The Pelicans could make sweeping changes or small ones this offseason. They could break the bank with big moves or reshuffle the roster with meaningful miniature ones.
The one thing they can’t do is stand pat.
At least that’s the way Kenny Smith sees it.
“There’s got to be a mix-up,” said Smith, the TNT analyst and 10-year NBA veteran. “You can’t not make the playoffs and then stay the same. Unless you had 10 rookies on your team, you can’t stay the same.”
After a disastrous, injury-plagued, 30-52 season, New Orleans enters its offseason with a sense of urgency. There are roster holes to fill. There are significant free-agent decisions to be made. There are legitimate questions about the franchise’s ability to get back on track after a playoff appearance in 2015.
This time a year ago, the Pelicans were coming off a 45-37 season and a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of eventual NBA champion Golden State. Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry replaced fired head coach Monty Williams, and the future looked bright.
The key pieces of that roster returned in 2015-16, but they sometimes looked like bad fits in Gentry’s system — when they could even get on the court. New Orleans lost 351 games to injury and illness, and though the Pelicans took a step back, it sometimes was hard to tell just how far.
“We did not have that team, so it’s hard to say how close or how far away we are,” Gentry said. “That team was never on the floor. Not one minute together. So I don’t know if you can say, ‘Boy, we’re really close,’ or, ‘God, we’re far away.’ We never saw that team this year.”
What’s clear, though, is that the Pelicans can’t afford a repeat of this season if they hope to have any momentum in building around franchise forward Anthony Davis.
And that makes the coming months — the NBA draft in June, the start of free agency in July — critical for a team that figures to have some flexibility.
What to do
New Orleans has significant needs and, with a lottery pick and potential salary-cap space, the means to make some changes.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an overhaul,” Smith said.
But upgrades are necessary.
Offensively, if the Pelicans plan to stick with Gentry’s system, predicated on ball and player movement and sharing the ball, they need more weapons around Davis.
“If they’re going to run Gentry’s system, they got to get shooters,” NBA.com analyst Sekou Smith said. “And not just one or two. They’ve got to get a team full of guys who can shoot the basketball, guys you can count on that, when that ball’s not in Anthony Davis’ hands, it’s in the hands of somebody that’s a threat.”
The Pelicans made 8.6 3-pointers per game last season, 13th in the NBA. But 35 percent of their 3-point baskets came from forward Ryan Anderson and guard Eric Gordon, both free agents who might not return next season.
New Orleans averaged 22.2 assists (17th in the league) and 293.2 passes per game (19th), and Gentry would like both numbers to improve. The Pelicans averaged 97.91 possessions per 48 minutes, 11th-most in the NBA, and Gentry’s goal is to play faster.
But while the Pelicans search for offensive upgrades, they also have to focus on finding players who perform at the other end of the court. New Orleans gave up 107.3 points per 100 possessions, third-most in the league.
“They’ve got to make a commitment to try to play defense at a high level at the same time, which is not easy to do, of course,” Sekou Smith said. “That’s why you’ve got the Warriors and everybody else.”
That’s a lot of change. It’s going to cost some serious cash.
How to do it
New Orleans’ easiest — and perhaps lowest-cost — path to adding a contributor is through the draft. The Pelicans will have a top-nine pick, though the exact spot won’t be determined until the May 17 draft lottery.
Before the Pelicans can do much on the free-agent market, they’ll have to make decisions on some critical pieces of the roster.
New Orleans has significant salary cap holds — essentially, placeholders reflecting the cost of re-signing their own free agents — on Gordon and Anderson.
If both players walk in free agency, the Pelicans will have some $20 million to work with in free-agent spending. Their maximum available cap space is about $23 million, in the bottom 10 in the league.
New Orleans also could create space via trades. Or the Pelicans could use the stretch provision to waive a player under contract and spread out the cost of his salary-cap hit over multiple seasons.
Whatever the strategy, if the Pelicans lose Anderson and Gordon, they’ll have enough cap space to offer to an A-list free agent.
But that might not be the Pelicans’ best route back to respectability.
Sekou Smith pointed to Charlotte and Portland, who reached the playoffs this season not with flashy free-agent moves but “guys who were good fits.” The trick is knowing the league and identifying those ideal pieces.
In this crucial offseason, that might be the most critical factor.
“If you’re the Pelicans, you have to get a sound front-office structure that allows you to go out there and examine the league and see what’s out there and really understand what you’re doing when you’re going out chasing free agents,” he said. “Not the big-money free agents, but the building-block, simple, mundane free agents. I don’t know if they’ve got that right now.”
Possible trade pieces
If they don’t re-sign forward Ryan Anderson, the Pelicans figure to have significant cap room in the offseason. But they also could explore the trade market. Potential trade candidates:
Tyreke Evans: Evans is one of New Orleans’ most talented players, and the Pelicans were better with him on the floor than off it. But even in a small sample size (25 games before a season-ending injury), there’s a sense his ball-dominating style isn’t a good fit with Alvin Gentry’s ball-movement offense. With only one year left on a reasonable contract, Evans could be moved, if the Pels can find a trade partner.
Alexis Ajinca: The Pelicans lack assets, but Ajinca’s strong play down the stretch in extended minutes — and a good contract that looks even better with a new, higher salary cap — make him a moveable part.
Omer Asik: In a perfect world, the Pelicans likely would look to ship Asik, whose contract — he’s locked up through 2020 on a deal that will pay him about $44 million — is one of the worst in the league. They say there are no untradeable contracts in the NBA, but it’s unlikely there’s a taker for Asik’s.
Free agent targets
The Pelicans have needs — and potentially money to spend to fill them — and they figure to target mostly free agents on the wing and in the backcourt. A look at some prime free-agent targets:
Oklahoma City Thunder | Small forward
Yes, the Pelicans have Kendrick Perkins, who keeps in contact with the Oklahoma City star. Yes, pairing Durant with Anthony Davis has absurd offensive potential. But New Orleans never has attracted a free agent of this caliber, and given all Durant’s options, the Pelicans don’t look like his best bet for long-term title contention.
Dallas Mavericks | Small forward
Like Durant, Parsons can opt out of his current contract and become a free agent. He’s a deadeye 3-point shooter who would give the Pelicans a perimeter threat they lack, but even if he hits the market — he told reporters after the Mavericks were eliminated from the playoffs that he wasn’t sure if he’d opt out — he’ll be in high demand.
Charlotte Hornets | Small forward
Batum’s stock skyrocketed this season in Charlotte, and it’s hard to envision a better two-way talent at small forward for a New Orleans team that needs a playmaker and a defensive upgrade. The trick here is the competition. Batum will have a long list of suitors.
Atlanta Hawks | Shooting guard
Always a terrific defender, Bazemore is coming into his own offensively (he averaged 11.6 points per game this season). As importantly, he’d bring the kind of consistent energy the Pelicans sometimes lacked this season.
Miami Heat | Shooting guard
Players tend to want to stay in Miami, where the organization has built a first-rate reputation. But Johnson has shown since joining the Heat that he has plenty to offer any team, shooting 41 percent from 3-point range in 24 games.
Charlotte Hornets | Shooting guard
The journeyman averaged 10 points in 51 games for Memphis this season and 8.9 in 29 games with the Hornets. His career effective field-goal percentage — which takes into account the relative value of 2-point and 3-point baskets — is 51.3, and he would bring a wealth of playoff experience.
Under the radar
Indiana Pacers | Small forward
Hill’s playing time and production decreased this season in Indiana, but he’s seen as a player who could thrive in the kind of uptempo system Alvin Gentry prefers. He averaged 10.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per 36 minutes this season and could be a solid pickup at a bargain.
Chicago Bulls | Shooting guard
The 27-year-old is coming off one of his better seasons, and he’s a respectable 36.9 percent career 3-point shooter. Moore won’t command the kind of money some players on this list will, but he could be a second-tier steal in free agency.
Sacramento Kings | Point guard
A cerebral point guard can take Gentry’s system into overdrive, and there might not be a smarter one in the NBA than Rondo. But the moody veteran could be a locker-room risk, and he’s no longer the high-level defender he was in Boston.
Washington Wizards | Point guard
He’s 30 years old, but the Pelicans like veterans, and Sessions can play either guard position, provide scoring off the bench and initiate offense. Though he’s an inconsistent 3-point shooter, he’s been a reliable backup guard for eight seasons.
Golden State Warriors | Small forward
Is Barnes a product of the talent around him or a key cog who could thrive in a larger role elsewhere? Plenty of teams figure to ask. The 6-foot-8 Barnes is coming off his best scoring season and is a 37.6 percent career shooter from 3-point range. He figures to command max-contract money, but the Warriors have the option to match.
Orlando Magic | Shooting guard
The Magic likely will match any offer to Fournier, and it’s easy to see why. He’s coming off a career-best season in which he shot 46.2 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range and 83.6 percent from the free-throw line.
Houston Rockets | Power forward
Jones has been injury prone and is coming off a disappointing season, but he’s always struggled to find regular minutes in the Rockets’ frontcourt. Could he thrive in a new environment, playing alongside college teammate Anthony Davis? And would the Rockets match any offer?