…and just a couple of months after the team running into a total dead end with Anthony Davis demanding a trade and instituting a selloff of much of the Pelicans’ talent, there is all of a sudden the prospect that this team might get really good really fast.
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) May 15, 2019
Because with that pick, the Pelicans now have the ability to add a game-changing talent in Zion Williamson. With Williamson the Pelicans are immediately relevant again – and with Williamson, Julius Randle and Jrue Holliday, they’ve got the beginnings of a lineup which can compete in the Western Conference.
And it now depends on what new team president of basketball operations David Griffin can do with Davis.
Does he trade Davis? Before the Pelicans landed the rights to Williamson, the obvious answer for both Davis and the team was yes – Davis could spin off a sizable windfall of draft picks and young players, and give Griffin a plethora of tools with which to rebuild the franchise over time.
But Griffin has maintained that trading Davis isn’t a given. And as ESPN’s Tim Bontemps said Tuesday night it definitely isn’t one now.
“We have a long, successful history with Klutch Sports,” Griffin said last month. “Rich Paul and I have spoke about Anthony. We are both excited about what we could potentially build here.”
That comment was largely accompanied by shrugs. What else was Griffin supposed to say?
But then the Pelicans’ jumped from the seventh spot to the very top of the lottery on Tuesday night. Suddenly, Griffin’s comment is a lot more interesting. Teams around the NBA hoping to land Davis via trade suddenly have one 6-foot-7, 280-pound reason to wonder just how available Davis might actually be as he enters the final season of his contract.
After the Pelicans cratered out of the playoff hunt and sold key key players at the trade deadline, it was hard to see how Davis could possibly stay. But Williamson’s arrival should at least give Griffin a plausible argument to sell that there’s something worth building in New Orleans.
Williamson and Davis complement each other perfectly. Davis being able to step away from the basket would give Williamson room to dive as a roll man. It also opens up devastating possibilities of pick-and-roll situations with Zion and AD (good luck stopping that). Defensively, Davis’ combination of size and length and Williamson’s ridiculous athleticism would allow New Orleans to successfully guard virtually any team they come up against.
Meanwhile, a triumvirate of Davis, Williamson and Jrue Holiday would be the foundation of a team that can compete in the Western Conference once again. One of the league’s most underrated players, Holiday is a borderline All-NBA guard and a top perimeter defender.
Williamson, after all, averaged 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while shooting 68% from the floor for Duke’s Elite Eight team this past season – insane numbers for a college player on a loaded team with two other lottery picks on it. Here’s his scouting report from ESPN’s website…
– A physical specimen unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. Will be one of the most explosive athletes in the NBA right away, but is also blessed with incredible fluidity, coordination, body control and power. Does unprecedented things seemingly every game that inspire sheer astonishment.
– Extremely skilled and instinctive. Will be very difficult for opposing defenders to slow down due to his ability to create offense with the ball in his hands. Absolutely lethal in transition, but also a very dangerous option in the half court. Excellent ball handler who changes speeds effortlessly and gets incredibly low to the ground with his array of moves. Uses polished footwork and generates amazing force en route to finishing around the rim and drawing fouls. Also a strong passer thanks to his extremely high basketball IQ. Can also score in the post, blowing past traditional big men and overpowering smaller players with his huge frame. Much improved shooter as well.
– Appears to have ideal NBA superstar personality. Outstanding teammate and competitor. Unselfish. Loves to do the little things needed to help win games. Deflects all of the attention he receives back toward the team. Brings frenetic energy defensively when locked in, showing the ability to guard positions 1-5. Won’t turn 19 until July.
– Difficult to project given his unique game. Some NBA scouts struggle with the fact that they can’t find anyone to compare him to, which is part of the evaluation process. Doesn’t have a traditional position in yesterday’s NBA, but in the modern game will likely become a team’s primary creator offensively. Will need a creative coach and the right personnel around him to unlock his full potential. Needs to be surrounded by shooting to be most effective, perhaps similar to Ben Simmons in that regard.
– Just an average shooter. Made only 24 3-pointers in 33 games at Duke, as well as 64 percent of his free throw attempts. Mechanics leave a lot to be desired. Ball comes off the side of his hand. Not very fluid in his lower body getting into his jumper.
– Can he stay healthy playing the same wrecking-ball style over the course of 82 games? Will likely need to learn to dial back the intensity at times. Had some minor knee issues in high school and has a body type that can get thick quickly if he’s not careful. Will be the second-heaviest player in the NBA right off the bat, despite his height.
Throw Randle and his 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game into that mix, particularly if Williamson – who might be a little on the small side for an NBA post at 6-7 (though at 280 pounds of solid muscle and with a 40 inch vertical leap to go with that girth) but showed off the makings of a plus-plus perimeter game with 2.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 33.8 percent from the three-point line in his only season at Duke – can play the “3” in the league. At that point all you’re really missing is a point guard from a pretty good starting five, and Holliday can play some point guard when necessary.
In other words, you’re not really rebuilding. You just need to keep these guys healthy, something which hasn’t been all that easy to do in recent years, and Davis happy. And since Davis’ chief gripe with the Pelicans has been that he’s had to carry too much of a load in the seven years he’s been in New Orleans, adding Williamson puts that complaint to bed.
The Pelicans’ experiments late in the season auditioning players for future roles on the team yielded some potential depth, particularly in the post. Jalil Okafor, for example, began showing some of the form which made him a rookie star with the 76ers back in 2015-16; he’s a productive bench player in the post at 6-11 who averaged 8.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in just 15.8 minutes per game. And the Pelicans found a diamond in the rough with 6-11 Christian Wood late in the season, who in eight games with the Pelicans averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds a game. Both players are just 23 years old – with Davis, Randle and Williamson to go with them you’ve actually got a star-studded post rotation.
Guard play beyond Holliday, who averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 assists per game this past year, isn’t great. The Pelicans had hoped going into the season that New Orleans native Elfrid Payton, who they’d signed as a free agent from the Phoenix Suns, would come into his own and give Holliday a capable running mate on the perimeter. But while Payton looked good early in the season he promptly got hurt, and played just 42 games. Not particularly well, as it turns out – Payton’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) was a very average 14.02, which falls below the league average of 15.0. Beyond Payton the PER numbers for the Pelicans’ guards were nothing short of abysmal, and none of them – including E’Tuan Moore (11.52 PER, 11.9 ppg), whose contract cost the team $8.8 million in 2018-19 – look like they’re worth bringing back.
But Payton is relatively cheap at only $3 million per year, so if he could stay healthy with a reconstituted team it’s possible he might be able to add more value. Find another guard or two in free agency to give the team a bit of perimeter depth, and a Davis-Williamson-Randle-Holliday-Payton lineup is one Griffin can definitely build with. After all, the oldest player in that starting five is Holliday (19.43 PER, 55th best in the NBA in what was an off year this past year) at just 28 years old.
That’s if you can keep Davis around. And Griffin is correct to preserve that as a primary option. After all, for all the bridge-burning Davis did with the Pelicans this past year he still averaged 25.9 and 12.0 per game, with a PER of 30.32 – good enough for 3rd in the entire NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. You can make the argument that it isn’t possible to get a better player than Davis if you trade him. Milwaukee isn’t parting with the Greek Freak and the Rockets aren’t giving Harden up.
But if you can’t keep Davis around you’ve still got tons of options.
Without Davis, you still have Okafor (18.00 PER) and Wood (23.50 PER) who can rotate into your post, not to mention 22-year old Chiekh Diallo (17.56 PER), who showed a bit of improvement in his second year, you still have Randle (21.02 PER, tied for 36th in the NBA) and you can still draft Williamson – and you can very easily go “small” with Randle and Williamson at center and power forward. That might be an undersized post, albeit with a pair of 6-11 players and a 6-9 guy available off the bench, but the athleticism of a Randle-Williamson post is dangerous.
And now you’re trading an elite player in Davis for a pile of talent the rest of the league will put on offer. Here are a couple of options.
The Boston Celtics have four first round picks available, though the lottery didn’t go well for them Tuesday. Boston’s top pick sits at No. 14 in the draft, which isn’t as marketable as the Pelicans would be looking for if they’re trading Davis. To do a deal with them would mean players, and Boston would have to offer some combination of wings Jayson Tatum (15.13 PER) and/or Jaylen Brown (13.58 PER), or guard Marcus Smart (13.12 PER) along with picks. Tatum and Brown are considered players on the rise, but neither were particularly great this year and with Holliday as a better shooting guard than either it really only makes sense to take one of them – and then you get to the question of whether Boston is really offering the kind of value that gets a deal done. With a pick in the top 7, you’re in the ballpark. At #14, not quite.
The New York Knicks might be a little better thought. The question, with the Knicks drafting 3rd, becomes what the Memphis Grizzlies will do with the 2nd pick. Memphis’ best player is their point guard Mike Conley. But Conley is 31, and the best player in the draft aside from Williamson is Murray State point guard Ja Morant. If Memphis drafts Williamson’s Duke teammate R.J. Barrett with the 2nd pick, then Morant could fall to 3rd – in which case the Pelicans might well deal Davis to the Knicks for that 3rd pick, perhaps New York’s #1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and rookie center Mitchell Robinson, a Chalmette native who had an up-and-down first year. Robinson’s PER was a better-than-appreciated 22.01 in 66 games this past year; he averaged 7.3 and 6.4 with 2.4 blocks a game in just 20 minutes per contest, and he also shot better than 69 percent from the floor. He’s 21 years old and he’s 7-1 and 240 pounds, making him potentially a better version of Tyson Chandler on the come. Add Morant to a backcourt with Holliday and let Payton come off the bench, and play Randle and Williamson at the forwards and now you’ve got something to work with.
Or maybe you’re drafting Barrett with that 3rd pick, and Holliday primarily plays the point guard while Barrett is the “2.” A Robinson-Randle-Williamson-Barrett-Holliday lineup with Payton, Okafor and Wood off the bench is only really a backup guard and a backup wing away from being a contending lineup.
The Los Angeles Lakers spent the latter part of the season throwing players into a pile of trade bait in order to get former Pelicans GM Dell Demps to bite on trading Davis, and Demps smartly refused. Los Angeles now has the 4th pick in the draft, which would make Williamson’s other Duke teammate Cam Reddish a possibility, along with Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, who missed all but four games of his freshman season with injury and might be a sleeper in the draft. That pick alone obviously isn’t enough to make a trade with the Lakers worthwhile, though, and the best player the Lakers offered Kyle Kuzma doesn’t really fix anything since Kuzma and Randle play essentially the same position. What’s more, Kuzma scores a lot (18.7 ppg), but his PER this year was a weak 14.05. Besides LeBron James, the only other player the Lakers have whose PER was better than 20 this past year is center JaVale Magee, who’s 31 years old. L.A. can offer quantity, but not quality, and a trade with them would essentially come to Davis for Reddish or Garland. You’d imagine Griffin can do better than that.
Then there’s the L.A. Clippers, who have courted Davis, but it’s hard to see what the Clippers have that would push Griffin’s buttons. The Clippers’ two most marketable players, guard Lou Williams and wing forward Danilo Gallinari, are both older than 30, and they don’t even have a first round pick.
The Atlanta Hawks have two first-rounders, at #8 and #10, and a pretty good young post player in 21-year old Jon Collins (19.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 21.85 PER). Whether they’d be willing to package those picks and Collins in order to pair Davis with rookie point guard Trae Young in an interesting combination remains to be seen, but at #8 and #10 there are some possible impact draftees available like shooting guard Coby White of North Carolina, wing Romeo Langford of Indiana, center Jaxson Hayes of Texas or maybe even shooting guard Jarrett Culver from Texas Tech, and a Collins-Randle-Williamson front line might be worth exploring.
Those are just a few examples. This entire exercise, though, becomes fun when you plug in Williamson as a sure thing on the Pelicans’ roster – because now you’re looking for secondary players to pair with him rather than trying to find stars for your team.
There’s a reason the Pelicans’ staff went crazy Tuesday night after winning that draft lottery. They’ve all of a sudden got a blazingly bright future to contemplate.