Anthony Davis and the Pelicans need to figure it out, and fast

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It has been four years since the Pelicans rushed a prefab identity around Anthony Davis by dealing for Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans -- the last two "young veterans" in a Finishing Five that would barely play together before disbanding.

Injuries torpedoed any chance for New Orleans to figure out what kind of team it wanted to be. Suddenly, Holiday and Evans are set to enter free agency a year after Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon bolted for Houston.

"It came so fast," Holiday told ESPN.com last week in New York. "When you're injured, it seems like it's taking forever. But then you look back and it's like, 'Damn. So much happened.'"

When a team lands upon a style -- an identity -- you can describe it in one sentence. The Pelicans are still a stream-of-consciousness novel, and they can't just blame injuries. Some pieces proved tricky fits, and there remains disagreement among coaches and executives over fundamental questions: Is Davis a center or a power forward? Do we want a switching defense, or something more conservative? Can Holiday play the improvisational style Alvin Gentry wants? Can he stay healthy?

"It has been such a struggle to find our identity," Davis told ESPN.com. "And we don't have much time left."

He's talking about the pathetic race for the No. 8 seed, not his long-term future in New Orleans. Davis is admirably clear about that. "This is where I want to be," he said. "I love the city, and I love the culture."

Holiday is less so. He hasn't thought about free agency yet -- "not even a little bit," he said. The team is worried he will walk, and that his departure will leave Davis frustrated about the franchise's direction. "I'm gonna do everything in my power to keep him here," Davis said, "but it's a business decision, and he's a grown man with a family."

It's a business decision for the Pelicans, too.

In theory, the Pelicans should probably tank. They are within spitting distance of last place in the West, and it would be easy to backslide to a top-six pick in a loaded draft teeming with point guards. Stay the course, and they risk trapping their superstar in mediocrity, thanks largely to the ripple effects of past deals.

The "Young Veterans" push was a mostly defensible response to ownership's win-now mandate. Dell Demps, the team's GM, landed Anderson for nothing. If Gordon had stayed healthy and played at even 80 percent of his current level, no one would have whined about his max contract.

Nabbing a healthy Holiday, still just 26, for the picks that became Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton doesn't look so bad. (Yeah, those picks might have become Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Zach LaVine, Rudy Gobert, or Rodney Hood. They also could have yielded some combination of Shane Larkin, Tony Snell, Shabazz Muhammad, Adreian Payne, and Noah Vonleh. The draft is a crapshoot; half the league passed on Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.)

Flipping Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez for Tyreke Evans, a twirling bowling ball, was a decent gamble. Unfortunately, sacrificing Lopez led to a catastrophe: tossing away another first-round pick for Omer Asik, and then plopping a $50 million contract in Asik's sweaty hands.

Everything went bust. That happens. But the way this particular string of deals went bust left New Orleans with almost no maneuverability. They had no picks, and no prospects on cheapo rookie contracts to grease the trade wheels. For most of the last four years, no Pellie beyond Davis and minimum-salaried flotsam outperformed their contracts.

No one is clamoring for Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore, earning $20 million per year combined on deals that will make it hard for New Orleans to dip back into free agency if they retain either Evans or Holiday.

This is the lure of the tank: Snag one asset -- a top-seven pick -- that opens pathways to others. Draft a point guard making $15 million less than Holiday, and you've got a potential foundational player plus the flexibility to caulk other holes -- including that glaring need for a small forward who can shoot.

Still under pressure to chase 45 wins? Cool. Flip that sucker at the draft for a veteran contributor, re-sign Holiday (or Evans), and see what you have this time.

Of course, Demps and Gentry live in the real world. They have no political backing to tank unless Davis suffers a long-term injury in the next few weeks. Miss the playoffs, and both are on shaky ground. (Don't look for Danny Ferry, currently an advisor to the front office, to take over in any shakeup, sources say.)

The most likely scenario is standing pat with Holiday through the season, swallowing hard in July, and paying him almost whatever he requests. There may not be any better Plan B.

And Holiday is really good! He has a calm change-of-pace game, and a nice chemistry finding Davis on the pick-and-roll. He hits enough 3s that defenses have to pay at least token respect.

He's big and physical, with inklings of a useful post game:

You can imagine some Chris Paul/Blake Griffin-style pick-and-rolls in which Holiday nestles into position on the block, and Davis zips down to screen for him.

Holiday and Buddy Hield, New Orleans' nitpicked rookie, are learning how to play off of each other on D'Antoni-style read-and-react triggers:

Hield is on fire after an icy start, quieting (for now) the Jamal Murray FOMO.

Holiday feels like himself again. During a recent game against the Hawks, Darren Erman, the Pelicans' associate head coach, suggested Holiday pressure Dennis Schroder high on the floor. Holiday balked, he recalled, telling Erman: "Dennis is too fast!"

Erman reminded him: "Jrue, you're fast, too!" Holiday almost stripped Schroeder on the very next possession. "I haven't felt this good in a long time," Holiday said.

He has always been a borderline elite defender capable of guarding wing players.

But he has never been the sort of dynamic rim-attacker who can run an elite offense solo. Holiday functions best splitting the job with another off-the-bounce creator, and he's a good enough spot-up shooter to remain dangerous away from the ball. That was the idea in pairing him with Evans, but those two have logged just 45 minutes together this season.

Moore can soak up some point guard duties next to Holiday, but the Pelicans would be too small starting Moore, Holiday, and Hield. The idea of starting Evans as a (slightly) undersized small forward is about to expire; it's hard to imagine New Orleans bringing both Evans and Holiday back, and Holiday is the higher priority.

New Orleans has given major wing minutes to both Dante Cunningham and Hill, but they work best at power forward. The Pelicans discussed throwing all their money at Harrison Barnes before splitting it among Moore, Hill, and others, sources say. Barnes told ESPN.com this week he would have considered the Pelicans had they contacted him. New Orleans felt they had to move before the Kevin Durant sweepstakes shook out. All this has left Holiday at the controls.

The team is still not sure whether he feels the game well enough to thrive within a more democratic, Warriors-style offense heavy on motion and ad-libs. He struggles at times to get New Orleans into its initial action, and there are simmering worries about his decision-making. The offense Gentry envisions -- "instinctive basketball" -- requires everyone to negotiate a bunch of moment-to-moment decisions on every possession.

"I think he can do it," Gentry told ESPN.com, "but sometimes he becomes more of a scorer than we would like."

The Pelicans can stagnate after one or two passes. That's not all on Holiday, obviously. It takes years to hone five-man synergy. "There's no follow up to our initial play, and it's really hard to score on your initial play," Gentry said. "But this is a journey. It's not something we will solve in 20 games."

New Orleans ranks just 27th in points per possession, and they've been no better with both Holiday and Davis on the floor, per NBA.com.

In Holiday's defense, he's not exactly working within ideal confines. Most of New Orleans' core lineups feature at least two players opposing defenses ignore on the perimeter -- including both Hill and Cunningham in their current preferred small-ball starting five, with Davis at center.

They have no corridor to the basket with defenders strangling the lane from every direction:

Labeling all these guys as non-shooters isn't totally fair. New Orleans has hit 37.5 percent of its 3s on an above-average number of attempts since Holiday's return. Cunningham is shooting a career-best 38 percent from deep, and a hair better than 40 percent on those sweet, sweet corner triples. Hill has nailed 38 percent of those, and even Evans is shrugging and jacking when defenders duck under screens against him.

Defenses just don't care, and that disrespect can matter more than percentages. Cunningham and Hill need time and space to launch; opponents are fine sloughing off them and recovering for a weak challenge. That is better than letting Davis jaunt through the lane.

The secondary Pelicans have no choice but to fire away. Before their loss against Indiana on Monday, Gentry showed the team clips of Cunningham, Hill, and others passing up open looks -- and ordered them to let fly next time, he said.

"If teams are gonna just give us shots," Gentry said, "we have to take them."

Find shooting on the wing, and Holiday would look better as the head of the snake regardless of system or style. The Pelicans just have to decide if the wing is their most urgent need -- another question of identity.

That wing-heavy small-ball starting five has unlocked an effective switchy defense the players like; the Pelicans rank a surprising seventh in points allowed per possession, by far by the best mark of the Brow era.

But they haven't committed to staying small, and sticking Davis at center. They worry about the physical toll it would take, and fretted after Davis picked up two quick fouls jostling with Dwight Howard two weeks ago. In the days that followed, Atlanta and New Orleans had exploratory talks about possible Howard trades before the Hawks pulled everyone off the market, according to several league sources. It is unclear how interested New Orleans was, and there was not unanimous support within the team for acquiring Howard.

Gentry started Terrence Jones next to Davis during Saturday's bludgeoning in Chicago, and there is already a push from some in the coaching staff to try Donatas Motiejunas next to him. Jones and Motiejunas have outside-in skills, so they (in theory) present the best of both worlds: they drag one defender out of the paint on offense, and spare Davis full-time center duty on defense.

But the spacing doesn't quite materialize. Jones and Motiejunas are both free agents this summer, anyway, and neither figures to be available for the minimum salary again. New Orleans will not have room to spend big on a point guard, a wing, and a big man. They face hard choices, starting with Holiday.

Keep him on the books, and they can open something like only $12 million in room -- and much less if either Cunningham or Langston Galloway opts in for next season. They could pry open about $7 million more by waiving Asik with the stretch provision, which they should absolutely do. The Saints would.

Still: That won't net a max-level wing such as Gordon Hayward, or even Otto Porter. (One penalty for drafting Hield: He's a pure shooting guard, limiting the Pelicans' options in an already depressing free agent wing crop.) Letting Holiday walk would clear that kind of space, but open up another hole at point guard.

It will be fascinating to see how that market develops. All the best free agents -- Paul, Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Jeff Teague -- are good-to-great bets to stick with their current teams. That would leave everyone else fighting over Holiday, potentially driving up his price.

The Pelicans could pivot to guys like Patty Mills, Shaun Livingston, Raymond Felton, and other stop-gaps, though Mills will be expensive. The league has figured out how good he is.

They could also get ahead of the problem and sniff out trades for veteran point guards under contract beyond this season. Two obvious names: Reggie Jackson and Goran Dragic. Let's just say there is a disagreement between the Pistons and every team they've talked to about the level of Jackson's availability.

The Heat don't want to trade Dragic, and they're in line for a top-three pick as is. Their tank needs no fuel. Dragic is also a little old for Davis's timeline, though Demps has coveted him before -- including in the vetoed Chris Paul trade.

Would Miami or Detroit listen if the Pelicans offered Holiday and their unprotected first-round pick? Maybe. But there is a ton of risk loaded into that offer for both sides. If the Pelicans win the slap-fight for the No. 8 spot and Holiday walks, the Heat or Pistons have traded a solid point guard on a long-term deal for the 15th pick. Fall deeper into the lottery dregs, and the Pelicans end up giving up a golden ticket.

The same uncertainty would handicap any pursuit of a three-and-D guy -- say, Wesley Matthews.

The Pelicans will probably ride it out with Holiday, and hope the bidding for him doesn't get $20-million-per-year frothy. They might win that bet. Chicago and Dallas, two obvious suitors, won't have that kind of room unless funky stuff happens with options linked to Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade. The Spurs can't get there unless Pau Gasol opts out.

That would leave only Sacramento, Philadelphia, New York, and perhaps Orlando as big-money suitors in dire need of a point guard. The Sixers will take a hard look at Holiday, sources say; he fits what they need around Ben Simmons, and the hilariousness of Philly bringing Holiday back after flipping him to start The Process is irresistible. Orlando has expressed interest in Dragic, sources have said, but Elfrid Payton has surged over the last month.

If the Pelicans can nab Holiday for $15 million or so, that might be their best option, even with his scary injury history. Commit to Davis at center, and spend every other asset searching for shooting and cheapo bigs who can absorb some punishment when Davis needs a break. One realistic exception: If Teague bolts Indiana, New Orleans should be prepared to spend extra on him. He's more reliable, and he spent years conducting Mike Budenholzer's side-to-side orchestra.

Holiday at that salary would give New Orleans some flexibility in 2018 and beyond. He's also good, and the Pelicans can't exactly be super-picky with good players who want to be in New Orleans.

How they build a contender around Davis, Holiday, and the rest of their roster is unclear. But they could build a good team soon, and Davis is under contract through at least 2020. The Pelicans need time, and they have it -- even if Davis's deal will come up in a blink.

"It has been hard to define who we are," Gentry said. "We have to do that first."