Superstars wield a lot of power in the NBA. Their presence can force a franchise to go all in to win immediately. They can force a team to trade them years before their contracts are up. They can breathe life into a franchise, or they can nearly tear them down. But as we’ve seen recently, one superstar can’t climb the playoff ladder in the Western Conference all by himself. Just ask Anthony Davis. The New Orleans Pelicans have made the postseason just twice since Davis was drafted first overall in 2012. Even last season, when they won 48 games—the third most in franchise history—they made the cutoff by only two games. This season won’t be any easier.
Following a ferocious 4-0 start wherein Davis posted Wilt Chamberlain–like numbers, the Pelicans now find themselves back on the playoff bubble. They have a 9-7 record, and they’ve outscored teams by only 1.8 points per 100 possessions—both of which suggest the pace of a 46-win team. They’re good, but with the Rockets (8-7) and Jazz (8-8) still rounding into form, the West playoff race will soon be even more crowded. Davis has a player option in the summer of 2020 looming and can sign a five-year, $235 million supermax extension this summer. The Pelicans are under pressure to find reinforcements to prove to their franchise player that he can win at a high level in New Orleans. With the Philadelphia 76ers having pushed their chips in last weekend to acquire Jimmy Butler, the Pelicans are now the team to watch in the trade market.
Pelicans general manager Dell Demps has already tried to think big in order to bolster the roster. A year and a half after trading for DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans made an offer to the Timberwolves for Butler headlined by Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected 2019 first-round pick, according to The Athletic. Guard E’Twaun Moore was included in a version of the deal, league sources say. Minnesota wanted guard Jrue Holiday, and the Pelicans refused. League sources say the Wolves demanded an unprotected first-rounder in 2022, which is the earliest year that high schoolers could be allowed to once again enter the draft, meaning that class could have double the top talent. But the Pelicans resisted that too; Butler is in the last guaranteed year of his contract and the Pels likely didn’t want to commit high-value future resources in the event that Davis doesn’t stick around. Minnesota had a deadline in place, so it took Philadelphia’s offer. New Orleans, meanwhile, is still searching for help.
Things go well for the Pelicans during Davis’s 38 minutes a game (the highest in the NBA): New Orleans outscores opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions when Davis graces the floor. But the team gets throttled by 13.7 points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the bench—and went 0-3 in the games that Davis missed this season due to a right-elbow sprain. The Pelicans have a severe lack of depth at every position. But finding support for Davis on the current market could be difficult, particularly at the position that has plagued them virtually throughout the Davis era. New Orleans has a long-standing dearth of wings; the last true 3 it had was Quincy Pondexter, who began having major knee issues in 2015. Despite scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks fifth in the NBA, the Pelicans attempt the seventh-fewest 3s in the league and connect on them at a league-average percentage. Nikola Mirotic, despite a recent cold spell, provides floor spacing at the 4, and E’Twaun Moore is a dead-eye shooter. But besides those two and Darius Miller, no other player in the rotation has logged a full season shooting more than 39 percent from 3. The Pelicans need more shooting, but they also need players who can defend. And the Pelicans can tell you how hard it is to find a good 3-and-D wing.
The Pelicans allow 110.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Davis defends every inch of the floor, but he carries such a heavy load offensively that he lacks the stamina to always hustle back on defense. He’s not the only Pelicans player to do so, either. Opponents log the ninth-most transition opportunities against New Orleans, per Synergy, and the breakdowns when trying to match up on the break have led to the second-highest frequency of wide-open 3-point shots in the NBA.
In the half court, defensive communication and off-ball awareness are the issues. Watch how Ian Clark loses track of Patty Mills because he’s too busy admiring DeMar DeRozan as he penetrates the paint:
It often seems like Clark is in the rotation because he has “Member of the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors” listed on his résumé. Clark is an underwhelming defender against guards, and at 6-foot-3, he’s too small to defend larger wings and forwards, which is where New Orleans needs the most help on defense. Mirotic is a subpar defender who is better at defending traditional power forwards than perimeter players. Solomon Hill, whom the Pelicans signed for $48 million in 2016, has fallen off a cliff since undergoing surgery for a torn hamstring last year. Darius Miller has moments, but they come and go with his effort. The need was most obvious against the Warriors in the second round of last season’s playoffs, when the Pelicans’ best option was to use Holiday (6-foot-4) against Kevin Durant (7 feet). Holiday was a first-team All-Defense selection last season, but putting him on Durant meant Steph Curry and Klay Thompson could run free. That’s why Butler was so enticing: He’s a go-to scorer and a playmaker who can also lock down the opponent’s best player. Picking up Wesley Johnson for Alexis Ajinca before the season has helped; the nine-year veteran is a solid, versatile defender. But he’s not enough. Which is why the Pelicans will have to go shopping.
There are whispers that New Orleans is interested in Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr., who is in the second year of an enormous four-year, $106.5 million contract. Porter’s role has dwindled in Washington; he’s averaging only 28 minutes and has lately watched fourth from the bench as Jeff Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. have finished games. Porter is overpaid, but he’s proved to be an effective two-way player. He could thrive in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo offense and add another versatile defender at forward for the Pelicans. If New Orleans were to make an offer for Porter, it would need to include over $20 million in contracts. Something like Hill, Julius Randle, and a first-round pick works. Given that Porter would fill a gaping hole now and could be a piece for the future no matter what happens with Davis, there aren’t much better options on the market.
You can spend hours on the Trade Machine and struggle to find realistic trades. Most players that could theoretically be available don’t move the needle. And it’s especially difficult with the Pelicans because their best contract to use as trade filler, Hill’s, has another season after this one left on it. Teams want expiring contracts, and taking on an additional season could require overpaying. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on who could help:
- New Orleans pursued a trade for Hawks wing Kent Bazemore this offseason, per league sources. Atlanta still wants to get off Bazemore’s contract, which has a $19.3 million player option for next season that he’ll absolutely pick up.
- The Mavericks would like to unload Wesley Matthews, but the 32-year-old has broken down in his 10th NBA season. I wonder whether the Mavs would consider dealing Harrison Barnes, whose $24.1 million salary would require a package similar to the one I suggested in exchange for Porter.
- I’d check in with the Heat on forward James Johnson, who made his season debut on Sunday after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia this summer. Miami has severe salary-cap issues; unloading the 31-year-old’s remaining contract ($15.3 million next year, plus a $16.1 million player option in 2020-21) would help.
- Courtney Lee, New York’s 3-and-D wing, is available. But the Knicks want to free salary for next summer to pursue Kevin Durant, so taking on Hill wouldn’t work. The math from there is pretty tricky: Giving up Randle is too much for Lee, and dealing Johnson leaves them thin on the wings again.
- Cavaliers wing Kyle Korver is a solid target, but he’s not solving any defensive issues.
- Trevor Ariza would be a better option if the Suns want to flip him and go all in on the tank.
- Same goes for the Nets forwards DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley; though Brooklyn seems to be pushing for a playoff spot, its season could go south quickly after Caris LeVert’s unfortunate injury.
Gentry wants heavy ball movement in the half court, which has been unsteady this season. Elfrid Payton, signed for the biannual exception this offseason, has helped, but he’s missed nine games with a sprained ankle and will miss another four to six weeks after fracturing his left pinkie during his first game back. The team needs another playmaker, even after Payton returns, to keep Holiday in the attacking combo guard role he thrived in last season. New Orleans had interest in Jeremy Lin before he signed with the Nets in 2016, so his status in Atlanta is something to keep an eye on. So are Milos Teodosic and T.J. McConnell, both of whom are currently buried on their teams’ benches.
Every single player I’ve mentioned here—from Porter to Bazemore to Korver—might help some. But as important as it is to maximize this team’s potential, Demps also has to be thinking further ahead. Even if the Pelicans figure things out this season, they’ll likely have to re-sign three of their top six players in Mirotic, Payton, and Randle (player option). If Randle opts out, the front office could renounce their rights and create around $25 million in cap space to use in free agency to try to find Davis a star running mate. If Hill were traded and the Pelicans didn’t take back any salary past this season, they could open up a max slot. But New Orleans has never been a draw for major players before, and it may not be again unless Davis commits long-term. And the 2019 free-agent class is shallow beyond the top-tier stars anyway. Trading for a star, then, may be Demps’s best and only chance before Davis may ask for a trade of his own.
The only star who could potentially become available is John Wall. The Wizards are a disaster; they’re 5-11 and play like they don’t care. The four-year, $169 million supermax deal that Wall signed in the summer of 2017 kicks in next season. But his $19.2 million salary this season, even with a 15 percent trade kicker, is manageable. The Pelicans were willing to give two impact players and a 2019 first for Butler, who could leave in July but came with the risk of signing an extension worth up to $190 million over five years. Could it make sense to offer a stronger package for Wall, who is already locked up for the long term?
I’m not a big fan of Wall; he doesn’t move off the ball, has a poor shot selection, plays inconsistent defense, has a worrisome injury history, and will get paid over $40 million per season in the final three years of his deal. Wall could end up the most overpaid player in sports. But Wall could thrive in New Orleans. The Pelicans race the ball up the floor and log the fourth-quickest possessions in the league, per Inpredictable, and no point guard loves the break more than Wall. With Wall handling the ball, Holiday could go back to attacking and defending. Davis-Wall pick-and-rolls could devastate defenses. And, importantly, Davis and Wall not only are Kentucky alumni, they now share an agent in Rich Paul from Klutch Sports. Davis has never played with a playmaker as good as Wall, and Wall has never played with any player as good as Davis. If the Wizards want to pull the plug, and if the Pelicans want to take a risk, then maybe there’s a blockbuster trade to be made.
It’s hard to know what exactly the Wizards would want in a trade. But if Washington wants to pivot and retool its franchise around Bradley Beal, it’d likely prioritize a mix of young players and picks. The playmaking-needy Suns could try to create a bidding war for Wall. But for the Pelicans, a package of Randle, young point guard Frank Jackson, and Hill’s salary as filler—along with two (or probably three) lightly protected first-round picks, including picks in 2019 and 2022—seems fair for both sides, though I could see Washington doing better: Wall is a popular star who could demand superior players in return. Even if Davis wanted out this summer, they could replenish assets and instead build around Wall, Holiday, and whatever bittersweet haul they get in a Davis deal.
Pelicans fans don’t want to hear it, but the pressure is on to present a winning product to Davis before free agency hits eight months from now. New Orleans still has a major money advantage on every other team in the league: The $235 million supermax extension they can offer would be the richest deal in NBA history. If Davis is traded, the most he could sign an extension for is closer to $200 million over five years; and if he hit unrestricted free agency, the most he could sign with another team is about $150 million over four years. But Davis has also said, time and time again, that his biggest priority is to win. And as he alluded to in an early-November interview with Yahoo Sports, wins have been harder to come by when he’s not at his very best. “Of course, I know that in order to win games, a lot of pressure is going to be on me,” Davis said. “I don’t have a good game and we lose. So, I got to play almost perfect every night to give us a chance to win.”
The Pelicans can’t get too desperate and mortgage their entire future to be good this season. But between now and next summer, expect the Pelicans to be active in the trade market despite limited options. The risk could break open their window for contention, or, at worst, impress Davis enough to re-sign. No matter how much they can offer Davis, they must be able to also offer a realistic path to a championship.