Pelicans stay one small step ahead of their shortcomings catching up to them, per usual

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

On Feb. 16, 2017, I published an article about how difficult it’d be for the Pelicans to get Anthony Davis a star teammate.

Three days later, they traded for DeMarcus Cousins.

How did that happen? A few months before Cousins became officially eligible, the Kings got got squeamish about giving him the super-max extension both sides had seemingly agreed upon. Sacramento lacked the organizational prowess to navigate a difficult situation by doing anything other than rushing to trade Cousins, who was still under contract for another season-and-a-half. In the process, the Kings tanked Cousins’ already-limited value even further. New Orleans had Sacramento target Buddy Hield and was willing to surrender a future first-rounder.

The Pelicans were in the right place at the right time.

That wasn’t the case this summer, when Cousins left New Orleans for the Warriors. And maybe that’s OK.

The Pelicans are a fringe playoff team in this loaded Western Conference. They couldn’t necessarily afford to wait on Cousins’ torn Achilles to heal. Every win matters to them – especially as they move toward inflection points with Davis.

Though I’m grading only this offseason, we can still note how New Orleans’ prior errors made the Cousins timing so tricky. Better-positioned teams wouldn’t stress him missing the start of the season if it meant getting a star at a big discount (though, to be fair, we don’t know whether Cousins would have accepted the taxpayer-mid-level-exception salary he’ll earn in Golden State from the Pelicans, who could have offered more).

It was a similar story with Rajon Rondo, who signed with New Orleans last year after finding an unwelcoming market. Because of their lackluster roster, the Pelicans offered the starting job Rondo coveted. So, he took a one-year deal, exceeded expectations then left for a raise in a glitzier market this year.

New Orleans replaces Rondo and Cousins with Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle. Whether or not that’s an upgrade is difficult to discern and made the Pelicans’ grade the toughest to assign this year.

Rondo fit well into New Orleans’ ball-movement system, and he stepped up defensively in the playoffs. But the Lakers’ offer to him ($9 million for one year) was steep. Still, Payton must take significant steps forward to match Rondo’s production. Maybe the 24-year-old will.

The Pelicans surged after Cousins went down last season, including sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers in the first round. So, in a sense, Randle is just an addition. He, Davis and Nikola Mirotic should form a nice big-man rotation with varying skill sets.

But Randle (two-year non-taxpayer mid-level exception with a player option) and Payton (one-year, $3 million) are locked in for only one season. If they play well, New Orleans will just have to hope everything lines up again next offseason. If they struggle, New Orleans will have even bigger problems.

In the meantime, the Pelicans have enough to deal with. They traded their 2018 first-round pick to get Mirotic last season. Randle got the entire mid-level exception, and Payton got nearly all of the bi-annual exception. That meant filling out the roster with several minimum contracts containing varying guarantees. Signing Tyrone Wallace to an offer sheet was a nice idea, but the Clippers matched, leaving New Orleans with Ian Clark, Jahlil Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Darius Morris, Troy Williams, Garlon Green and Kenrich Williams. Maybe there’s a diamond in the rough.

That’d be nice for the Pelicans, who know all too well about playing from the rough.

They just keep trying to plug holes, because it’s too hard to build a strong foundation around Davis. New Orleans might have done well enough this year, but the same issues loom next year.

Offseason grade: C