The New Orleans’ Pelicans first run to the NBA playoffs (as the actual “Pelicans”) got off to a very chilly bang:
Ownership gave GM Dell Demps and Monty Williams preseason mandate to make playoffs to keep jobs, w/ no allowance for injuries. They made it.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) April 16, 2015
Yee-ikes. That’s … good?
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Not just for the downer that regarded what was described by many as an unexpected playoff berth to be a franchise-saver – it would be unrealistic to pin any coach or general manager’s future on making or breaking it at the bottom of the West’s nutty playoff bracket – but to the unnerving thought that maybe it isn’t the best possible move for this organization to retain both Monty Williams as coach and Dell Demps as general manager. That a barely-there three-pointer, shot by a 7-footer on Feb. 6, would eventually decide the fates (again, good or bad) for Pelicans fans.
The Pelicans did make that postseason, however, holding off an expected contender from Phoenix and an Oklahoma City Thunder team that still did get to boast a combined 94 games of (mostly) Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Famously, the Pelicans earned a tiebreaker over the Thunder (who finished with the same 45-37 record as New Orleans) based off of this wild three-point shot from Anthony Davis in what turned out to be a playoff-clinching early February win.
Davis turned in an MVP-level year when he played, but it is to Williams’ credit that he was able to fashion an above-.500 outfit with a team that was without Davis to injury for 14 games, and without Jrue Holiday for just over half the season.
Just how much credit you want to give Monty for his ability to make the postseason with Eric Gordon missing 21 games depends on just how dim a view as you have of Gordon’s game.
Relatively healthy for the second straight year after what were basically two lost initial seasons in New Orleans, Gordon genuinely did have his moments – not only did he trade in some of those twos for three-pointers, he hit a knockout 45 percent of them on the year. He also just doesn’t really do anything else, as New Orleans is paying over $30 million combined this year and next for a modern version of Hubert Davis.
Tyreke Evans? He’s tailed off as more or less a pretty good player. Like Gordon, there were moments – especially during the season’s cushy middle, when New Orleans needed to make its move. At times he looked like the best player on the floor, and he responded well to increased responsibility in ball-handling this season. His descending contract (paying him an average of $10.5 million over the next two seasons) is hardly a millstone, especially as he won’t hit 26 until next September. He remains a good, versatile guy to have around.
Then there is Davis – not just a trendy MVP pick, but potentially the MVP pick had he played more games. New Orleans will offer their All-Star the maximum contract he’s earned just seconds after they’re allowed to in July, and despite the team’s mediocre track record and first round sweep, he’d be correct giving the Pelicans a shot with his next contract. We’re optimists, we suppose.
There is potential flexibility here, but also tough questions. First-year Pelicans center Omer Asik cost the team what will amount to the 18th pick in this year’s draft in a trade with Houston last summer, and he’ll have his fair share of free agent suitors this offseason – several teams are going to whiff on bigger names, and Asik resembles a consolation prize well worth talking a chance on. The big center didn’t anchor a great defensive team this season, but the Pelicans shot up from a dismal 27th in defensive efficiency to 22nd, and Williams rightfully credits Asik for a goodly chunk of that – especially as the season progressed.
Committing to Asik is going to take some talking-into. He turns 29 and July and he’ll command eight figures a year in what will be a players’ market, making him the fourth Pelican to make that much next year and in 2016-17 with Davis’ potential extension taking over for Gordon’s expected free agent fleeing. Worse, the Golden State Warriors made Asik a complete non-factor on both ends during the short playoff run by playing off of him defensively, and there is genuine concern that Asik’s style of game might be fighting a losing battle against a shifting NBA tide.
Sliding Davis to center isn’t as damning a thought as once pitched, as it isn’t as if he has a series of lumbering behemoths to work up against, but the Pelicans will try to maintain the same lineup. Especially in anticipation of what could be an absolutely frenzied free agent market for Ryan Anderson in 2016: Anderson, whose three-point percent surprisingly dipped to 36 percent in 2014-15, is one sweet-shooting season away from becoming everyone’s stretch four ideal entering the chaotic 2016 offseason.
The team will likely extend the qualifying offer and possibly match restricted free agent proposals for Norris Cole, a good value if he can keep up the solid-enough play he provided in New Orleans following a disappointing season Miami. Out of nowhere, Alexis Ajinca turned into one of the better reserve big men in basketball, and the Pelicans badly need to lure him back before other free agent squads realize as much following their failed attempts at shooting for star free agents.
Jrue Holiday was once an All-Star, he played well when healthy this season and gutted out his last two playoff games despite a lower right leg injury that he should have sat out with. He’s played just 74 games over the last two seasons with New Orleans, and the team badly needs him to stay healthy as the deadening Gordon and mercurial Evans sop up minutes. Holiday will undergo summer surgery to remove the screw that was placed in his right tibia last season, following his leg fracture. He’ll only turn 25 this June.
There is time with this crew. Davis wants to pair his individual MVP candidacy with the sorts of team records that tend to influence votes, not because he cares about the actual trophy, but because he wants to win. It probably won’t happen with this particular set of teammates, and if the Pelicans retain Asik and Ajinca they’ll have a tough time rounding out the roster with rotation helpers while still remaining fiscally sensible.
Those sizable contracts will fall off soon enough, however, and Davis could be the biggest selling point for any potential future teammate in the 2016 or 2017 free agent market. People are going to want to play with this guy.
Will Monty Williams and Dell Demps be around to help him make a bid or two? That’s still up in the air – both have had their creative moments in terms of play-calling and roster-shaping, but we’re not entirely sure that the playoff deadline was the smartest move for ownership to make.
- - - - - - -