The disaster that was the Orlando bubble hid an extremely promising season for the New Orleans Pelicans. Lost in the shuffle were the following critical developments:
- This can't be overstated: Zion Williamson was the single most efficient offensive rookie in NBA history. It isn't close. Among all rookies in NBA history, he finished 22nd with an effective field goal percentage of 59.2 percent. Here's the catch: nobody ahead of him took even nine shots per game. Zion took 15. The first name to come up on that list to top Zion's volume? Shaquille O'Neal, whose rookie effective field goal percentage falls at a relatively dull 56.2 percent. Zion's health is a big if, but this needs to be said: the Pelicans don't just have a star there, they have a capital "S" Superstar. If he stays healthy, he's winning multiple MVPs. Case-in-point: Giannis Antetkounmpo had an effective field goal percentage of 58.9 last season. He won the MVP. Zion beat that as a rookie. A couple of bad Orlando games doesn't change that.
- Lonzo Ball shot 38.3 percent on 3-pointers outside of the bubble... and 28.1 percent in Orlando. Disney doesn't erase that incredible improvement. Ball still has other holes in his game, but he's no longer a liability from behind the arc.
- Brandon Ingram made the All-Star Game and won Most Improved Player, and it's still only the third thing that we listed.
- The Pelicans had the sixth-best five-man lineup in all of basketball last season. Ball, Williamson, Ingram, Derrick Favors and Jrue Holiday outscored opponents by 109 points in 288 minutes. No Lakers, Clippers, Raptors or Celtics lineups matched that.
- The Pelicans currently have five first-round picks on rookie deals, not including the 23-year-old Ingram. They have two future Lakers picks coming and all of their own picks as well, including one in the lottery this month. The asset base here is unmatched.
Welcome to Luxury Land. This series of offseason previews has come with a sense of urgency that is totally absent in New Orleans. The Pelicans don't have to win the championship right now. They aren't desperately trying to recruit a 2021 free agent. They're deciding who they're going to be as a team for the next decade, and they're taking their sweet time in doing it.
They have no reason not to. The Pelicans have so much talent and so many draft picks and so little bad salary that they enter this offseason with the freedom to do practically anything they want. This preview will attempt to figure out what exactly it is that they want and how they might go about getting it.
One note before beginning: We will be using Spotrac for player salaries, and 2019-20 cap numbers for this exercise as a whole. That includes previously agreed-upon numbers like the rookie scale and the minimum salary. A frozen cap is the likeliest outcome of negotiations between the league and the NBPA, but these numbers could theoretically change in either direction.
Under the assumption that the 2019-20 numbers will be used, these are the pertinent numbers for these projections.
Luxury tax apron
Non-taxpayer mid-level exception (Year 1)
Taxpayer mid-level exception (Year 1)
Cap room mid-level exception (Year 1)
Cap situation and overall finances
The first thing you'll notice in this cap sheet? How efficient it is. There are no extraneous salaries. The bad contracts are gone. There are no lingering busts from the previous administration. The only contract that might be viewed as undesirable belongs to Darius Miller, and it's non-guaranteed. If he stays, it will be as salary filler in a future trade. Otherwise? This is one of the cleanest cap sheets in basketball.
No. 13 pick
That total is missing one notable piece: Ingram. He removes any lingering hope of 2020 cap space with what we can only assume will be a max contract. If it lasts for five years, based on the current cap, he'll make around $27.3 million in the first season and around $158.3 million over the life of the deal. There have been no indications suggesting that the Pelicans won't make this offer. Even if they don't want to, interest in Ingram would be so great even on that contract that they might as well sign him and trade him later. There will be interest from the cap space teams, but it won't get far. Ingram will be a Pelican unless somebody blows David Griffin away with a sign-and-trade offer.
The more interesting extension conversation will be had with Ball. He is technically eligible for one and will become a restricted free agent next offseason if he doesn't get it. That is probably the likelier outcome right now. Pegging Ball's value at the moment is nearly impossible given his frequent injuries and inconsistent performance. He has also changed representation several times over the past two years and is currently represented by Klutch Sports. They aren't exactly known for their willingness to compromise. Don't be surprised to hear Ball's name pop up in trade talks this offseason, but the Pelicans would probably prefer to keep him and play out the season.
Josh Hart is eligible for an extension now as well. Historically speaking, these are the sorts of deals that tend not to get done. A nice comp would be Malik Beasley in Denver. The Nuggets offered him $30 million over three years. He declined, and the Nuggets traded him. A trade isn't imminent here, but the situations are similar. Hart is a high-end bench player right now. He probably thinks he should be a long-term starter. The Pelicans aren't going to pay him to be one, and an offer in the range of the mid-level exception is probably all he'd get. Like most young players in that situation, he'll probably bet on himself, push for a bigger role in either New Orleans or elsewhere and earn a bigger contract.
And then we have the three internal free agents the Pelicans might consider keeping. Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson are relatively simple. They are both restricted, and should both come in just north of the minimum. Unless the Pelicans go out of their way to create cap space, don't expect any noise on this front. Derrick Favors, however, is a bit more complicated.
If the Pelicans want to win right now, keeping Favors is probably imperative. He was the most important player on the roster by plus-minus last season, as New Orleans was 8.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor vs. when he went to the bench. Not even Zion matches that total, and it was distributed fairly equally between offense and defense. The Pelicans have full Bird Rights here. Nobody is likely to offer more than the mid-level exception, and even if New Orleans uses their own mid-level exception, they could probably retain Favors and squeak under the tax line at the same time. They can offer the most money and they probably need him the most, at least in an immediate sense. So what's the holdup here?
Favors is 29 years old. He's probably at a point in his career in which he'd prefer to try to win right away. The Pelicans have the ability to push in that direction, but their purported interest in dealing Jrue Holiday suggests that they plan to take the scenic route. Speaking of which, they just drafted a center in the lottery last season. The 20-year-old Jaxson Hayes needs minutes. The Pelicans may well invest in a second center, but it would probably have to be one that can shoot in the interest of spacing the floor for Williamson. Favors doesn't. With that in mind, it's probably likelier than not that he leaves, though New Orleans could participate in a sign-and-trade if one presents itself.
That would still leave the Pelicans with a mid-level exception to dangle. There's no use in projecting targets until the Holiday situation is settled, but shooting of some kind is probably going to be the target. If New Orleans wants another veteran center but needs him to shoot, Aron Baynes or Marc Gasol would both fit in well.
Holiday's situation also muddies their cap future. At the moment, they technically do not owe a single dollar to any players for the 2021-22 season. That will obviously change when Williamson's option is picked up, Ingram re-signs and a number of other obvious moves are made officially. But max cap space in 2021 isn't off of the table here, depending on what comes back in the Holiday trade and what the Pelicans decide to do with Ball and Hart. Now, we can't realistically call them a destination yet, but it should be remembered that Williamson will be vastly underpaid until the 2023-24 season. If the Pelicans are in the playoffs by the 2022 offseason, they should be viewed as a serious threat for any max free agent hitting the market.
For now, they still have to build the sort of team that can recruit such a talent. The NBA Draft will play a big part in getting them there.
- 2020 picks: Nos. 13, 39, 42 and 60
- Owed future first-round picks: N/A
- Incoming future first-round picks: 2021 to from Lakers (protected 8-30, unprotected 2022), 2024 to from Lakers (unprotected, but Pelicans have the right to defer until 2025)
This is where New Orleans' optionality really comes into play. Having a bunch of young players can get messy when their skill-sets overlap. Having a bunch of young players in conjunction with overwhelming draft capital simplifies the equation greatly. Even without touching Holiday, the Pelicans could probably trade into any slot they want to in this draft. There's value in volume, but the real value of volume is choice. The Pelicans will be able to cherry-pick prospects for the next several years. That's built-in risk mitigation that other teams don't have. If New Orleans messes up a pick, they just move on to the next one.
And that isn't going to change. The Pelicans are in the lottery now. If they trade Holiday, they're probably staying there for at least a year. In the loaded Western Conference, they'll likely have another shot or two at a star purely organically. Combine those chances with the ones already on the roster, and it's a pretty safe bet that the Pelicans have multiple All-Stars in the somewhat near future. Ingram and Williamson might already be there.
But let's focus on the here and now. Whether the Pelicans stay put or move up, shooting is probably going to be a priority. The idea of uniting the Ball brothers is fun until you realize how much their skill sets overlap. That shooting can come from almost anywhere on the floor. The Pelicans don't really have a pure 3-and-D wing at the moment. Devin Vassell, Saddiq Bey, Aaron Nesmith and Desmond Bane all fit the bill. If they want to draft their Favors replacement at No. 13, watch out for Jalen Smith, the draft's best shooting big man (outside of home-run swing Aleksej Pokusevski). Don't rule out Tyrell Terry either. He has the sort of offensive upside the Pelicans could fall in love with and contrasts nicely with Ball at point guard. The Pelicans have a lot of work to do on defense as well, but that's a solvable problem later in the rebuild. For now, the focus is getting long-term pieces that make sense alongside Williamson, and that probably means shooting.
Those two high second-round picks are going to make the roster, and they're going to be best player available selections. This is a deep draft. One of them is probably going to make the rotation, but given the uncertainty of the second round, there's no reason to speculate on who they might take. The real action is coming on the trade market.
Holiday is the big-ticket item here, and we've covered possible trade packages the Pelicans could demand in-depth here. An alternative approach to weighing Holiday trades might be to start at what they need, or at least might target, and work backward.
- An attacking guard, Ball isn't a driver, at least at this point. He takes so many 3-pointers in large part to avoid going to the free-throw line. Ingram is more aggressive, but not by enough. He's remained a jump-shooter even if he's wisely converted many of his mid-range looks into 3's. Caris LeVert provides a nice alternative here, but that puts an awfully big burden on Ball and Ingram to maintain possibly unrealistic shooting numbers, not to mention Griffin to add a shooting center.
- A shooting center. If Zion ever becomes a good shooter, it probably means that something has gone wrong. The Pelicans don't want him wasting time on 3's. They want him attacking the basket, and optimizing that skill starts with spacing the floor properly. Favors and Hayes are invitations for double-teams. A Myles Turner-centric deal makes sense on a number of levels. Yes, he can shoot, but he also provides stellar rim-protection. Favors' work in that area is what kept the Pelicans afloat until Williamson returned. At 24, he's also young enough to age into his prime with the rest of this roster.
- More picks. It might seem counterintuitive, but consider this: Ingram is about to get expensive. Ball and Hart will a year later. Then, a year after that, Williamson, Hayes and Alexander-Walker all become extension-eligible. The Pelicans are cheap now, but won't be for long. A rookie comes with four years of cost-control. If the Pelicans think they can get comparable talent in the draft, it makes fiscal sense to take picks over players.
- Another star in his prime. This is the toughest sell given the timeline the rest of the roster is operating under, but winning now isn't a hard pivot with Favors' Bird Rights on the books. Zion's injury risk potentially makes a hard push the safer decision. Say, for instance, the Pelicans could spin the assets from a Holiday trade into a bigger offer for Bradley Beal. So far, nobody has been able to pry him loose from Washington. The Pelicans have the assets to change that. Williamson, Ingram and Beal is either a contention-caliber core right now, or it soon will be.
Each paragraph is less realistic than its predecessor. The Nets and Pacers stand out as the likeliest trade partners with those very players as the return. But it goes to show how many directions the Pelicans could potentially go. It seems like they're looking to go young, but that can mean any number of things.
That brings up the other very available Pelican: Redick. Keeping him is far easier to justify than Holiday because the opportunity cost is pretty limited. He isn't netting a core piece. He's on a reasonable contract, has a useful developmental skill (shooting) and is a great teammate. The Pelicans could easily just keep him, let his contract lapse and call it a day. But contenders will want Redick. Moving him also creates more minutes for the young players. Hart and Alexander-Walker could use more of them. So it's worth at least hearing what rival teams have to offer.
- If the Pelicans are at all willing to deal with the Lakers again, Danny Green and No. 28 for Redick is an easy deal that solves problems for both teams. The Lakers get the shooting upgrade they need. The Pelicans get the defensive upgrade they need.
- The 76ers would love Redick back. Making the money work is tough. Josh Richardson is too valuable to be dealt for Redick straight up. Would the Pelicans include draft compensation? Without Richardson, this would have to be a 4-for-1 deal cap-wise: Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, Furkan Korkmaz and a minimum. The 76ers would give up a pick as well.
- The Bucks need shooting, and Ersan Ilyasova plus D.J. Wilson works financially. This comes down to draft compensation.
The last trade candidate to mention here is Ball. Rumors have swirled since the bubble that he could be on the block, but building a deal is difficult on a number of levels. First, there's the specter of his extension. If they don't know what he's worth, neither does the rest of the league. There's also the matter of fit. Most teams have a primary ball-handler. Would teams be comfortable adding him as more of a wing than a point guard? Possibly, but demand is low here.
- The Knicks have needed a point guard for two decades, but the Ball family and the New York market would be a volatile combination. Ironically, Ball might be competing with his younger brother LaMelo here. The Knicks (probably) aren't targeting both. If they want the newer model, they have little reason to pursue the original.
- The Bulls are reportedly looking for a playmaker. Ball fits the bill. But what happens to Coby White and Zach LaVine, not to mention a possible guard at No. 4? Until that question gets answered, this isn't realistic.
- Phoenix has been linked to Fred VanVleet. Ball might not be the worst consolation prize. He's inferior as a shooter and defender, but could check some of the same boxes alongside Devin Booker.
- There isn't a sensible package, but Lonzo's defensive upside makes him a far better fit in Minnesota than his younger brother. Again, there just isn't a workable package here. The Timberwolves aren't giving up the No. 1 pick for him.
Such a trade at this point is unlikely. It flies in the face of what the 2020-21 season should be about for New Orleans: evaluation.
What would an ideal offseason look like?
Most of these previews have been specific about the best moves teams can make. There's no reason to be specific in New Orleans' case because the Pelicans aren't yet at a point in which winning is the priority. They have a new coach, an incredibly young roster and a war chest of assets that is only going to get bigger. Before the Pelicans can start getting specific, they need to figure out what exactly they have in the first place.
Turner is probably the best fit in a Holiday trade just because 3-and-D centers are so rare, but the real answer to the question of what Holiday should be traded for is "whatever the best offer winds up being." New Orleans can mix and match down the line. The priority for now is getting talent in the building. A Redick trade follows the same logic. If a good offer comes? Take it. If not? He still has developmental value. The No. 13 pick should be the best player on the board. Given the uncertainty in this draft class, there's a good chance they find a steal in that slot if they don't get too picky about where that player plays.
In a year, the Pelicans will have a better idea of how their current pieces fit together. But they've only seen Zion play 24 times. Making organization-defining moves with so little data just wouldn't be prudent. That's the same reason they shouldn't panic about Orlando. There are pieces here. For whatever reason, they didn't fit together in the bubble. Now is the time to figure out what the puzzle looks like two or three years down the line.