. They also traded a lottery pick (Nerlens Noel, having a historic rookie season that one could only imagine would look great next to Davis) for Jrue Holiday, who has recently battled serious injuries himself.
The dust has settled with the Pelicans owning two guards who require the ball to succeed. Last week, Jesus Gomez did a great job breaking down why New Orleans will likely have to choose between Holiday and Evans in the near future. Holiday seems like the better player to build around, but his injury problems may give the edge to Evans.
In addition, the trade of Robin Lopez created a need at center that New Orleans hoped offseason addition Omer Asik could fill. To get Asik, the Pelicans had to send out another first round pick. The ensuing lack of young rotation players has crippled the Pelicans’ bench while Asik, an impending unrestricted free agent, has been a huge disappointment. Asik is a defensive player, and the Pelicans own a bottom five defense (105.1 points per 100 possessions) with Anthony freakin’ Davis playing power forward. There are real issues going forward.
The Bench (or lack thereof)
The Pelicans above-average starting lineup has been enough to get them deep into the playoff hunt. However, injuries to nearly every key player have made their lack of depth glaring. Per NBA.com/stats, the Pelicans have a 0.7 net rating overall, which ranks 15th in the NBA between Milwaukee and Phoenix. However, their four best players all have ratings that would put the team amongst much better company. Davis, their clear MVP, sits at 5.0 (about equal to Portland or Dallas), Jrue Holiday is at 2.6 (Chicago) and Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans are at 2.0 (Oklahoma City). That’s where the bench comes in.
Ryan Anderson has had a frustrating campaign. After last year’s nightmare of a season, Anderson has battled injuries (most recently a sprained knee) and gotten absolutely toasted on defense. His defensive rating is 109.0 points per 100 possessions; the NBA-worst Timberwolves allow 108.4, via NBA.com/stats. While Anderson’s terrific offensive game has helped the Pelicans with a great 106.9 offensive rating, his overall net of -2.2 is indicative of his struggles playing with the second unit and amongst the starters. Still, Anderson is too valuable a player to overlook. He can be an impactful bench scorer next to Davis in the future.
Luke Babbitt hasn’t fared well in his 744 minutes this year, sporting a -5.7 net rating. Jeff Withey sits at -3.0, albeit in only 194 minutes. Two players who received significant minutes before being traded were downright destructive to the Pelicans’ net rating: Austin Rivers and John Salmons.
Rivers played 22 minutes per game in New Orleans with a -3.0 net rating while Salmons somehow got hosed at -12.1 points per 100 possessions in 13 minutes a night, per NBA.com/stats. Replacing those two with Norris Cole (4.8 net rating) and, more importantly, Quincy Pondexter (1.0 in a bigger role) has paid dividends. Still, a mountain of evidence says that Norris Cole is a replacement level player at best. The Pelicans simply don’t have any decent bench players on rookie contracts going forward.
Next year, per Sham Sports, New Orleans is committed to $52.92 million between Davis, Evans, Holiday, Gordon (player option) and Anderson. They will desperately need bench help, and likely a center.
It is fair to question whether Omer Asik was ever really meant to be a starting center. He’s never had a semblance of an offensive game and he excelled as a bench stopper. However, ‘starter’ was the role he desperately wanted in Houston and the one New Orleans entrusted in him when they traded a first round pick to acquire him. Alas, he has disappointed.
Asik has played more minutes for New Orleans than anyone besides Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans. With him on the floor, they hold a net rating of -0.6, far worse than the other starters. When Asik leaves, the Pelicans jump to 2.0 overall, the biggest discrepancy team-wide. The defense suffers, but the team’s offensive rating of 108.5 with Asik on the bench would be third only to the Warriors and Clippers, via NBA.com/stats. Davis isn’t the Defensive Player of the Year yet, but we know he’s an impactful defender. If pairing him with Asik isn’t giving you a good defense, it’s a bad fit.
Asik is set to become a free agent this summer, and it’s hard to imagine New Orleans paying for him what the market may still demand. If you could grab him for $7 or $8 million, he would probably be a great player to have on your bench with the salary cap due to explode. But Asik has made it clear he wants to start and the Pelicans just can’t afford to let him.
Change at Coach?
Coaching is the hardest thing to quantify, and I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t watched enough Pelicans’ games to break down Monty Williams fairly. Still, Williams has gained a reputation amongst close observers as a frustrating coach.
He’s done great work creating an offense, but the Pelicans lack of even an average defense is puzzling. Furthermore, there wasn’t a rational explanation for playing Austin Rivers 22 minutes a night if you’re not his father. If the Pelicans decide a change at coach is needed, they should have some interesting options. Still, it is worth noting that sneaking into the playoffs would almost certainly save Williams’ job for another year.
As a Bulls fan, the first name that jumps to my mind is their embattled coach, Tom Thibodeau. While Thibs has done fantastic things in his five years there, there remains an increasing and steady buzz that a championship is the only way to save his relationship with Gar Forman and John Paxson. If Thibodeau leaves, the Pelicans immediately become a top option.
We know Thibs dislikes relying on young players and demands defensive excellence as his top priority. In New Orleans, Thibodeau wouldn’t have a ton of inexperienced guys to worry about developing, an area where much friction has occurred in Chicago. Furthermore, Thibodeau achieved his greatest success as the defensive mastermind of Boston’s 2008 championship team. A not-yet-in-his-prime Anthony Davis would be the greatest talent at his disposal since late-prime Kevin Garnett.
The fit seems perfect. No coach is flawless, and Thibodeau’s tendency to overwork his players would certainly be a factor for a team that has withstood injuries to most of its top talent already. Still, coaches like Tom Thibodeau rarely come available, and the Pelicans are poised to have a unique opportunity this summer. Don’t mistake it: the Pelicans are approaching a crossroad.