30 Teams in 30 Days: New Orleans Pelicans look to build off last season's playoff success
New players Randle, Payton will be counted on to contribute immediately
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s team: New Orleans Pelicans
Who’s new: Jahlil Okafor (free agency), Julius Randle (free agency), Elfrid Payton (free agency)
Who’s gone: DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo
The lowdown: For the first time in the Anthony Davis era, the Pelicans won a playoff series, and did so in style, sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers without Cousins. The starting center was lost for the season months earlier with an Achilles injury, forcing the Pelicans to change their style on the fly. This was done because Nikola Mirotic, obtained from the Chicago Bulls before the trade deadline, instantly became a valuable stretch shooter. And Rondo paired comfortably with Jrue Holiday in the backcourt and smartly directed the club, coming up big in the postseason.
And of course, Davis generated Kia MVP chatter with a first team All-NBA season, dominating on both ends with 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Although the Pelicans were swamped in the Western Conference semifinals by the defending-champion Golden State Warriors, this was a triumphant season that awakened the franchise and saved coach Alvin Gentry’s job.
After spending lavishly, and maybe recklessly, in the past in giving fat contracts to marginal-at-best players (Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore) and then breaking the bank for Holiday, the Pelicans needed to be more fiscally responsible. This was the task for embattled GM Dell Demps, and he found some distressed assets in Okafor and Payton along with a relative bargain in Randle to ease the sting of some key losses.
Demps had to make a financial decision on Cousins and chose not to put his job and the Pelicans’ franchise in jeopardy by offering Cousins a long-term deal. That wasn’t exactly a tough call; Cousins is a big man coming off an injury that requires a calendar year to heal. Which means the Pelicans would essentially pay Cousins to rehab the regular season, then hope he’d resume being one of the NBA’s top centers in 2019-20.
The Achilles injury is a career-ender or crippler in most cases and, basically, this was a money gamble the Pelicans couldn’t afford to make. This isn’t a franchise that’s equipped to laugh at the luxury tax even if Cousins recovered nicely. So the Pelicans gave him an offer he could refuse, and he did, fleeing to Golden State instead, where the talent-rich Warriors don’t need him for the regular season.
The Pelicans played well without Cousins last season and into the playoffs, where their breezy, open-court style caught the Blazers off guard. So maybe the loss of Cousins will be minimal at worst. Rondo’s departure via free agency to the Lakers on a one-year deal was a deal New Orleans easily could’ve matched or beat. His decision to leave was puzzling — after resurrecting his career in New Orleans and once again becoming one of the game’s great floor leaders, why would he leave happiness?
At least by going to the Lakers, Rondo helped the Pelicans get Randle. The Lakers had to renounce the restricted free agent to sign Rondo (and others), and so the Pelicans found landed a 23-year-old, 6-foot-9 brute at power forward who’s just tapping his potential. As a bonus, Randle came on a steal of a deal (just the mid-level) because of the soft free agent market. He averaged 16.1 ppg and 8 rpg last season and grew more confident after the All-Star break. There’s the issue of where Randle fits next to Davis and which one will see time at center, (Randle can’t space the floor like Cousins did), but that’s a pleasant “problem.”
They also found Rondo’s replacement with another restricted free agent whose team refused to match his offer. Payton, the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft by Orlando, never became the Magic’s point guard of the future and was dealt to the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline. The Suns passed on re-signing him as well. The 24-year-old, who was born in nearby Gretna, La., struggles with his outside shot, but has a variety of overall skills and has shown some triple-double tendencies in the past.
Finally, the Pelicans signed Okafor for the price of a cup of gumbo. Okafor flamed out in Philly and Brooklyn, two places starved for talent at the time, which raises more red flags than a parade in China. How can the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 Draft and the star of a national championship team at Duke fall so fast in three years?
It’s telling that the rebuilding Nets, who are desperate for players, dropped him at the curb and why Okafor sat on the market for weeks this summer. Are his work habits that bad? Is his defense that atrocious? Is there an attitude issue? It’s hard to keep secrets in the NBA. If the Nets didn’t want him, then lots of teams didn’t feel he was worth the trouble, either, even at a discount.
New Orleans had nothing to lose by throwing him a lifeline and Okafor has everything to gain in filling the center gap the Pelicans have. Maybe it’ll help that Okafor will learn the finer points of defense from Davis. If it doesn’t work in New Orleans, Okafor’s next stop might be Europe.
The Pelicans’ first-round pick went to Chicago in the Mirotic deal, yet their three summer signings (Okafor, Payton and Randle) are all 24 or younger anyway.
On paper, the Pelicans made out quite well this summer from a cost and risk standpoint. But can either or all of the replacements for Cousins and Rondo help New Orleans return to the playoffs?
Coming Next: Utah Jazz
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