Quick, which two teams have three losing streaks of at least 8 games this season? One is the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been awful from start to finish. The other? It’s not the 76ers, or the Lakers, or the Jazz. It’s the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Pelicans possess the most valuable asset in professional basketball: a cost-controlled young superstar. Anthony Davis is by most measures a top-10, and possibly top-5, player in only his second season. He has exploded after an injury-plagued rookie season, and is one of only five players in the league to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. His company in the 20-10 club this year are all offensive centerpieces on their teams: Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, and LaMarcus Aldridge. None of them comes close to the 2.8 blocks per contest Davis averages, a mark good enough to lead the league.
Unfortunately, team success hasn’t yet followed the individual production. Aside from the three losing streaks (an admittedly cherry-picked stat – Philadelphia lost more games in their one notable losing streak than the Pelicans have in their three), New Orleans has struggled without Davis, going only 3-10 this season when he did not suit up. Injuries have played a big role (although maybe not Davis’ season-ending “back spasms”), but the talent surrounding him is an odd fit even, or maybe especially, when everyone is healthy.
During the last draft, the Pelicans swung a win-now trade, sending the 6th pick, which became Nerlens Noel, and a top 5 protected pick in the upcoming draft to the 76ers for point guard Jrue Holiday. Holiday himself isn’t a bad fit for this team – a strong defensive player and decent 3 point shooter fits well with the concept of giving Davis plenty of space to operate. The rest of the backcourt just doesn’t make a lot of sense together.
Eric Gordon has been constantly injured during his time with the team, and he likes to have the ball in his hands when he is on the court. At 6’3” he’s never going to be known for his wing defense, though he does a reasonable job using his strength to keep bigger players from running roughshod on him. He is at least a good shooter, but his durability is stunting his growth as a player. This season’s 64 games played was the 2nd most of his six-year career, and at over $14 million for each of the next three seasons, Gordon’s contract is a major liability.
Tyreke Evans’ addition to the backcourt may have been even more detrimental. He has actually played very well at points this year, posting a 20-5-6 in March, but his addition adds a 3rd major contract to the backcourt, and it’s not clear that any of these guys can play together. Evans’ renaissance came only after the other two guys went down with injuries and he was able to dominate the ball.
At least one of them will need to go, but each has a high-priced, long-term contract attached to them. Naturally, the best fit of the bunch, Holiday, also has the most team-friendly contract.
The backcourt issues are only one of the problems facing the front office. There are major questions about Davis’ long-term position, and the answers to those questions will have a big impact on how the frontcourt is built. Davis played primarily power forward in his rookie season, but has been seeing more time at center this year. The team has durability concerns with making him a full time center, but if he is able to handle the matchups and occasional size disadvantages it will makes things a lot easier on the front office.
Ryan Anderson, who has missed most of the season with injuries, is a great offensive counterpart to Davis thanks to his unabashed launching from deep. He has taken at least 7 threes per 36 minutes in each season of his career except for his rookie year, and he hits them at a solid clip. That sort of thing does wonders to open up the offense for everyone else and frustrate opposing defenses. With Davis at center, Anderson can slot nicely in at power forward and the two can create matchup nightmares for any opponent. Even if the answer isn’t Anderson, it’s just generally easier to find a cheap option at power forward than it is at center.
It’s worth it for the front office to decide on a course of action now, because they need to start unraveling some of the mess they’ve got on their hands quickly. Davis has two more years on his rookie deal, and based on how things are going he has a good chance of being eligible for the 7-9 year max contract afforded to players coming off their rookie deals who meet certain criteria, such as being an All-Star starter, winning the MVP, or making multiple All-NBA teams. It’s the last of those that Davis has a good shot of getting, and once that happens they lose a lot of potential cap flexibility moving forward.
Once that contract takes effect, the heat will be on for the Pelicans to prove that this is where Davis should spend the entirety of his career. That means surrounding him with winning talent; the current roster isn’t it. There’s plenty of talent there, but too much money is tied up in guys who have too many flaws. Holiday and Anderson are both keepers, assuming they come back strong from injuries, but they may need to be unloaded in trades to improve the team in other areas (or to get rid of one of the bad contracts).
The needs for New Orleans are again dependent on how they view Davis. If he is going to play power forward, they need to look at moving Anderson for a solid defensive center (*cough* Omer Asik *cough*). If Davis can play center general frontcourt depth is a must.
On the perimeter, a small forward who can shoot and play a little defense would be a dramatic upgrade over the non-shooting ways of Al-Farouq Aminu. Any defensive improvements would be a plus given that the Pelicans are a bottom 5 team in defensive efficiency, even with a shot blocking beast roaming the paint. These defensive shortcomings will warrant a scheme update – not all of the blame falls on the players.
The guard rotation is its own issue. Without a stroke of luck the team is going to have to bite hard and find a trade for Gordon and/or Evans. They won’t get a lot back, but if they can avoid taking on too much long-term salary there should be enough roster flexibility and talent with the remaining guys to make a push for the playoffs.
Davis’s improvement may seem like a blessing now, but the clock is ticking. If New Orleans can’t start making the kinds of adjustments that will maximize his talents and get the team into the annual playoff hunt they could find themselves in the same situation that the Minnesota Timberwolves are in with Love – on the verge of losing a true franchise player.