Jrue Holiday has always been tough to define. Is he an All-Star? Technically, yes. Is he a star-level player? Most would say no. He isn’t average, either, though. Is he just good? Great? Or maybe somewhere in between? But Holiday’s label matters less than the fact that he is and has been the Pelicans’ clear second-best player, the one who has embodied the franchise’s hope that Anthony Davis didn’t have to do it all by himself, and that when the time came, the Brow wouldn’t leave.
In Game 4 of New Orleans’s first-round playoff series against the Trail Blazers last season, Holiday ran circles around Portland’s backcourt. The guard kept the game in the palm of his hand while Davis put together a signature all-around performance. Both scored over 40 points and combined for 88 total. Holiday, a first-team All-Defense member last season, put Damian Lillard in a padlock all series long and held him to 19 points in the final game of the sweep. It was an ideal one-game sample of what a hopefully bright future together could look like.
But after getting bounced by the Warriors in the following round, New Orleans’s offseason took a turn. Rajon Rondo left for the Lakers, this season began badly, and then it got even worse: On Monday, any hopes related to that bright future from less than a year ago vanished when Davis requested a trade from the Pelicans. Davis is all but gone, and Holiday is left at the center of the Pelicans’ uncertain, Brow-less future.
“He was like 90 percent the reason I stayed,” Holiday, who signed a five-year, $131 million deal in 2017 said on Monday at the Pelicans’ practice. According to Holiday, Davis told him “a couple days ago” that he was going to request a trade. “He’s a brother to me. We understand.”
For all the talk about how Davis has never had enough help—and he hasn’t—Holiday has been essential with New Orleans. He has been the perfect backcourt complement to Davis, and while Davis has been putting up absurd, MVP-level stat lines, Holiday’s been adding career highs in points (21.2), rebounds (4.9), assists (8.1), and steals (1.7).
It’s easy to overlook and undervalue defense, but Holiday has made the less-glamorous side of the ball into a draw. Like Kawhi Leonard and other elite perimeter defenders, Holiday’s flummoxing of an opponent on any given possession can be as impressive as a crossover. The way he anticipates a player’s moves is not flashy, but it’s important. That is Holiday summed up. He has never been the fastest, nor the strongest, the most skilled, or the most feared. He’s never wowed with athleticism or dropped jaws with dribbling skills. But he is a consistently great player, one whose main strength happens to be on defense, the least marketable part of the game.
In looking at the inconsistent and often poor lineups the Pelicans have put together around Davis, Holiday has been the highlight, not the problem. He’s the rare player in New Orleans who has not just produced results, but developed into a better player during his time with the Pelicans. It just wasn’t enough. There’s a point to be made that if the Pelicans do trade Davis before the deadline, that a tank or a rebuild with young players would be the best course of action. Would the Pelicans free Holiday? His contract isn’t too palatable and many still believe he is not worth the money he was paid. Holiday still has at least two years of over $25 million remaining with a player option for another $26 million in 2021, but his track record shows he could be an expensive yet perfect fit for any willing contender.
“I just try to stay in my lane,” Holiday told me in the summer when I talked to him for a story on NBA trainers. He was talking about summer pickup games and Instagram workouts, but he may as well have been preempting the summation of his time with the Pelicans. Holiday stayed because he was comfortable, and even thrived, playing in the shadow of one of the league’s best players. His lane was clear and his role was as well. Now, everything is up in the air.