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The Pelicans are Bad Luck Birds
By Jeff Weissman Posted in NBA on September 14, 2017 0 Comments
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It seems that Lady Luck has a bit of a grudge against the New Orleans Pelicans. Things have gotten so bad that I’m not even sure that my ready-made list of annoying cliches can properly express the team’s misfortune. Murphy’s Law, the Cleveland Browns of basketball, voodoo curses… seriously, it was a good list.

It was all going so well, too. The Hornets nameplate left behind Anthony Davis, one of the best young talents that the league has seen in a long time, and oodles of hard-earned draft picks and cap space. The name change was supposed to represent a changing of the times, a long-awaited leap out from under the gloomy shadows of Chris Paul, David Stern, and Byron Scott.

The basketball gods, however, decided that such a leap simply wasn’t in the cards.

Now, the Pels made quite a few risky moves. Nobody can really deny that. GM Dell Demps has never been one to shy away from defining his own balance of risk and reward, and his tendency to make the splashiest move possible probably only compounded the team’s issues. Other teams have followed similar paths, and some of them watched their hopes and dreams be whisked away as their plans and schemes backfired.

See: every team involved in the Dwightmare.

Thus, one expects some duds on the track record. Most GMs, especially ones that play with fire, account for these failings in their plans. Demps was no exception. But this, this has just been ridiculous.

Almost every single move that the Pelicans have made has blown up in their faces. Seriously, I’ll go over them. It’s actually kinda incredible. Unless, of course, you’re a Pelicans fan.

In that case, know that I do feel your pain. Billy King made sure of that.

Anyway, I’m sure that some of you are somewhat unfamiliar with the workings of this oft-ridiculed front office. Here, allow me to fill you in.

The Hornets may have drafted Austin Rivers, but it was the Pelicans that gave up on him. Demps shipped him off for Quincy Pondexter, and Rivers eventually made his way to the Clippers, where the young guard really began to come into his own. Ironically, he’s turned into the exact kind of role player that the Pelicans desperately need right now. He’s a versatile threat on both ends, and the effects of his time under Chris Paul and JJ Redick can be seen throughout his game. On paper, he’d be a perfect fit next to any of the Pelicans guards.

Meanwhile, Quincy Pondexter has all but rotted away in New Orleans. Due to some lingering injuries, he hasn’t played since the 2014-15 season, and the Pels had to pay the Bulls to get rid of him. Before the Pelicans got him, Pondexter was a very solid 3&D role player, which, again, the team desperately needs. Now, he seems unlikely to ever step on an NBA court again.

So the Pelicans muffed one minor trade. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right?

Sadly, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Demps came to the conclusion that he needed a legitimate big man to stick next to Anthony Davis. Honestly, it was a very logical decision. Davis was skinny and injury-prone, and a slide down to the 4 for ~24 minutes a game seemed perfect. The Houston Rockets conveniently had a big man on the trade block thanks to the Dwight signing, and Demps happily made a move.

Until his last season with the Rockets, where he had stepped away from the team as part of his trade request, Omer Asik had never missed an NBA game. In his last year as a starter, he was a double double machine, racking up tons of rebounds and staying within himself on offense. He was a bulky, defensive-minded big man who banged around and cleaned up the trash on both ends.

Now? An illness has sapped his size and strength in a terrifying manner, his hands went from bad to pathetic, his rebounding and defensive stats have declined every year, and he’s missed significant time in every season in New Orleans.

Oh, and to top it off, the NBA itself changed, leaving Asik without a role next to Davis. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins might be able to play next to one another in this new league, but Asik probably can’t play effectively next to either of them. I hope Asik gets better soon, because his illness seems horrible, from the small tidbits of public information, but I doubt he’ll have much of a role when he does return.

After his first season in New Orleans, the Pelicans gave him a 5-year, $58 million contract. Most fans have already written all that money off.

The team decided that it needed a new lead man to build an elite offense around their superstar big man, so they signed the hottest coach on the market. Alvin Gentry was the man whom Steve Kerr trusted to create what was, at the time, one of the greatest offenses ever. He was supposed to come in and have the Pels up in triple digits almost every game.

Last year, the Pels ended the season with the league’s 5th worst offense, worse than offensive powerhouses like the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. Meanwhile, the Warriors offense has improved every single year since Gentry’s departure, and it’s becoming more and more clear that Gentry was completely replaceable.

Anthony Davis asked for some other actual offensive talent, and from looking at the roster, it was clear that he needed a PnR partner, so Dell Demps hit the market. He came back with two guys who, on paper, would be absolutely perfect.

By now, I hope you see what’s coming.

One of those acquisitions was Sixers guard Jrue Holiday. The Pels moved the 6th pick of the 2013 draft (Nerlens Noel) and a 2014 1st (eventually Dario Saric and another pick) for the lanky Holiday, who was coming off a breakout All-Star season.

Two years later, the Pelicans essentially sued the Sixers because Holiday simply could not stay on the floor. When he’s actually managed to stay on the court, Holiday has just about met expectations, but a combination of leg injuries and family health issues have kept him from consistent playing time. The Pelicans are hoping that Holiday’s massive new contract will mark the start of a new page, but with their luck, I don’t think anybody is willing to bet on it.

The other guard ended up being Tyreke Evans. Nobody expected Evans to live up to his historic rookie season after four confused years in Sacramento, but he still managed to disappoint. In his last year in purple, Evans made a huge leap forward with his efficiency. His splits were downright sexy, shooting nearly 48% from the field and hitting a respectable 34% of his threes. A guy like that would be a perfect third cog to play alongside Davis and Holiday, who were both excellent off-ball players. As long as he could keep hitting threes at a respectable rate while the other two operated, that Pelicans offense would be a force to be reckoned with.

Safe to say, he didn’t quite keep up that efficiency.

His FG% dropped below 44%, and he converted his threes at a pathetic 22% clip. 22%. That’s significantly worse than even Josh Smith’s worst shooting year.

Now, his shooting did slowly return to average, and eventually even good levels, but Evans had effectively set the tone for his tenure in New Orleans. Like so many others in the blue and gold, the injury bug soon bit, and Evans was tossed into the Boogie trade after playing in only 51 of his last 139 games with the team.

To add insult to injury, Evans proceeded to hit 44% of his threes in Sacramento post-trade, a career high clip at a career high rate.

And then there’s Solomon Hill’s recent injury and Ryan Anderson’s tragic last few years. There are more examples of misfortune, too, but I think I should stop here. Pelicans fans can only take so much, especially with the Saints’… trying start to the season. After all, I like the Pelicans. I miss Jrue, and my love for Rondo is well-known by now. I still think that this team will be good this year.

But that’s kinda the problem with the Pelicans. I actually liked every move I listed here, especially back when they first happened. I completely agreed with Demps that Davis needed a banger next to him, and even though I personally watched Omer Asik send the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Semis, I thought he’d be perfect for the role. I always liked Austin Rivers, but I thought Pondexter would fit the team much better, and they got him on such a nice contract too. I thought Evans would be great there, and I regretted the Holiday trade almost immediately.

Guess that’s why I’m not a GM.

In that way, Demps is like the anti-Rob Hennigan. Hennigan made move after questionable move that, until the past season or two, kept on inexplicably paying off. He somehow came out on top of the Dwight trade when Vucevic and Harkless began to impress while every other significant player involved in the blockbuster fucked over their team (Bynum, Dwight, Richardson, Iguodala). He traded for some unheard-of French two guard who magically turned into a 20 ppg scorer, and rented out JJ Redick and got Tobias Harris in return. I thought every single one of these moves was dumb at the time, yet they just kept on working out for the team. Until, of course, Hennigan’s luck ran out, and several moves finally began blowing up in his face. Hopefully, it’s a sign that the Pelicans’ luck is about to change, too.

Despite all of this baggage, there’s still hope in New Orleans.

The Boogie trade hasn’t quite blown up in their faces yet, Evans’ explosion in Sacramento aside, and it leaves them with an absurdly talented frontcourt. Holiday didn’t have any serious injury problems last season, and his versatility will be massive for a roster like this. The team just took a flyer on Tony Allen, to see if the aging defensive specialist has anything left in the tank, and they’ll likely bring in a couple more wings to try and stay afloat until Solomon Hill comes back.

And, of course, there’s a new point guard at the helm: Rajon freakin’ Rondo.

Before the Solomon Hill injury, I was half-convinced that the Pels would end up fighting for a WCF spot. Now, things are more blurry, especially when I have so little faith in Alvin Gentry. The spacing will be a mess, but I still think it can work. Rondo, Allen, and Boogie all have tons of pre-existing chemistry, which is oddly important for all of them, and I honestly trust Rondo to take Gentry’s mess of a system and design something beautiful with it. He certainly did it during last year’s playoffs for Hoiberg.

I still maintain that they need a defensive coach, but it looks as if Gentry is here to stay, so I guess they’ll have to work with what they’ve got. And they’ve got one hell of an interesting package.

The Pels have the rare ability to play big and small at the same time. Both Davis and Cousins possess all the abilities and skills of a prototype small-ball 4, all while being fucking huge. There’s some serious potential there, especially if Rondo (one of the best at getting players their touches) is able to keep them both sated offensively. Almost all of the league’s best teams specialize in small-ball, and, in theory, this three-man core can play with pretty much any lineup they trot out while still being able to bully their way to the bucket and crash the hell out of the boards.

The team will also be able to stagger minutes between their most valuable players with almost-unending flexibility, leaving them room to ride whatever hot hand breaks out that night. There are a lot of question marks here, but this is still a team that I expect to make the playoffs. And even if they don’t, I’ll be tuning in for almost every game, although if it’s bad enough, it’ll just be to see Rondo and Boogie tag team a Morris twin or something.

I always end up loving teams that zig where others zag, and that’s exactly what’s happening with this Pelicans squad. In a league full of point guards hoisting game winners from half court, they have a guy who’d much rather finish a game without shooting at all. Where every other team has gone small, the Pels are probably the biggest team since Duncan was a power forward. It’ll be weird, it’ll be wonky, and it might not work, but man, I can’t wait to see it.

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