The 2017-2018 NBA Season is already shaping up to be one of intrigue. The Cleveland Cavaliers continue to manage the Kyrie Irving situation, which presumably has allowed a few other Eastern Conference contenders to realistically believe that LeBron James’s iron grasp over the Eastern Conference Finals may finally break after seven straight appearances.
Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors have re-signed their key free agents while adding a few new players on team-friendly contracts. These moves have allowed the defending champs to remain the envy of the league. Other Western Conference teams’ plans for success run through Golden State’s path.
While many can, for the most part, agree where most teams lie in this pecking order, a few are a bit tougher to place, such as the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans finished last year with a record of 34-48, 10th in the Western Conference. Their biggest move, the acquisition of Demarcus Cousins, gave them a boost of star power and a new dilemma as to how to best play him alongside Anthony Davis. How to fit two elite big men side by side is itself an issue. Resolving this issue at a time when star point guards, elite wing players and overall small-ball play dominates the league makes the issue even more of an experiment.
The Pelicans are a team that has struggled mightily to add high-quality wing depth to complement the core of Cousins, Davis and point guard Jrue Holiday. Forward Solomon Hill and guard/forward E’twaun Moore are serviceable players but not much more than that. This formula flies in the face of the current era of small-ball pace-and-space basketball that currently dominates the league.
But the experiment doesn’t end here for the Pelicans. Add to this the acquisition of point guard Rajon Rondo, who comes to the Pelicans on a one year, $3.3 million deal. The Pelicans went into this offseason actively searching for an impact point guard to acquire and now hope that Rondo, on a team friendly deal, is that player. If the good version of Rondo shows up, he could take some of the ball handling duties from Holiday and allow him to play off the ball at least from time to time.
One can be forgiven for questioning this move considering that the Pelicans just signed Holiday to a five year, $126 million contract and may want him to shift to a new position and role. However, rewind to late last season when the Pelicans purposely played Holiday at shooting guard. Both Holiday and coach Alvin Gentry expressed satisfaction with this move at the time. Now remember that the Pelicans continue to lack wing talent and depth and, in particular, the ability to stretch the floor.
Moving Holiday off the ball is a non-obvious method of working with the Pelican’s existing talent and adding some skill and shooting on the wing. Of course, Holiday will continue to handle the ball in tandem with Rondo and presumably even more so when Rondo is off the court. Holiday is a capable spot up three-point shooter, can drive to the basket and keep the ball moving, if need be. The Pelicans are now betting that not only will Rondo be a solid contributor who can be relied on at the point, but also that Holiday can be as good or even better in this relatively new position. It should be noted that this kind of move was almost a necessity considering the Pelicans salary cap situation and lack of talent on the wing.
Simply put, the Pelicans are far beyond the salary cap limit. For teams that continually sport an expensive roster like the Pelicans, there is an obvious goal to avoid being penalized with the repeater tax for continually being over the luxury tax threshold year after year. The Pelicans are at risk of going over the threshold and have a strong incentive to curtail moves that would add additional salary this year. The move to add Rondo at $3.3 million looks much better considering the Pelican’s cap situation.
Of course, there are potential downsides to the above plans. The Holiday contract is a hefty one, which is potentially problematic due in part to Holiday’s troubling injury history. Is Holiday worth the same value, already a high price to pay, when moved off the ball? This will be an expensive experiment. And how much can Rondo still contribute? He led a championship squad in Boston for some time. Since then, he has suffered a serious knee injury and has had a number of years of marginal play depending on how engaged he was.
All of the above doesn’t address the Pelicans’ need for quality play at the small forward position. Hill and Moore can slide in, with Hill being the most obvious candidate to start. However, neither player is a natural small forward or particularly skilled at shooting the three. Hill is an average player who can play some defense and Moore is more of a natural shooting guard. Talented 3-and-D players come at a premium and are often overpaid. It hurts that through a series of decisions last season, the Pelicans parted ways with forward Omri Casspi, who would have been a great fit for this team.
Finally, Cousins is only under contract for this year. This leaves all of the above as a costly experiment that needs to pay off sooner rather than later to diminish the risk of losing Cousins for nothing in return should he find the Pelicans’ experiment unsatisfactory. The strength of the Pelicans lies primarily in the tandem of Davis and Cousins, a pairing that will need to be optimized this season. Holiday is the team’s most talented playmaker and one of its more gifted scorers. Putting Holiday off the ball may not make a ton of sense in a vacuum, especially considering his new contract, but it’s arguably Coach Gentry’s best strategy for bolstering the wing.
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