Update 17 June 2019: The Pelicans have reportedly traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round picks, and a pick swap. You can find my full analysis of that deal here.
The below article was published on June 1 and therefore does not take into account the Davis trade.
Whether in or out of their control, the New Orleans Pelicans have gotten just about everything right with the early part of their offseason. They were able to nab the best executive on the market in David Griffin and fell into the No. 1 overall pick on lottery night, giving them the chance to replace the outgoing Anthony Davis with Zion Williamson, who is perhaps the best prospect to come into the league since New Orleans was able to draft Davis back in 2012. Owner Gayle Benson has shown multiple times that she’s willing to spend on the Pelicans; from hiring Griffin to poaching Aaron Nelson from the Phoenix Suns’ training staff to upgrading their practice facility, Benson has said and done all the right things so far to give any observer confidence that she’s willing to do what it takes to turn the Pelicans into a strong club.
Griffin’s early days with the club have gone swimmingly, with the lottery gods smiling upon them to grant them the chance to draft Williamson and build around him for the better part of the next decade. The honeymoon period may be coming to an end, however, as the Davis trade demand hovers over everything about their upcoming offseason. Griffin met with Davis earlier this week, but it’s been made clear by Davis’s people that he still wants out of New Orleans and is “highly unlikely” to change his stance.
Where Griffin and the Pelicans go with their offseason depends heavily on the return for Davis. There are millions of permutations of different trades for the young superstar, with multiple teams sure to be in on negotiations and a variety of different options on the table for New Orleans to consider.
From a big-picture perspective, the Pelicans can approach the Davis negotiations from a strong point of clarity. Obviously, moving up in the lottery was a massive success for the club because of the particular player they will be bringing in to be the new face of the franchise, but an ancillary benefit of their lottery luck is that they have a much clearer picture of what the next version of their team will be in the wake of Davis’s exit. Williamson is the centerpiece around which Griffin will build the club over the next several years, so any potential package he receives for Davis must have players who fit Williamson’s timeline as well as future draft capital to continue to put pieces around their new star.
The trades that have been widely discussed in the media in recent months have all been of this ilk; whether it’s the Lakers’, Knicks’ or Celtics’ combination of young players and draft picks, nearly every feasible trade involving those big-market teams have been, generally, trades that will still make sense for the Pelicans now that they will have Williamson in the fold. The Lakers and Knicks can construct packages surrounding their respective top 4 picks in the upcoming draft, while Boston’s potential offering could include a number of lesser selections and one (or more) of their players already under contract, who are better than most of whom Los Angeles and New York can offer in that department.
New Orleans’ leap in the lottery will probably push a few teams out of conversations, from the perspective that the Pelicans are now no longer looking to quickly retool to get back into contention. Rather than being left with Jrue Holiday, the ninth overall pick, and E’Twaun Moore as their core in a post-Davis world, Williamson is now the entire orbit of the organization, which likely precludes them from taking a deal similar to what San Antonio decided upon for Kawhi Leonard last offseason. The Spurs wanted to quickly turn things around and get back into the playoffs, something for which young players and future picks are usually not useful, so they ended up with DeMar DeRozan, a proven veteran player who was able to help the Spurs continue their decades-long playoff streak, as the centerpiece of the deal. New Orleans may have previously thought about a direction like that, considering some of the other veterans they have under contract for next season, but now that Williamson has fallen into their laps, they’ll be looking for a deal that helps them build around his particular timeline.
Building around a superstar is never an easy task, but Griffin won’t have to deal with many financial challenges in the process, unless, of course, he creates them for himself over the next few years. Solomon Hill’s relatively onerous contract comes off the books after the 2019-20 season (and they may be able to move him alongside Davis, if they so choose), leaving just Williamson and Holiday as players with contracts that last beyond next season. Holiday does make quite a bit of money, but his versatility in both defensive position and offensive role make him a very valuable player, whether New Orleans wants to hold onto him or make another deal. He can defend either guard spot and is coming off a second consecutive All-Defensive team nod. He’s a strong offensive player as well, with the ability to play both on- and off-ball within the flow of head coach Alvin Gentry’s offense. An accomplished slasher and playmaker, he and Williamson should fit together very nicely on both ends of the court.
The short-term task for Griffin includes no fewer than five partially and non-guaranteed contracts, three of which should be viewed as solid bench contributors for the Pelicans next season. Frank Jackson’s $1.6 million contract is already guaranteed for roughly $500,000; he should be a useful guard off the bench behind Holiday next season before New Orleans can make him a restricted free agent in 2020. Christian Wood was picked up off waivers late in the year after Milwaukee had to cut him to make room for Pau Gasol and doesn’t have a dime guaranteed on his deal until opening night, so they can keep him around for the summer and make that decision later on. He’s played precious few NBA minutes in his three years in the league but can prove he belongs with a strong summer and preseason. Kenrich Williams is the crown jewel of this group and should be a part of the team’s rotation next season almost no matter what. He put together a strong rookie year in 2018-19 in the minutes he did earn and plays a position of need for the Pelicans on the wing.
Julius Randle’s player option decision will be due by the end of June; he can lock in $9.1 million if he’d like to stay in New Orleans or he can test free agency for a second consecutive year. He had a very strong season on the offensive end of the floor, though teams will be very hesitant to offer him starter money with his defensive weaknesses. $9.1 million feels just about right for Randle’s services, so his decision will likely come down to whether he wants to be in New Orleans and sees a significant role for himself after Williamson’s arrival. Randle’s decision will bring with it some clarity to the Pelicans’ big man rotation for the 2019-20 season, as it’s hard to imagine he’ll opt in without a relatively strong promise from the organization that he’ll be a starter alongside Williamson.
Whether Randle is back or not, a priority for the Pelicans this offseason has to be a true Anchor big man. Williamson and Randle both play similar roles as power forwards who can play some small ball 5, but there will be a need for New Orleans to have a true center on the roster capable of stepping into the starting lineup against certain teams and playing big minutes at the 5 if need be. Given Williamson’s skills offensively, the ideal player can anchor the defense in the middle and space the floor offensively. Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon comes to mind as a very nice fit next to Williamson, for example, as would Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, if Griffin can pry him away from the Bucks.
New Orleans has a perpetual need for wings, though the positional flexibility of Holiday and Moore make things easier if they’d rather go with a point guard and bump those two up a position defensively. There aren’t many starting wings on the market this summer who will be in the Pelicans’ price range, though perhaps the return from a Davis trade will bring one to New Orleans; whether it’s Brandon Ingram and/or Josh Hart from Los Angeles, Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown from Boston, or R.J. Barrett or Jarrett Culver from New York (depending where they go with No. 3 on June 20), all of Davis’s most likely suitors will bring a starting-level wing back to New Orleans, alongside a number of other players to fill out their rotation.
New Orleans’ offseason has half of its definition already set; they’ll take Williamson with the first pick in the draft without hesitation and thank their lucky stars that the lottery fell their way for a second generational prospect in the last seven years. The second half remains to be seen, as Davis still looks to be itching for a move elsewhere and likely will not change his mind no matter how well Griffin pitches his vision. Griffin has previous experience with Davis’s representation, as well, given that fellow Rich Paul client LeBron James played for and won a championship with Griffin in Cleveland just three years ago. The return for Davis will go a long way toward setting the tone for the Pelicans’ immediate and long-term future and should be nearly entirely focused around putting good fits around Williamson’s strengths and weaknesses. They aren’t likely to have a lot of financial flexibility this summer, depending on the Davis trade, but their future flexibility should give them an opportunity to fill in the gaps on their roster over the next few years and do as well as they can to build a contender around Williamson the way they were unable to do around Davis.