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Today’s Fastbreak Roundtable: Where Do the Pelicans Go From Here?

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

The New Orleans Pelicans have gotten off to a disastrous start under new head coach Alvin Gentry. A panel of Today’s Fastbreak writers got together to discuss the Pelicans and where they go from here.

Jason Patt: The Pelicans have shockingly started the season 1-9. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s not looking good for their playoff chances. Grant recently wrote about the franchise considering “the impossible” and punting this year and looking to the future. Are they at that point? Or do they still have a chance to get back in this?

Kelly Scaletta: The first thing I think of when I hear that question is Ben Simmons. Is there any way a superstar out of LSU could fit alongside Anthony Davis to give them a 1-2 punch? Is gumbo spicy?!?!?

I think you have to at least consider it.

Grant Hughes: If the question is “can they get back in this?”, I’d counter with another: What, exactly, are they getting back into? A breakneck race for the seventh or eighth seed and a first-round opponent they can’t possibly expect to beat? I understand the argument that it’s dangerous to waste a prime Anthony Davis season by tanking/resting guys/whatever shorthand you prefer, but at least that’d be a waste with a purpose. The likely return in that instance would be a high lottery pick, which could yield the young star sidekick Davis needs (and the Pellies clearly don’t have).

Look at this roster; there’s no second star, and any remotely viable candidates are either too old (Davis is the only Pelican under 25), injured or not under contract long enough to matter.

New Orleans would need to play at well above a 50-win pace from now on to even have a prayer at a low seed. Maybe there’s value in teaching grit to this roster, but most of it won’t be around when the team is really ready to compete a few years from now. So what’s the point?

I hate the idea of giving away a season and possibly trading players for picks – especially this early and especially after we all had such high expectations. But it’s time to think long and hard about what the Pelicans should be trying to do to capitalize on having Davis. I think there’s a good argument that they should sacrifice this season in the interest of building a bigger, better, longer-term winner down the line.

Kieffer Katz: That is an interesting position that I totally disagree with! First of all, how break-neck is the race really going to be? It’s not just the Pellies that have failed to live up to expectations; the Rockets and Grizzlies are below and at .500, respectively, the Thunder are 6-5 and once again lacking Durant, and (this stat may be wrong) if I remember correctly almost every team in the East has a winning record against the West so far. New Orleans is only four games out of the eighth seed. Only 10 games into the season, with Eric Gordon playing well and Tyreke Evans’s return growing ever closer, is it really time to throw in the towel?

I mean, I had the Pelicans winning 55 games to start the season, so I have already planted my flag on a wildly optimistic hill. Maybe that’s why it seems reasonable to me that this New Orleans team, playing with their backs to the wall, could get to a 50-win pace, especially once they return to full strength. Factor in more familiarity with Gentry’s system and some defensive improvement, and I don’t see why they can’t catch the eighth, or even seventh seed.

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

Jason: The thing is, as Grant mentioned, is it REALLY worth it to get to that seventh or eighth seed and a first-round beatdown at this point? And this is assuming everything breaks right and the team actually gets and stays healthy, which hasn’t happened with this group. I totally understand not wanting to punt a year of AD, but to get to even 45 wins, they now have to finish the year 44-28. Not sure that’s all that realistic. Although WHEN healthy, they certainly are very talented.

Kelly: There’s a lot of validity to Grant’s argument there. Maybe today’s Owners/GMs get knocked too much for long-term thinking (until it comes to pass). I’m just flashing right now on how Warriors fans booed Joe Lacob for trading away Monta Ellis at Chris Mullins’s retirement ceremony.

I’m also betting that not a lot of those fans who booed then have written apology letters since.

In the short term, such thinking is rarely regarded as being positive. And, as is the case with the Sixers right now, if it seems like a “seven-year plan,” I can see fans getting perturbed. But the Pelicans aren’t in the hotbed of free agency and they’re not likely to add a superstar to Davis that route. And the window to land someone is shorter than Davis’s extension might make it seem, because if Davis starts getting antsy, the Pelicans might be in that “better something than nothing” than stage.

I get Kieffer’s point. Maybe they can get there. But I also think Grant’s point is equally valid. So what if they do? They get to get bulldozed by the Warriors again? The Pelicans need to be playing for the future of the franchise, not just the season.

And seriously. Ben Simmons sticking around in Louisiana? Am I the ONLY one who sees the appeal?

Kieffer: It is not so much that I don’t see the appeal of Simmons staying in Louisiana so much as I can’t bring myself to watch 30-second long college basketball possessions outside of the sweet 16. I gather he’s pretty good, and I think from Australia?

But yeah, there totally IS validity to Grant’s argument! It is definitely their best chance find a franchise-altering star to pair with AD; it could end up being a ’96 Spurs situation, and we all know how that turned out. But since I’m already committed to dying on this hill, I think it is totally worth getting into the playoffs, mainly because I am not convinced they’d be completely blown away.

Assuming they get healthy, why can’t they be the team we thought they were going to be before the season started? They probably still aren’t going to beat the Warriors, but does anyone else in the West seem unbeatable right now? Couldn’t their youth and athleticism pose a problem for, say, the Spurs?

I’m also not willing to concede that getting blown away in the first round is a waste of time and effort. Last year was the first time most of this roster had seen the playoffs, and I think developing more familiarity with the increased pressure, shorter rotations and more careful game-planning of the postseason would be valuable. This is also their first season with Alvin Gentry, and playing more games in his system can only help the team’s long-term outlook.

I’d also argue that making the playoffs, especially after such a challenging start to the season, bolsters their chances of attracting free agents this offseason. NBA players want to win; having one of the 10 best players in the Association in AD already gives New Orleans a draw. If they can show they’re on the cusp of making a leap, that draw only gets stronger. Look at Milwaukee last year. Do you think there’s any way Greg Monroe signs with them if they’d missed the playoffs last year?

Jason: A reasonable argument for sure. If we’re going that route, which free agent(s) would be the ideal fit on this roster?

Grant: I’d say Monroe also went with the Bucks because of the collection of young talent that was there — something the Pelicans don’t have. Still, if we assume New Orleans will be a decent free-agent draw (having Davis makes it appealing on his own), I’m not sure what’s out there in the way of real help. We can forget about LBJ and KD. Drummond and Beal are going to stay where they’re at, too. Dwight Howard? Does that make sense given his age/decline and the need to surround Davis with players who’ll grow with him?

Al Horford and Mike Conley strike me as the best fits, but it’s difficult to see Horford parting ways with Atlanta and the relative softness of the East in favor of New Orleans — especially if he wants the best chance to win. It seems like Memphis tends to keep its core around, but I could see Conley moving on. Maybe he’s the best option to pair with Davis long term.

Jason: Ohhhh, Conley is an interesting option. Let’s say hypothetically, they did get him. What happens to the rest of that backcourt? Are you trading Jrue Holiday and/or Tyreke Evans? Looking to bring back Eric Gordon?

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

Grant: I’m really not a fan of any of New Orleans’ guards, though I like the idea of Holiday as a bench option. It’s safe to assume he can’t be physically relied upon for a starter’s role, so maybe putting him behind Conley is the best move…he could even fill a combo guard role with Evans sliding over to the shooting-guard spot alongside Conley in the first unit. I’m probably letting Gordon go here, both because I think he’d probably cost too much to retain, and because he never wanted to be on this team in the first place. He’s a free agent, and I’m expecting he’ll get enough offers in a down market to make it smart for the Pelicans to pass.

We have to remember, too, that the Pelicans aren’t exactly heading into free agency loaded with cash. Yes, Anderson, Gordon and Norris Cole come off the books. But Davis’s salary jumps from $7 million to almost $21 million.

Jason: I’m curious how Holiday would handle a bench role. Maybe you try it out and if he asks for a trade, so be it. He’d be an $11M expiring contract and you might be able to extract some value. He’s still really young.

Kieffer: Steph Curry’s continued success makes me want to believe Holiday is going to be okay. He was really good for a while there! That said, I’d be okay with him moving to the bench for the sake of Conley. That said, I don’t really think point guard is their biggest hole, it just seems like it because of the injuries. I’d rather see them figure out a solution on the wing that doesn’t involve relying heavily on Dante Cunningham, Luke Babbitt and Alonzo Gee.

I’d like to see them try to pull Nicolas Batum out of Charlotte, or even better, see if Harry Barnes wants to step out of Steph, Dray and Klay’s shadows. He’s the right age to grow up next to Davis, he’s pretty widely regarded to fit best as a second option, and he already knows how to play in this offense. Can’t you see them making a run at him, maybe trying to persuade him with the Gentry connection?

Grant: The wing is a definite weak point for the Pelicans, and I think Batum would be a great fit.

But having watched every game of Barnes’s career (playing the GSW homer card here), I feel very confident saying it would be a huge mistake to pay him max money, which is what it’ll take to sign him. He’s simply not equipped to be more than a fourth option on a good team, and I see no signs of him developing as a shot creator. If New Orleans could get Barnes for $10-$12 million per season, that’s an obvious “go for it” situation. But I think he’ll cost nearly double that, and his production won’t warrant that kind of cash.

That’s not to say the Pelicans won’t make a run at him. They very well might. I just think it’ll be a mistake if that run ends in a max contract.

Jason: Considering he turned down $16M a year from GSW, no way is he leaving the Dubs to play for the Pellies for significantly less. Batum is a fun idea for sure. He’s killing it right now for the Hornets, is still relatively young and could be a nice second fiddle. I kind of like the sound of that.

Kelly: Going back a bit, I love the idea of Jrue in a bench role. That sounds like 6MOY waiting to happen and he might even stay healthy that way. I also think Batum would be a great fit.

I am not a fan of bringing in Barnes. That just SCREAMS overpay waiting to happen. He will get paid too much to go somewhere and not be good enough. It reminds me of the Josh Smith situation. He’ll get the money because it’s going to be spent, not because he’s that good. Let someone else make that mistake.

The problem is that after Durant, there’s really not a lot of players who are all that exciting who might actually move in free agency. And what’s the point of worrying over what free agents you don’t want are going to think?

But that’s another reason you start looking at your present group. Get assets while you still can. Starting with Davis, you have Gordon, Holiday, Evans and Asik who have all been bitten by the injury bug. Is next year going to be any better? I’m just not sure this is a core worth sticking with.

Maybe instead of waiting, you aggressively get pieces right now. Because all of those players COULD draw interest from a contender.

Jason: Looking to sell off some pieces now wouldn’t be a bad idea, but in case they stand pat, how do the Pellies turn things around? Obviously getting healthy is priority No. 1, but what’s up with this horrific defense? It’s the worst in the league! Even with the injuries, it seems like they shouldn’t be this bad, especially with an all-world player in Davis.

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

Kieffer: I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why their defense is so bad. I wanted to blame it all on their lack of perimeter defense, but then I saw clips of Melo and the Zinger blowing by AD in isolation last night, and now I’m not sure what to think.

Maybe he’s doing the designated hitter thing and has decided he can’t exert himself on defense if he’s carrying the majority of the offensive load? He gets a little bit of DPOY buzz every year thanks to his gaudy block stats, but if memory serves he’s never given them a huge lift defensively. Part of that can be blamed on the system and personnel, but do you think we’ve overlooked a bit of defensive stagnation from Davis because of the leaps he’s made offensively? Or is there something else we can blame for how consistently disappointing New Orleans has been on that end?

Jason: To the point about AD’s defense, I do think he’s generally been a bit overrated on that end. I can’t say I’ve watched tons of film on him, but from what I’ve read/seen, he still has a lot to learn. He definitely does help make them better, but not by enough. And I know there have been some criticisms about his effort.

At first glance at some of the numbers, the Pellies are allowing a high percentage on shots in the paint and also allowing over 42 percent on three-pointers from above the break. So that seems to speak to breakdowns on the perimeter.

Kelly: Yeah. I think it’s hard to say about Davis defense. The entire system is so broken down, how can you know when to assign blame?

Jason: I just don’t know. Would have to do a real deep dive on them to see, but it’s pretty safe to say that everybody deserves some blame. They’re still getting used to a new coach, so that’s likely playing into it as well.

To finish this, how do you see this playing out for the Pellies?

Grant: I don’t see them packing it in — not in Gentry’s first year, not after the step forward last season and not as long as Davis is healthy enough to play. If he were to go down with something significant, then I think the calculus has to change. My best guess is they’ll get a bit healthier (it would be hard for things to be worse in that department) and eventually push up toward 40 wins, possibly getting over .500 to close the year.

But I see no scenario in which New Orleans, as presently constituted, finishes higher than seventh in the conference. And that, friends, is how you stay right smack in the dreaded middle.

Kelly: I don’t see them making the playoffs. Maybe mid-30s wins, depending on how soon they can get healthy and whether they can stay that way. It’s just too steep a hill at this point.

Kieffer: I still think this team can take the eighth seed, maybe even the seventh if things break right. They’ve been playing without their best creator, learning a new defensive scheme and missing open threes, all while playing the toughest schedule in the league, according to John Schuhmann. This team is, quite simply, better than they’ve looked so far, and the damage done by their horrific start is ameliorated slightly by the turmoil in the Western Conference. It’s not a sure thing by any means, but it’s way too soon to count this team out.

Jason: Assuming they get relatively healthy (this may be foolish), I think Davis and some of the other parts are good enough to get them around .500. In that case, it’d then require the bottom of the West playoff picture to be like the East last year. I don’t think that’ll be the case even after some of these other slow starts, so at this point, I have them out of the postseason.

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