The NBA ecosystem of teams is like a high school in many ways. You’ve got the big market teams like the Lakers, who represent the rich and popular kids that win all the people-based awards. There are the achievers, quiet nerds or intensely competitive type-As, who you’ll often see at the top of the class. Those are your Spurs, Heat, Mavs, Celtics, and most recently, Raptors. The NBA even has its own has-been, the former star athlete that no one wants to associate with because, well, he’s a dick. The Knicks.

The rest of the league is like the rest of us when we were in high school: with our own cliques, and overall, pretty normal. Most teams have a long enough history or are beloved in their small markets, giving them an identity that allows them to tug along until they stumble upon a savior, ala-Giannis for the Bucks.

But the New Orleans Pelicans, the NBA’s youngest franchise on paper, has never been able to be anything more than the league’s fly-on-the-wall. Yet with some lottery luck in 2019, the Pelicans were able to draft Zion Williamson, the NBA’s most hyped prospect since LeBron James, and more importantly, the man that might give the Pelicans their identity in this metaphorical NBA high school. 

However, the Pelicans have been in this position before, and they know that — for as surefire of a star as Zion is — they may screw things up if they rest on their laurels. 

DEJA VU? A LOOK AT THE PELICANS SHORT HISTORY

Since the then-Hornets relocated from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002, they have had a real difficulty establishing a connection to the city. According to ESPN’s attendance tracker, the Pelicans have been in the bottom 3rd of the league in attendance every year since 2010, and have only cracked the top 15 twice since moving to New Orleans. This is largely because the city is (1) still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina from almost a decade a half ago, and (2) fully invested in the success of the more high-profile New Orleans Saints of the NFL. 

Predicated from that is the fact that there have been plenty of rumors of the team potentially relocating. This threat is not without merit, considering New Orleans was ranked #29 by Forbes in its list of NBA franchise valuations. Putting that all together shows just how important it is that the Pels dig deeper roots within the NBA ecosystem.

Middling franchises often taste real success once they get a franchise savior. While the Pelicans are optimistic that Zion will be exactly that, they thought the same of their last franchise cornerstone, Anthony Davis. 

Davis finished as the Consensus National Player of the Year in his lone year in Kentucky before being was selected by the Pelicans with the first pick in the 2012 NBA draft. In his 7 years with the Pelicans, AD was a six-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA First Team selection, made three All-Defensive teams, and was top-five in MVP voting, twice. Yet despite all of the individual accolades he gobbled up in New Orleans, Anthony Davis only made the playoffs in two of those seven years, and has only one playoff series win under his belt.

He infamously requested for a trade, and after an irritatingly long saga of immaturity, the Pelicans shipped him out to LA and received a return of promising young players and picks. Fortunately for them, they would get the top pick in the next draft to pair alongside those young players.

The problem is that this was almost the exact same scenario 8 years prior when they traded Chris Paul to the LA Clippers for Eric Gordon and change. The Hornets drafted CP3 with the fourth pick in 2005, and he immediately hit the ground running by winning Rookie of the Year. He would make four all-star games, and like Anthony Davis, three All-NBA teams, and three All-Defensive teams, and was top five in MVP voting, twice.

But also just like Anthony Davis, the playoff success just wasn’t there. The Hornets built a decent supporting cast around Paul, but he would only make the playoffs three times, and can you guess how many playoff series he won in New Orleans? Yup, just one series win before expressing a desire to be traded, then being shipped out to LA prior to the 2011-2012 lockout season.

The Pelicans haul for Davis was significantly better than for Paul’s, but that doesn’t remove from the fact that they have been in this exact position before. They’ve already had franchise-altering future Hall of Fame stars twice, and the transition between the past two stars is identical to their current transition from Davis to Zion.

While it does feel like Deja Vu, the Pelicans can cut that short if they push the right buttons starting now. The hiring of David Griffin as VP for Basketball Operations was a good start, but just like Michael Jordan said in The Last Dance, “…the players win the championship.”

Luckily for this iteration of the Pelicans, they’ve got a bunch of really, really good players.

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT ABOVE ALL THINGS

The New Orleans Pelicans, as currently constructed, already have a really good team. While 28-36 doesn’t scream good, remember that injuries had them hobbling out of the gate. But since December 17, or around the time when Derrick Favors returned from an absence, they’ve been 22-14. And since Zion’s debut on January 22, they’ve posted a +4.0 Net Rating, which is 7th in the league in that span.

The Pelicans have been able to achieve this recent success largely because they’ve grouped in some high-character veterans to round out their young core. In fact, the Pelicans starting five of Favors-Zion-Ingram-Holiday and Ball has the number 1 net rating among five-man line-ups in the entire league (+26.3), minimum 200 minutes played. But make no mistake about it: The Pelicans, both now and in the future, are defined by their young studs, and they have to remember that moving forward.

First, Zion Williamson. We all know he’s a freak of nature and unlike anything the NBA has ever seen. But it’s that uniqueness which makes it important that the Pelicans be open to experimentation because we don’t know the context in which a player with his skill-set will really thrive. 

What’s good is that the Pelicans have shown the willingness to do that, at least so far. The Pels’ best five-man line-up which I mentioned earlier has Zion playing the four with Favors flanking him at five, and the accounts for about 230 minutes out of Zion’s 564 minutes played so far this season. But of Zion’s top 10 most played five-man units, 3 to 10 all have him playing the five.

It’s smart that the Pelicans are playing Zion with Favors most of the time; It puts a lot less pressure on Zion defensively and on the glass. But with the NBA moving to more pace and space era, the Pelicans should continue to ensure that they get Zion the reps at the five, especially because I can foresee their closing line-up looking that way come playoff time. What I mean to really say here is: For as good as Zion is, the Pelicans need to put him in unique situations in order to properly optimize him as a player, and truly find out what’s best for him. I believe the idea of learning more in uncomfortable situations definitely applies here.

Then there’s Brandon Ingram. We all know Ingram had a MONSTER breakout campaign this year, and as a free agent this off-season, will be a hot commodity. Opposing fans need to stop dreaming that this guy will be anywhere but New Orleans next year, because he’s a restricted free agent, and the Pelicans are absolutely, 100% going to give this man the max he deserves.

At just 22 years old, the sky’s the limit for Ingram, who can do virtually everything on the court, and has the tools to continue improving. While he may be the #2 guy on the team moving forward, the Pelicans need to show him that they value him, even just as much as they do Zion, and they can do that by giving him the max at this stage. Then, on the court and even with the way they market this team, it’s important to highlight Ingram’s value to make sure he isn’t a distant second to the Zion phenomenon, or else he may turn disgruntled.

The final major core piece is Lonzo Ball. Ball is an extremely polarizing player, whose strengths as an elite passer, defender, and stat-sheet stuffer can all be argued against by a low FG% and terrible FT%. The good thing about Ball is that like Ingram, he’s only 22 years old, and has grown leaps and bounds as a three-point shooter. He’s also finally been healthy, having not missed a game since the beginning of December. Considering his youth, the Pelicans should push Ball to expand his offensive game, as I believe the former #2 overall pick can still grow into a starting point guard for a championship-level team. 

The real question for the Pelicans about Ball is how much is he worth considering the Pelicans can offer him an extension by this off-season, and committing to him would limit their flexibility moving forward. And with that said, it’s time to talk about how the Pelicans have to manage their contracts and assets.

OPTIMIZING THE CURRENT ASSET POOL

One of the worst moves the Pelicans made during the Anthony Davis era was signing 7-foot Omer Asik to a five-year, $60 million dollar deal. Asik would only play 113 games in that span after battling a ton of injuries, but was also poor when he did play. That deal was a major anchor in the Pelicans’ ability to add more talent to help Anthony Davis.

Again, the current Pels already have a lot of young pieces, but they need to maintain flexibility moving forward, whilst prioritizing their young studs. They need to weigh the overall value of the veterans that they do have on the roster, starting with the best one of all: Jrue Holiday.

Jrue Holiday is an elite defender and all-around offensive weapon who many NBA players refer to as the most underrated player in the league. But the fact that Jrue clearly has value within the league shows that the Pelicans can get a hefty return for him. Holiday has a big contract, but can be a free agent by the 2021 offseason should he decline his 27M player option. He just turned 30 years old, so his timeline is against that of the young Pelicans, plus the team already has a couple of young guns in Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker who play the same position, and are enough to keep them competitive despite the loss of an all-star level player.

The Pels can dangle Holiday in front of pseudo contenders and hope to steal another talented player to fit their timeline. Maybe Denver would listen for a package highlighted by MPJ? Would the Heat give up a few of their hyped youngins to form an elite defensive duo to attract Giannis? 

Another veteran wing the Pelicans should shop is J.J. Redick, who has a spicy $13M expiring contract next season. Every contender in the world will want a 45% three-point shooter who is also well-liked in NBA locker rooms. Some David Griffin magic could help the Pelicans steal another late-first rounder in a Redick exchange, or maybe one of those loose pieces in Brooklyn to send J.J. back home.

The one veteran the Pels should spend their money to keep is Derrick Favors, who quietly operates as one of the best low-post defenders and defensive rebounders in the NBA. At this moment, Favors has the second-best on/off net rating on the team at +10.9, and is perfectly suited to relieve Zion of whatever dirty work that may hamper his long term success. He turns 29 years old in July, making him the perfect man to have for the next two to three years while Jaxson Hayes continues to grow into a more NBA-ready player. 

With the current NBA market amidst the pandemic and the lowering value of traditional bigs, the Pelicans should be able to get him at a reasonable price this offseason. That’s important as the Pels figure that alongside their abundance of young players in line for extensions. Ingram, coming hefty extension for Ball, and likely low eight-digit number for Hart. 

WHO’S THE RIGHT MAN ON THE SIDELINES?

Okay, I have to admit, I don’t know much about coaching. And when watching the NBA and looking at even the most advanced stats, coaching has always been one of the most difficult variables to take into consideration.

And Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry may be one of the more polarizing coaches in the league right now. Gentry has had a solid recent track record prior to his time with New Orleans, most notably when he spearheaded the ‘09-’10 Suns team to the Conference Finals, and as an assistant on the 2015 Golden State Warriors title team.

With the Pelicans, Gentry has been rather mediocre beyond the one marvelous coaching job against Terry Stotts in the Pelicans’ first-round sweep of the Blazers in 2018. But for the most part, his shortcomings have been excusable, plagued by injury-riddled Pelicans seasons and Anthony Davis tantrums. This season was no different; By the middle of December, the Pelicans had the second most cumulative missed games in the entire NBA.

It’s then easy to give credit to Gentry when looking at the 2020 turnaround from the Pels, and therefore automatically anointing him the coach of the future for this team. As I’ve alluded to earlier, the Pelicans are going to need a coach that is going to value player development, be willing to experiment, and still try to put wins on the board. While he’s had his stubborn moments in his time with the Pelicans, Gentry has shown in a small sample size that he’s at least willing to experiment with Zion, and use his pieces in different ways. 

It will be interesting to see how Gentry balances the roster when the season resumes, especially if the Pelicans sneak into the playoffs. But unless the Pels are a trainwreck in their next eight games, my personal choice is to ride Gentry out even into next season to see what he can do with a full roster, especially considering the fact that his contract ends in 2021. The team will likely be carrying most of the same pieces into next year, and while I know the Pels fans have constantly said this about Gentry, next season should, knock on wood, finally be the time they get a full season to properly evaluate their coach.

Additionally, a big reason why keeping Gentry into 2021 is that the coaching market doesn’t look too hot right now. The hottest name may be Kenny Atkinson, who did a decent job in Brooklyn, but a lot of people still can’t vehemently say yet that he is a good NBA coach. The rest of the names will be mostly unproven assistants, or past coaches with shaky recent histories like Jason Kidd, Thibs, or David Fizdale.

Give me another year of Gentry, then we can get back to this one in 2021.

Can you picture a world where the New Orleans Pelicans are champions? Or even just title contenders? I have to admit that it feels rather weird. Because picturing the Pelicans as the league darling, or as a competent and noteworthy organization is the same as imagining the school’s fly-on-the-wall suddenly on top of the class, especially since he’s tried to speak out before, and has failed on multiple occasions.

But this franchise has a third shot to establish itself in the NBA. By letting go of their past demons, and addressing the proper pillars to success, they just might be able to reel in loyalty from their local fanbase, and ultimately, no longer be an afterthought amongst the NBA teams.