The afterglow of the New Orleans Pelicans’ unexpected surge into last year’s postseason only seemed to intensify as last summer dragged on. Anthony Davis was the future, the Pelicans’ indie band was getting national play, and New Orleans, historically a nonfactor at the highest levels of free agency, began to show some appeal, especially as player after player at the top of last year’s class prioritized future success over market muscle. Chandler Parsons wouldn’t be showing up at Tipitina’s with owner Tom Benson at 11:01 p.m. on July 1, but a player of his caliber appeared within the Pelicans' reach if the encore season even skimmed expectations.
Instead, Parsons agreed to a max deal with Memphis -- whose media market ranks one spot ahead of New Orleans at the bottom of NBA cities -- while the Pelicans’ early free-agent haul consists of the third-most popular Hill on the Indiana Pacers and a former second-rounder joining his fourth team in five years.
Indeed, the optics of Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore holding up freshly pressed Pelicans jerseys likely won’t ripple among a largely ambivalent local fan base, even with the Saints on hiatus. The big dreams of the 2014-15 core ushering in a Pax Romana, it’s fair to say, are officially dead, with the departures of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (the final vestige of the Chris Paul trade) to Houston, to play for Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry’s old boss, serving as the final nails.
But in their wake, the Pelicans -- equipped with merely adequate means and saddled by several holes to fill -- have started a critical offseason with the sort of prudent purchases necessary to put themselves on a path to a new, more sustainable version.
Even in the halcyon days of ... two seasons ago, New Orleans’ defense -- which has never risen above the bottom third of the league in the Davis era -- would undo nearly all good offered by a devastating offense when it switched to a smaller frontcourt. While Anderson certainly wasn’t the only culprit, his particular skill set forced the team into an almost NFL-style offense/defense tradeoff: The former Most Improved Player Award winner ranked eighth among qualifying power forwards in offensive real plus-minus in each of the past two seasons and 79th and 92nd, respectively, in defensive real plus-minus.
This time around, the Pelicans made a clear effort to strike a balance. Hill, who swung through positions 2-4 in his three-year career in Indy, had a higher net rating (which measures the team's point differential per 100 possessions while he is on court) last season (plus-4.2) than any New Orleans player. He also had a defensive real plus-minus ranking (23rd among small forwards) akin to the Pelicans' Alonzo Gee (18th) but without the same burden on offense (44 percent on 27 corner 3s last season). Moore is a capable backcourt defender (minus-0.44 DRPM, 37th among 2-guards) who will provide much-needed spacing if he shoots anywhere near last season’s 45 percent rate from behind the arc. In other words: two players who fill needs, procured at reasonable prices in a seller’s market.
There are concerns, and they start at the same place as the positives: While both Hill and Moore are coming off career seasons -- or, in the former’s case, postseason -- their track records beforehand are spotty. Hill is a career 32 percent 3-point shooter who played 15 minutes a game before a breakthrough, ultra-efficient seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors. Smart guys Kevin Pelton and Zach Lowe will also tell you the 25-year-old is more effective as a small-ball power forward, yet the Pelicans intend to play him mostly as a 3 who can spot at the 4 on occasion (including closing lineups). Moore, meanwhile, shot a modest 35 percent from 3 in his first four NBA seasons and has averaged more 3-point attempts than free throw attempts.
But with their inbox devoid of any Evites to swanky locales to pitch the game’s elite, the Pelicans at least chose to pay for future potential, not past performance. And unlike in years past, this round of young veterans with room to grow alongside Davis didn’t cost them any further assets above the purchase price.
The Pelicans were never going to solve their myriad issues in one summer. Whatever happens next season, and how it affects the long-term future of the front office, will ultimately be decided by the foundation that was laid for this team years ago.
Without the requisite lead time for a full-blown rebuild before Davis can flee, the Pelicans will likely have to rely on stringing together a series of small victories like the Hill and Moore deals. Maybe it won’t be enough to make a dent in their division, let alone the Western Conference playoff field. But as Gentry will tell you time and time again, there’s no such thing as a bad win.