The New Orleans Pelicans got exactly what they wanted in the first phase of a pivotal offseason, coming out of draft day with a haul of Buddy Hield -- a player both general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry said they coveted -- and Cheick Diallo, a raw, high-upside big man for whom they traded up for in the second round.
Gentry says they have already mapped out a plan for Phase 2, but with the salary cap expected to surge from $70 million last season to a reported $94 million next season, this year’s free-agent market figures to be a moving target for all involved.
“I don’t know how you prepare for it,” Gentry said. “To me, it’s like when the first time the free-agent contracts came up, during the Allan Houston year. We had Allan Houston at Detroit [in 1996] and we offered him more money than Michael Jordan was making at the time, and we were about $5 million a year short. We have no idea how this is going to play out or work out. All you can do is try to stay on top of it, figure out what the market is with guys you’re very much interested in and go from there.”
Not only will the Pelicans be expected to improve upon an injury-marred 30-52 season, but with seven free agents of their own -- ranging from franchise stalwarts (Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon) to rotation players (Norris Cole, Kendrick Perkins and possibly Alonzo Gee, should he opt out) to intriguing youngsters (Tim Frazier, James Ennis) -- they’ll need names to simply fill out the roster, with as much as $24 million to work with if they clear the decks of all non-guarantees (Toney Douglas, Luke Babbitt), cap holds and qualifying offers.
In other words: They have their work cut out for them.
“I think we just got to add players, good players,” Gentry said. “I don’t think you can ever say no to any position that’s a good player.”
Indeed, Gentry, the lead assistant during the Golden State Warriors’ 2014-15 championship run, has often flouted the need for defined positions, noting instead that he covets “basketball players” -- i.e., skilled, versatile, two-way players. With that in mind, here’s a list of the skills the Pelicans need to add this offseason in the hopes of returning to playoff contention next season.
3-point shooting ... without sacrificing defense
The hard part of roster-building, barring health, is done: In Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans have their offensive focal point and a point guard to feed him. Now they need space to operate.
Hield will certainly help; he shot a scorching 46 percent from 3 his senior year, and 23 percent of his scoring came in transition, which should make for a nice fit with the offense’s odometer. But with Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter on the mend, Gordon and Anderson unlikely to return, and Douglas and Babbitt (if retained) best suited for limited roles, the Pelicans -- who were a healthy ninth in 3-point percentage and tied for 15th in frequency last season -- will need an influx of shooters to spread out the defense.
The key, though, will be doing so without sacrificing any defense. “3-and-D” is decidedly in across the NBA, yet a rash of injuries forced New Orleans to cycle through 3-or-D options. Gee and Dante Cunningham are both solid rotation players, but seeing them in your top five in minutes played is probably not a strong indicator of team success.
Gentry can probably get 100 points out of a D-League team -- he basically did that at the end of last season -- but a defense that ranked 28th overall and 25th in 3-point percentage differential is a sore spot that Pelicans brass readily admits needs maintenance.
Gentry was clear in pinpointing the Pelicans’ top offseason priority soon after his first season in New Orleans ended: “I think we need that 6-7 athletic guy that can also be somewhat of a facilitator,” he said.
Golden State, Gentry’s old stomping grounds, has triggered nothing short of a league-wide revolution; its roster is dotted with such players. And the current-day Hornets saw their offense rise into the top 10 for the first time under Steve Clifford in large part because of the addition of Nicolas Batum, who ranked third in the NBA (behind Draymond Green and LeBron James) in passes to shooters last season, per ESPN Stats and Information research.
Batum, who figures to have a surplus of suitors, might be out of the Pelicans' price range, but a similar player could significantly aid the re-emergence of MVP-level Davis, who extended his range out farther than ever under Gentry but still used an assist on three-quarters of his makes.
Davis’ bona fide shot-blocking has long been beyond his years, as evidenced by a league-high per-game marks in both his second and third NBA seasons. But, possibly as a result of playing away from the basket more, the 23-year-old’s block rate tumbled to a career low, and the Pelicans’ rim protection sank along with it: from 52.1 percent allowed at the rim (19th in NBA) to 54.8 (28th). (Although, on the bright side, New Orleans allowed the second-fewest attempts at the rim on average.)
The Pelicans already have approximately $14.6 million committed next season to Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca -- both of whom struggled to adapt to Gentry’s fast-paced, offensive-rebound-indifferent system. And New Orleans drafted Diallo, whose motor and energy should help greatly here ... eventually. But with Anderson’s price tag likely to induce sticker shock, the Pelicans have an opportunity to invest in a frontcourt partner for Davis who can help a defense that ranked in the league’s bottom third, even when the good times were rolling in 2014-15.