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Do the Pelicans Have Enough to Keep Anthony Davis Happy?

New Orleans will have its superstar for at least the next four years, but the clock is ticking for actual progress

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Pelicans are on the clock. It’s set to expire when Anthony Davis exercises his option to become a free agent in 2020, the year Kanye West becomes president and Apple finds the courage to remove the iPhone’s speakers. Sure, it feels distant, but NBA front offices plan years in advance to position themselves to acquire or retain stars like Davis. Before time runs out, the Pelicans must surround Davis with enough talent to entice him to stay in New Orleans.

But this won’t be a quick fix. The Pelicans aren’t armed to sign or trade for the next available superstar. Incremental progress must occur by making subtle changes that lead to playoff contention, with internal player improvement that makes the roster more appealing to star talent. Davis was expected to make the MVP-level leap last year, but the team’s catastrophic run of injuries over the past few seasons inhibited the team’s development, and Davis’s as well. It’s impossible for a team to grow together when it can’t play together. They were so wounded that Nate Robinson and Jimmer Fredette donned Pelicans uniforms. But it’s not like the chaos caused Davis to fall off: He still averaged 24 and 10. Wanting more from Davis is like wanting more posthumous records from Jimi Hendrix — you know there’s greatness locked away, but if it never emerges you’re still left in awe.

Davis needs support as the center of the Pelicans’ solar system. The Pelicans can provide it with the right tweaks to the team’s orbiting pieces. Alvin Gentry wants to use an up-tempo system reminiscent of the seven-seconds-or-less era, which will provide Davis with more chances in the open floor, where he scores an unfathomable 1.36 points per possession, per Synergy. To create those situations, the Pelicans need to get defensive stops (they had the league’s third-worst defense last season). Their offseason acquisitions indicate they’re committed to the movement by swapping one-dimensional scorers for a bundle of versatile players.

Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, who both signed with the Rockets during the offseason, were responsible for one-third of the Pelicans’ made 3-pointers last season, but were also the main culprits behind the team’s bottom-three defense. Anderson couldn’t compensate for his tiny wingspan and slow-footedness. Gordon is allergic to that side of the ball, and so were Norris Cole, Toney Douglas, and Luke Babbitt — none of these players remain on the roster.

And it’s clear why. This happened too much last season:

Davis isn’t absolved of responsibility for their struggles. Too often last season, his effort level waned and he didn’t communicate, though it must be deflating when teammates struggle to defend even when they’re trying. In the clip above, Babbitt appears to forget how to navigate the screen, and both Anderson and Gordon fail to rotate to prevent an uncontested dunk. Plays like this are why they swapped out Anderson and Gordon for Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore.

Hill, at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, is a classic junkyard dog who grinds every possession. Gentry can plug him into different lineup configurations, adding a new element to their defense. Consider how the final minute of this year’s Warriors-Cavaliers Finals played out. The Cavs switched instead of dropping the big to the paint or hedging onto the perimeter — even though it put Kevin Love on an island with Steph Curry — because it’s generally a more effective style of defense. Hill has the tools to defend guards like James Harden and forwards like LeBron James, and everyone in between.

Synergy data reveals that Hill ranks in the league’s 75th percentile or higher in five different defensive play types, evidence of his flexibility. He has some trouble against dominant interior bigs and the league’s fastest guards, but he’s still competitive. The Pelicans need players with lockdown attitudes and Hill has already made it clear that he intends on being the team’s “no. 1 defender.” Hill excelled when he was given opportunities, and earned a consistent role last season before shining in his final 12 games, including the playoffs. That’s why he’s getting paid $48 million over the next four years, and now the Pels will be rewarded.

The Pelicans’ Three Stooges — Cole, Douglas, and Gordon — let perimeter ball handlers roam free last season. The team ranked last against spot-up opportunities, per Synergy. That won’t happen with Moore. He disturbs a team’s flow by pestering ball handlers, battling through screens, and staying active off ball. While he lacks Hill’s versatility, his energetic play could set the tone for the rest of the team. Moore’s potential backcourt mate, Jrue Holiday, will be away from the team to start the season to care for his pregnant wife Lauren, who must undergo surgery to remove a benign brain tumor after she gives birth. Tyreke Evans is also expected to be out in October as he recovers from knee surgery.

Those factors make Moore a potential starter. They won’t stroke 3s like the Pelicans’ departures, but they can still make an impact. Moore is a career 36.9 percent 3-point shooter, which doesn’t match Gordon’s potency, but he’s at least a threat in catch-and-shoot situations. He also comes at a cheaper annual price point ($8.5 million) compared to Gordon ($13.2 million). However, Moore hasn’t developed enough since he left college to play point guard. That spot could instead go to Tim Frazier, who excelled at the end of last season, or newcomer Langston Galloway.

If the Pelicans play small ball, Hill should play mostly power forward. Anderson usually floated around the wings and top of the key, stretching the defense and opening the floor for Davis. But since 2014, Hill is just 29.4 percent 3-point shooter from above the break, compared to a blistering 39.4 percent from the corners. He alone won’t make New Orleans a respectable shooting team, but he can help reorient the team’s perimeter attack — the Pelicans made 33 percent of their corner 3s last year, third-worst in the NBA, and that figures to improve. Then again, that would limit his best skill: attacking closeouts against plodding big men and slithering his way the rim. How Gentry utilizes Hill will likely depend on the lineup, which speaks to his adaptability compared to Anderson.

New Orleans also took flyers on Galloway (two years, $10.6 million) and forward Terrence Jones (one year, $1.1 million), both of whom are like bootleg copies of Moore and Hill. Galloway has an inconsistent jumper, but he’s a lockdown defender against guards. Jones is an athletic highflier, who theoretically can defend multiple positions and space the floor. His game never clicked in Houston, but if he puts it together he’d be an ideal fit as a multipurpose forward. Quincy Pondexter will also return after a cartilage replacement procedure sidelined him for the entire 2015–16 season. If he’s healthy, he’s a handy 3-and-D swingman who defends multiple positions and knocks shots down at a modest rate.

The league is getting smaller and quicker, and the Pelicans’ additions follow that trend. But they’re also doing it out of necessity since their options at center are Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. Asik’s status as an elite rim protector has faded quickly. He was out of shape with a back injury last year and there’s doubt he can return to his former state. He’s a negative on offense, so if he’s not defending, he’s a $10 million deadweight. Opponents shot a paltry 48.9 percent at the rim while being defended by Ajinca, according to SportVU, but he’s toast if he steps outside the paint, and his offensive contributions are minimal.

That leaves Davis as their best option at center. Davis’s flashes of supreme defense are breathtaking. Players shot only 47.7 percent at the rim when Davis was in the area, and he’s among the league’s leaders in blocks each year. But too often he goes through the motions or falls out of position. The Brow needs to play with more effort, but his improved supporting cast should help too. By having defenders who can switch screens and disturb ball handlers at the point of attack, there’s less pressure on Davis to do it all. With more versatility on the roster, Davis could also play more center. By switching more screens, the Pelicans could limit penetration, but savvy defenders will also know how to funnel opponents to the right spot in the lane where Davis will be waiting to alter shots. That position shift could be what the Pelicans defense needs to improve.

But Hill and Moore aren’t enough. Davis needs a star partner and the Pelicans won’t compete for a championship until they find one. Doing that is complicated by their cap situation and timeline.

Holiday is their second-best player and helps take the Brow’s game to a higher level. Davis’s effective field goal percentage is 54.6 when Holiday plays compared with only 46.8 percent when he doesn’t. He’s a fixture in the team’s high pick-and-roll, an excellent distributor, and a robust scorer. The Pelicans score 7.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when Davis isn’t sharing the floor with Holiday. He’s the team’s best facilitator and their best perimeter defender.

But Holiday hasn’t been healthy due to recurrent stress injuries to his right tibia. The best skill is availability and Holiday has missed roughly half his games with New Orleans. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2017, which puts the front office in a dilemma: Holiday is a core player, but he might not be the answer if he can’t stay healthy. If the team keeps him, it won’t have enough cap space to offer a max contract (unless it moved Asik and other pieces). But the chances of a top tier 2017 free agent joining New Orleans are slim, unless the team makes an unexpected leap forward this season. Keeping Holiday is the best option, and doing so would mean repositioning themselves for free-agency runs in 2018 and 2019. But if he leaves, they’ll be hard-pressed finding a suitable replacement.

The Pelicans must appeal to not only Davis, but also upcoming free agents. The standard rebuilding route would’ve taken too many years to materialize, so they added slightly established players in their mid-20s who could have untapped upside: Hill (25), Jones (24), Moore (27), and Galloway (24), and drafted Buddy Hield (22), a four-year senior shooting guard from Oklahoma. There was a plethora of teenagers with arguably higher long-term upside available with the no. 6 pick, but the Pelicans are hoping that Hield’s experience gives him a better chance of contributing as a rookie. He was college’s most lethal shooter last season, draining 45.7 percent of his 3s, earning him player of the year honors. If his shot translates, he’ll immediately ease the losses of Gordon and Anderson.

Hield could be the Pelicans’ last hope of landing a star-caliber player before Davis exercises his 2020 option (Hield will be a restricted free agent that summer). But if Gordon’s shooting wasn’t enough, Hield’s won’t be either. He needs to blossom, and the Pelicans are betting on Hield transcending his current abilities.

They have good reason to because he has a track record of it: He entered college as a raw shooter, hitting 23.8 percent of his attempts as a freshman, so he spent the next few seasons overhauling his mechanics to become the most accurate sniper in the nation. He was a robotic ball handler who struggled creating space off the bounce, so he added crossovers and hesitations to get to the rim. Hield isn’t an explosive athlete, so he added a soft floater and improved his off-hand to finish creatively. Hield isn’t quite the genetic lottery winner Davis is, but he’s turned weaknesses into strengths; his game is unrecognizable compared to what it was as a freshman at Oklahoma. The league’s best players don’t stop improving because they never stop working. Hield still has a long way to go, but the Pelicans are banking on his character and willingness to be truly great.

Hield is the key to everything. If he flourishes, the Pelicans can feel cozy letting Evans walk next summer (which they should do anyway; he’s a shaky decision-maker and a liability when he doesn’t have the ball), freeing cap space to make a splash in 2018 or 2019. With a core of Davis, Holiday, and Hield, featuring complementary pieces in Hill and Moore, the Pelicans could only be a few key pieces away from a deep playoff run.

Looking ahead, the Pelicans are still in need of forward depth and shooters, making Danilo Gallinari or Robert Covington reasonable options in 2018. They can only pray they’re in a position to pitch Paul George or Klay Thompson in 2019. No matter the target, peak Brow must be surrounded by shooters who bring defensive versatility.

But that’s only a blueprint. Even if Gentry’s system works, the new additions bolster the defense, and Hield develops into a great scorer, there are no guarantees a cornerstone stays home, as the Thunder can attest. The best way to prevent Davis from leaving is making New Orleans the most appealing destination. They’ve started to construct a competitive roster around him this summer, but New Orleans will need more to keep their team in orbit.