Apr 17, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin during an introductory press conference at the New Orleans Pelicans facility.

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Dunlap: Pelicans would be making huge mistake trading No. 4 pick for rent-a-player

Should the Pelicans focus on adding more young talent instead?

Seth Dunlap
June 17, 2019 - 7:53 pm
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With the New Orleans Pelicans coming in consensus winners in the Anthony Davis trade, focus has now turned to just how they’ll use the pile of assets they acquired in that deal from the Los Angeles Lakers.  Chiefly, whether they’ll keep or trade the No. 4 overall pick in this week’s NBA Draft.

There’s a coalescing of opinion around the country that the Pelicans should look to move that selection in return for a veteran player than can improve their roster immediately.  That’s a bit of an odd flex to turn a youth rebuilding project into a campaign to win more games in the short-term, and that strategy could help derail their long-term goals of eventually winning a championship.

While it may be obvious, it’s worth noting that the Pelicans aren’t in a position to compete for an NBA title immediately.  In fact, they don’t appear to be all that close in a still-loaded Western Conference.  The Lakers are now the title favorites, and have (at least) $23 million in cap space to add pieces around Davis, LeBron James, and Kyle Kuzma.  The Golden State Warriors will still be a force next season even without Kevin Durant and, for most of the season, Klay Thompson.  Houston still has the trio of James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela.  Denver and Portland should be in a position to repeat their deep playoff runs.

The Pelicans’ young core of Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart should pair nicely with Jrue Holiday.  However, none of those players reached the playoffs last year on their respective teams.  It’s one heck of a leap to now believe that group is just a player or two away from holding membership in the Western Conference’s country club.

Long-term contention should be the Pelicans focus, and it certainly seems like Griffin is building his franchise with that in mind.  The team currently has only one player who has passed their 30th birthday, and may head into the season with a roster where only Jrue Holiday, who turned 29 earlier this month, would be the only player over the age of 25 getting consistent, significant minutes. 

Zion will need time to develop and acclimate himself to the NBA game.  Ball and Ingram are nice players, but will need to develop a rapport with Williamson, Holiday and learn head coach Alvin Gentry’s system.  It will likely be years before the Pelicans will legitimately be in a place to make a run at the Western Conference’s superpowers.  Adding a veteran rent-a-player or two isn’t going to change that.  With their bevvy of first round picks over the next four seasons – seven to be exact – they will have multiple opportunities to find additional support for this core, and may even land an unexpected star or two among that bunch.

Why, then, would the Pelicans hamper that process by shipping away draft picks for a player who can only help them in the immediate.  Trading the No. 4 pick for, say, Bradley Beal or Aaron Gordon just doesn’t make sense.  Forget any assurances potential trade targets may make about their desire to sign long term with New Orleans.  Those assurances are now meaningless, especially considering we’re just months past Kyrie Irving telling Celtics fans on an open mic that he plans to re-sign with the team, then about-facing soon after.

There’s no doubt that the addition of Beal, an exceptional shooting guard for the Wizards, or Gordon, a nice young forward for the Magic, or a slew of other targets would improve the team’s win total over the next couple of seasons.  But the Pelicans would begin to feel the sting of those trades just as Williamson is hopefully developing into one of the world’s best players.  

Beal has two years of team control left on his contract before he enters unrestricted free agency.  Gordon has three.  The Pelicans will run into similar issues with every other veteran target that they’ll pursue.  It’s really hard to go with a true youth-movement if you’re sacrificing that youth for temporary gains in the win column – gains that won’t help you achieve any of your long term goals.

The Pelicans also don’t have a need for a respected, veteran locker room presence to help groom their young players.  Holiday is under contract for three more seasons, and there’s perhaps no more well-respected player in the league than the former UCLA product.  If Holiday can’t help develop the young players on this roster then guys like Beal or Gordon certainly won’t. 

Even if whatever veteran player did eventually want to sign a new long-term deal in New Orleans, that would only handcuff the franchise financially.  The Pelicans don’t have the financial resources of major-market teams like the Lakers, Warriors, or Celtics.  While owner Gayle Benson has indicated the franchise would go past the luxury tax threshold if they felt the team was close to winning a title, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to spend Golden State-level of money in tax.  Offering a player approaching his 30s a massive, long-term deal would hamper their ability to re-sign part of their young core later.

If there’s a move to be made with the No. 4 pick, perhaps it’s trading back in this draft to acquire extra first-round selections.  The Chicago Bulls, who hold the No. 7 pick, have reportedly expressed interest in moving up to that spot.  There are also rumors that Atlanta, with picks No. 8 and No. 10, would like to move up.   In a draft where the talent beyond the top-three players has been evaluated relatively equally, it would make sense to move back if possible and bring in even more young talent to surround Williamson with.

The Pelicans have positioned themselves to grow into an NBA behemoth in the not-too-distant future.  That will take exceptional development and sensational talent evaluation, along with their fair share of luck along the way.  But most of all, it will require extreme patience from those running the franchise.

Dell Demps, the team’s previous general manager, spent years trading away young players and draft picks in a misguided effort to win more games in the short term.  There was no true path to immediate championship contention then either, but Demps saw higher win totals as the only way to energize an apathetic fan base.  Those plans backfired spectacularly, and the franchise spent the entire Anthony Davis era mummified in irrelevancy.  Now, some people want to repeat the mistakes of the previous regime?

Haven’t New Orleans basketball fans learned their lesson yet?

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