We’ve heard a lot about the positives of the New Orleans Pelicans’ young team, which makes sense; the youth, speed, athleticism, length and defensive potential of the group lend to an extraordinarily exciting and fun basketball team. Pelicans fans will soon begin to see their team topping “Best League Pass Teams” lists, which is refreshing for a fanbase that desperately needed an asylum from the state of monotonous misery it’s been trapped in since Anthony Davis demanded a trade. General manager extraordinaire David Griffin has provided that asylum, putting his brilliance on display in the Davis trade, creating more intrigue surrounding this young squad than has ever existed around a Pelicans team.
We have heard less about the flaws of this group, and that is totally fair. This young nucleus of Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes, Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker – led by the tremendous veteran guard Jrue Holiday – is extremely fun. Smoothie King Center should be fuller than last season, and that’s the most important thing. Fans will come in droves to watch these kids get out in transition, block shots and toss up lobs to Zion Williamson, whose ability to float more than jump is reminiscent of Michael Jordan.
This is going to be an exciting and fun brand of basketball, and that is important. It’s precisely what a struggling team, ever-overshadowed by its handsomer, more successful and more talented older brother – who resides across the street in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome – needs.
Fun is important. Fun can put butts in seats and save a franchise that felt doomed right up until the draft lottery. Eventually, however, fun won’t be enough. Eventually, you need to win. And that means becoming a well-rounded team. It’s not like the Pelicans need to win right away. With a team this young, there should be zero pressure team to win or compete for a playoff spot in Year 1.
But how cool would it be if they did?
What if they came out and and did better than a humdrum 27-win season, like the one they had in Davis’ rookie year?
This is a group that has legitimate talent. Holiday is an All-Star-level guard on both sides of the ball. Hayes is somewhat of a project but has great instincts as a shot-blocker and the makings of a rim-running center.
Ball, Williamson and Ingram were all top-two draft picks. Ball is a special passer and a fearsome defender. Ingram possesses rare length and has some chops as a scorer. Williamson is… Well, he’s Zion. He’s like if the Hulk wasn’t green and had Pogo sticks for legs. Plus, he’s also an intelligent basketball player who makes good reads and can operate in either side of the pick and roll.
Those five guys are probably the projected starting lineup right now, and that’s problematic if the goal is to win games. The fatal flaw of this team is an obvious one: none of these dudes can shoot.
Let’s run down the list of those guys and their track records from 3-point range. Ball is a career 31.5% shooter. Holiday is a career 35.5% shooter but hasn’t even hit the 34% mark in either of the past two seasons. Ingram is at 32.9% for his career and has only attempted 1.8 3s a game for both of the past two seasons. Williamson shot 33.8% from the closer college arc, and he won’t be taking outside shots unless he’s left wide open (which he will be, to be fair; teams will be begging him to shoot). And then there’s Hayes, whose soft touch and adequate free-throw percentage lend to the belief he may someday develop a 3-point shot, but we’re talking about the present, and Hayes attempted zero shots from deep in his lone season at Texas.
Shooting is essential in today’s NBA, and that is especially true when the focal point of your offense is a non-shooter. We’ve seen the formula, and it’s a simple one: Surround the star with shooters, play a lot of five-out and let your bulldozer go to work. Space the floor so opposing defenses can’t afford to help on him, and if they do, he has shooters to kick it to. Last season’s Milwaukee Bucks are a perfect example. They accrued an armada of shooters with whom to surround Giannis Antetokounmpo: Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova. Having seven really good shooters to put around one of the best players in the world is why the Bucks finished with the best record in the league last season.
The Pelicans don’t have seven really good shooters. They have one. E’Twaun Moore is the only player on the roster we know is a great shooter in the NBA. He shot 43.2% from deep last season and 42.5% the one before. Hart, whom the Pelicans acquired in the Davis trade, can shoot, but the question is how well. He shot an impressive 39.6% from 3 as a rookie but followed that up with a disappointing sophomore campaign that saw his percentage plummet to 33.6%.
The necessity of spacing isn’t something that needs to be argued for – this is more fact than opinion. Shooting is vital in the NBA today, especially when the focal point of your offense can’t provide it. The days of a non-shooting power forward-center combination are over. The Tim Duncan-David Robinson duo just isn’t something you see today.
New Orleans has an incredible new power forward in Williamson, but he’s a unique player, and therefore his supporting cast will need to be delicately constructed. The most important question is this: What sort of center is optimal to pair in the frontcourt with Williamson?
The answer is one who can stretch the floor but also protect the rim, so the 6-foot-7 Williamson knows he has that shot-blocker behind him. That is a rare and coveted archetype of big man. New Orleans is likely hoping Hayes develops into that sort of player, but if he is ever develops a reliable outside shot, it probably won’t happen for years. So, if the Pelicans want any shot at being a competitive basketball team in the early years of the Zion era, they’re going to have to look for other options. Here are eight:
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Vucevic had an career year in 2018-19, making his first All-Star Game and averaging 20.8 points and 12 rebounds per game. Vucevic wouldn’t be a bad option, for New Orleans, but he’s going to be incredibly expensive after last season, and he’s not a good or mobile enough defender to warrant the price tag, although Williamson’s agility would certainly help cover for him. Vooch shot a respectable 36.4% from 3-point range on 2.9 tries a game.
Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
At age 34, Millsap doesn’t fit the Pelicans’ timeline at all. But, spoiler alert, neither do a couple of other guys on this list, and that’s fine. Holiday isn’t on this team’s timeline either, so the Pelicans might want to look into acquiring some established veteran talent – like Millsap, for example – before Holiday decides he’d like to request a trade. After all, at age 29, Holiday is heading toward the wrong side of 30 and may not prefer to wait for all these kids to mature into winning players. He might want to contribute to winning basketball while he still can.
Millsap, even at his age, is a great defender and made 36.5% of his 3-point tries a season ago. He would help New Orleans win for the next couple of seasons, and would greatly enhance the team’s odds at a playoff push. Meanwhile, he’d be a great mentor for Hayes and Williamson.
The Nuggets have yet to make a public decision on Millsap’s $30 million option.
Mohamed Bamba, Orlando Magic
Bamba, the sixth pick in the 2018 draft, had a quiet rookie season, which should lower his cost, especially if Orlando ends up bringing back Vucevic.
The Pelicans are taking a shot on Hayes, hoping he’ll be the center they’re looking to put next to Williamson. So why not take the same shot on Bamba, especially if the asking price is low? Bamba is further along as a shooter than Hayes; he attempted 70 3-pointers as a rookie, sinking 21 of them – a 30% clip. That’s not amazing, but it’s definitely a sign of more to come. Bamba only played 16.3 minutes a game over 47 contests as a rookie, and he’d have more minutes in New Orleans, a team that doesn’t have an All-Star at his position.
5. Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
The state of the Raptors next season depends entirely on Kawhi Leonard. Gasol opted into his $25 million player option, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday. Despite Gasol opting in, Toronto could look to move him if they lose Leonard in free agency. At that point, blowing things up by trading Kyle Lowry, Gasol and Danny Green to contenders, and building around youngsters Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, would make more sense than trying to compete without Leonard
Gasol would be a great fit next to Williamson. He’s an excellent screener and passer who shot 36.3% from 3-point range last season. Like Millsap, he’s too old to make sense as a permanent solution, but he would give the Pelicans a couple of years of impactful play and would bide time to develop Hayes or figure out another option.
4. Dewayne Dedmon, Atlanta Hawks
Dedmon will be an under-the-radar, yet lusted-after, target this summer. Dedmon played 25.1 minutes per game a season ago for the Atlanta Hawks, starting in 52 of 64 games he played in. His rim-protecting numbers haven’t been outstanding these past two seasons in Atlanta, but his block percentage bordered on elite for most of his career before that, in Orlando and San Antonio, according to Cleaning The Glass. He provides a big body and is a good rebounder who is quite nimble for his size. Dedmon had probably his best season in 2018-19, averaging 10.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 38.2% from downtown on 3.4 attempts per game. Dedmon is a good player, and at 29 (he turns 30 in August), he’d provide a veteran presence while still being young enough to make sense next to the rest of the team.
3. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
No center in the NBA has fewer reservations about shooting 3-pointers than Brook Lopez. He’s the only center ever to shoot five or more 3-pointers a game over a season, and he’s done that twice, including last season, when he attempted 6.3 per contest, connecting on a career-high 36.5% of them while also averaging a career-best 2.2 blocks per game, a number that ranked fourth in the NBA. Sounds perfect, right? The only reason Lopez isn’t higher up on this list: He thrived in the Bucks’ system, and he probably won’t want to leave. The Bucks clearly want him back, and the move to trade Tony Snell to Detroit was probably an attempt to clear a little more room for him. With that said, you never know. Lopez took way less money than he was worth last year, and maybe he’s looking to get paid this summer. The Pelicans have more cap space than the Bucks do.
2. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
If you’re the Pelicans, why not throw your hat in the ring? Horford has been an exceptional mentor for the young Celtics, and his taciturn veteran leadership is precisely what the Pelicans need. On the floor, Horford is just about all you could ask for. He’s unselfish, has a rare understanding of the game, is a great passer, can stretch the floor and can switch on defense. He’d be a great fit with the Pelicans. The only knock, aside from his age, is his size. Generously listed at 6 feet, 10 inches and not blessed in the leaping department, Horford isn’t an elite rim protector. Still, his smarts and timing make him no slouch in that area.
1. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have given no hints that they’re looking to move Turner, so this might be a pipe dream. But the frontcourt was crowded last season, with Turner sharing time with Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young. Young will probably find a new home in free agency, but the Pacers drafted a center in Goga Bitadze. Bitadze is really good and ready to play now. He is a hard screener who can swat away shots and space the floor, and he makes good reads as a post passer. Come to think of it, if the Pacers don’t want to part with Turner, maybe New Orleans could make an offer for Bitadze.
Turner is one of the first players to come to mind when you think about the shot-blocking/shooting archetype of center, although he’s still too hesitant to let it fly from deep. He has yet to attempt three or more 3-pointers per game in a season. He could take notes from Lopez.
Still, Turner is only 23 years old, which means he’d instantly become a part of that young Pelicans core going forward. Turner led the NBA in blocks per game last season, with 2.7, and notched career-highs in 3-point attempts per game (2.6) and 3-point percentage (38.8%).
Piquing Indiana’s interest in a Turner deal would require a substantial offer. Perhaps Ball, E’Twaun Moore and a pick or two could get talks started. The Pacers need a point guard. The Pelicans could survive flipping Ball for a guy like Turner, who fills a much larger position of need. The Ball-Holiday backcourt is exciting to consider, but replacing Ball with Hart (or Moore, if they could find a way to keep him, which would be difficult for salary reasons), plus adding Turner, would do wonders for the Pels’ spacing.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise noted