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Someone Needs to Save Jrue Holiday

Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin insists his franchise point guard isn’t on the trade block, but both parties would be better off if he were. Why is New Orleans, mired in a 13-game losing streak, refusing to let go?

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If there were ever a legitimate, earnest use of the expression the Nice Guy Never Wins, it would be said about Jrue Holiday. No one has ever disliked Holiday in his entire life or any of his past lives, and I’m sure whatever reincarnation is up next—a king or an actuary or a Sam’s Club manager—he’ll be beloved then, too. Coaches adore Holiday. He’s like a million halftime speeches about hard work and selflessness whisked into a 6-foot-4 entity with braids and a glued-on headband. Yet Holiday can’t win. He’s a winner, a “consummate winner,” as Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin likes to say, but he can’t actually win. There’s a difference, and it’s circumstance. Holiday’s been in the league for 11 seasons and has spent those 11 years playing injury tag with his teammates; either it was Holiday’s tibia or orbital wall or abdominal muscle, or the injury report was a laundry list of his teammates’ ailments or inoperative parts.

Early Tuesday, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that Holiday was available via trade. Late Tuesday, Griffin countered that report. “Absolutely nothing has changed,” he told sideline reporter Jennifer Hale as the second quarter of the Pelicans’ game against the Nets came to an end. New Orleans lost that game, its 13th straight, the longest streak in franchise history, which is not at all how this season was supposed to go. Things have changed. Zion Williamson tore his meniscus before making his NBA debut, the beginning of a timeline riddled with injuries and maladjustments that lands the Pelicans here, at 6-22. A season-destroying injury had struck Holiday’s team once again, and for a few fleeting hours Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like Holiday might be shipped away and saved from this mess.

This season was supposed to be different. The first conversation Holiday had with Griffin after the latter became EVP in April went something like this: Are you in? Griffin didn’t want to trade Holiday unless Holiday wanted to leave; he chose to stay. I spent time with Holiday this summer for a profile, and he told me at the time what was going through his mind. “Maybe in the back of my head, it was like, ‘Man. These dudes are young, and I am 10 years in.’ But I also think that I bring something to the table which is a little bit of experience, and I can ... I mean, I can help.” He could’ve gotten out, but the risk was worth the reward. (The risk was being with the franchise any longer after enduring so many losses and the Anthony Davis debacle. The reward was finally winning—and getting to play with Zion.)

It was important that management seemed to even be entertaining the thought of moving their franchise point guard. “Jrue Holiday is indeed available via trade, league sources say,” Stein tweeted on Tuesday. “It would surely cost a significant amount to pry him away from the Pels, but this is a notable change in status given how unavailable Holiday was to interested teams last season.”

The new Pelicans wanted to compete right away. The Zion juice was so potent that New Orleans believed it could skip the rebuild stage, segue from one superstar to the next without losing relevance, and sell a bazillion season tickets along the way. There’s only one reason to sign veterans like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors, and that’s to be the hair and makeup artists who polish the roster enough for a playoff push. But there were pieces, and then there was Holiday, and as I wrote this summer after speaking with them both, Griffin felt like he needed his point guard most of all. “This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” he said in June. Zion was always going to be the fulcrum, but Holiday was the oil between the axles.

There’s an old W**dy Allen quote that I’m going to tailor to fit the Pelicans and to avoid quoting the filmmaker directly: If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your postseason plans based on a hefty 19-year-old who has never logged an NBA minute. New Orleans wasn’t wrong to go all in this season. I was just as drunk on Zion highlights as the Pels were. You can’t anticipate someone tearing knee tissue like gift wrap, having surgery, then passing his original expected return date (last week) without even being cleared to fully practice. (But he is shooting jumpers in a practice jersey, and he’s shuffling his feet a lot, and they’re kind of even leaving the ground.)

Now opportunity lies with Holiday in a different way than it did this summer. There’s no reason to rush a rookie with a celestial future back at this point; the Pelicans have virtually no chance to make the playoffs. New Orleans is tied for the second-worst overall record and owns its 2020 draft pick. Trading Holiday would be a pivot from Griff’s original plan, but it would also put the tank officially into effect. Griffin says he’s staying the course, but he has proved in the past that he isn’t scared to call a midseason audible—that fearlessness is a prerequisite to run a team featuring LeBron James—and the Pels have young backcourt options that make Holiday, who has a player option for 2020-21, potentially tradable. But like Stein reported, it would take a lot of loot to convince the Pelicans to give up a star who they believe is the most underrated player in the league.

An odd contradiction from Tuesday’s report, and perhaps the only reason to doubt that moving Holiday would signal the intent to tank, is that Redick is supposedly unavailable, according to Stein. Redick will also be highly sought after before the February 6 trade deadline, and isn’t one of the sacrosanct pieces of the Pels’ future, like Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

I hope for everyone’s sake that only teams wedged between contender and favorite status are looking at Holiday. I wish this for Holiday, who is 29 years old and, after much misfortune in his career, deserves a spot on a franchise with a chance; I wish this for the Pelicans, so they drain the hell out of another team’s reservoir as some consolation for a potentially Zion-less season; I wish this for the team eyeing Holiday, because throwing a mountain of assets into a trade can sometimes play out like signing a fraudulent loan, and the organization should at least be close-ish to a title for the risk to be worthwhile.

Holiday’s numbers (19.5 points on 44.6 percent shooting overall and 33.6 percent from 3, 6.8 assists, and 5 rebounds per game) don’t scream THROW AWAY EVERYTHING FOR ME, but he is one of the select players who can be added to any situation—the Heat’s offense next to Jimmy Butler, Denver’s dumpster fire of an offense, an office party, etc.—and improve the circumstance without making demands. For a team just on the cusp on a title run, that versatility may be tempting enough to warrant the enormous ask.

The teams in the sweet spot for a Holiday trade (and those ballsy enough to try) are Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, and Dallas, though the Sixers and Mavs are a tad unrealistic. It’s hard to imagine 33-year-old Al Horford enticing the Pelicans while they try to start over, and Tobias Harris offers less than Holiday currently provides on the floor. The Mavericks own their 2020 and 2022 first-round picks, but the assets in Miami and Denver are real, materialized players with faces and jersey numbers and stats, which can feel like more of a guarantee than a floating, blurred-out headshot that should arrive in one-to-two business years.

Miami has Justise Winslow and League Pass darlings like Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn to offer, and it has the flotsam contracts to make the money work. (Look at you being useful, Dion Waiters.) But if it’s the draft that Griffin is after, literally every other team in the league could outbid the Heat in that realm. Seventy-four-year-old Pat Riley said there’s no time like the present when he traded for Jimmy Butler, shucking out so many picks that, according to Albert Nahmad, the Heat won’t be able to trade a first-rounder unconditionally until 2028. Denver has the pieces, if it has a change of heart. Michael Porter Jr. is reportedly off the table, which leaves Gary Harris and a future first as its main selling points.

Integrating Holiday into any starting five would be seamless. Most point guards with his level of talent demand space; Holiday clears it with quick touches and passes. He provides the offense with another ball handler and conductor, but also excels off the ball. Part of the blueprint for the 2019-20 Pelicans backcourt was having Lonzo Ball push the ball upcourt and making Holiday the attacker, a role he’s never fully had a chance to embrace after years spent catering to AD. Holiday’s calling card since he entered the league has been his defense, which is instructive and supportive and reads like a self-help book for his teammates on the perimeter while absolutely demoralizing opponents.

Griffin was blown away by Holiday’s defense while working in the Suns front office in 2009 when Holiday was a draft prospect. (Alvin Gentry was also Phoenix’s coach at the time.) The Suns passed on Holiday at the last minute, but over the years, Griff kept tabs and Gentry told Holiday they never should have passed on him. The respect for Holiday’s game stretches back a decade, creating the affection that made Griffin and Holiday’s symbiotic relationship so endearing. They publicly endorsed each other through all the chaos this summer. And after all this time, Griffin finally has the player he long coveted. Zion could come back soon and change the purview of the Pelicans like he was supposed to a couple of months back, but there is a scenario where letting go of Holiday is a win for both parties, some mercy and some increased lottery odds. The league’s nicest nice guy finally moving on.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the location of Denver’s dumpster fire.