Derrick Favors

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David Griffin calls Pelicans ‘a team that is sort of on the precipice of being very good’

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From the moment Zion Williamson walked on the court for the New Orleans Pelicans this season, the Pelicans became must-watch.

The team went 11-8 with the league’s 11th ranked offense, eighth-best defense, and a +4 net rating. New Orleans was 3.5 games back of Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West when the season was suspended, but with a soft schedule down the stretch (and the Grizzlies facing a brutal one), the postseason was not out of the question for New Orleans.

David Griffin, the Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, thinks his team could have grown a lot playing meaningful games down the stretch — regardless of what the result would have been. That opportunity may be lost. Still, he told the Pelicans’ official website he likes how this team is positioned.

“We have a young group here that is exciting,” Griffin said. “We have a team that is sort of on the precipice of being very good and is just scratching the surface of what we’re capable of. We’re optimistic – if we’re able to restart in any form or fashion – that we’re going to be a team that is one to be reckoned with.

“We’re a team that has shown a great deal of promise. I think there is a lot of optimism that surrounds our team on a lot of levels.”

Whether the league restarts this season or not, Griffin is right that this is a team on the rise.

There is Zion Williamson, who came in overhyped and then somehow exceeded expectations in the 19 games he got to play, averaging 23.6 points per game and opening up their offense with his gravity. Brandon Ingram found his jumper and became an All-Star player, one who fits well with Williamson. There were the lobs of Lonzo Ball and the bouncy potential of Jaxson Hayes. All that youth was surrounded by veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday.

Almost all of those players are under contract for next season. The Pelicans will need to max out Ingram to retain him, but that’s expected to happen. Derrick Favors is a free agent and the Pelicans will either need to re-sign him or find another big man who can fill that role. However, for the most part this team is locked in.

The West is going to be brutal next year. The Pelicans and Grizzlies are getting better, the Timberwolves are putting better players around Karl-Anthony Towns, the Suns are improving, the Golden State Warriors get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson healthy — and those are just the teams missing the playoffs this season. The Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, and everyone else are not going anywhere.

Even with all that, the Pelicans feel like a playoff team, whatever next season ends up looking like.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs

Mock NBA expansion draft
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, Pacific Division, Northwest Division and Southeast Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Southwest:

Dallas Mavericks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Seven of Dallas’ protections were easy calls. They’re all players locked up long-term. That left deciding between Tim Hardaway Jr, who has been a starter for the Mavericks but has a player option, and several other useful players.

Ultimately, the Mavs can’t afford to lose Hardaway, who has rediscovered his solid offensive play from his Hawks years. That leaves Justin Jackson and three big men in Dwight Powell (coming off a torn Achilles’) and Boban Marjanovic and Willie-Cauley-Stein (both backups for Dallas). The most likely to be selected player is probably Jackson, but that’s a risk Dallas has to take.

Houston Rockets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: No decision points for the Rockets. Houston is protecting the entirety of their eight-man rotation.

Chris Clemons could make for an interesting expansion pick because his scoring ability at guard. Isaiah Hartenstein has shown some flashes in the G-League as well.

Memphis Grizzlies

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Just how hard the Grizzlies’ protection decision were is a testament to how well their rebuild has gone. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton were all locks. Justise Winslow was just acquired at the trade deadline as the centerpiece of a deal. Tyus Jones is the ideal backup point guard behind Morant, so he stays as well. That left Jonas Valanciunas vs Kyle Anderson for the final protected spot. Valanciunas’ presence allows Jackson to play power forward, so the big man gets the final spot.

Memphis is gambling that Anderson’s slow-mo style of play and $9.5 million salary isn’t what an expansion team is looking for. Jontay Porter is another risk, but he’s got a lengthy injury history of his own. The Grizzlies will hope one of the other three is selected and might be willing to offer a small incentive to make it happen.

New Orleans Pelicans

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: New Orleans’ protections are cut and dry. Every player protected, minus Brandon Ingram, is signed for at least one more season. This includes several players on rookie scale contracts. Ingram will most assuredly be re-signed this summer, so that decision was easy as well.

The only gamble among the unprotected players is Nicolo Melli. He’s become a rotation player for the Pelicans, but he’s not as valuable as the younger players. The other three players are mostly out of the New Orleans’ rotation and not anyone the team will worry about if they are selected.

San Antonio Spurs

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Spurs are banking on keeping DeMar DeRozan this summer. He either opts in or re-signs in San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge is an easy decision as well. Dejounte Murray will start his extension this coming season. Everyone else is on their rookie scale contract, minus Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl is a restricted free agent that the Spurs hope to retain this offseason.

San Antonio is gambling that the big salaries of Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will keep them from being selected. That exposes Trey Lyles, who has a relatively small guarantee, and young big man Chimezie Metu. The Spurs would like to keep both, but not at the expense of losing a rookie scale player.

Diverted from Bahamas, Pelicans rookie Nicolo Melli’s peculiar Rising Stars selection

Pelicans rookie Nicolo Melli
Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images
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CHICAGO – Pelicans lead executive David Griffin and New Orleans rookie forward Nicola Melli share a joking relationship. So, when Griffin congratulated Melli yesterday on getting selected for All-Star Weekend, Melli didn’t believe it.

“Everybody knows that I wanted to go to the Bahamas on vacation a couple days,” Melli said. “So, I thought he was messing with me. I said, ‘It’s not true. C’mon. I’m going to the Bahamas.'”

It was true. Melli replaced an injured Deandre Ayton in Rising Stars.

So, Melli played in the Pelicans’ loss to the Thunder, grabbed some pizza to share with his wife on the plane and flew from New Orleans to frigid Chicago. Not quite the Bahamas.

Melli is facing another culture shock: At age 29, he’s not the typical rookie. He played more than a decade professionally in Europe before the Pelicans signed him last summer. For context, he’s older than New Orleans teammate Derrick Favors – who’s in his 10th NBA season.

Assuming he plays in Rising Stars tonight, Melli will be the fourth-oldest player ever to play in the event:

Pelicans rookie Nicolo Melli

Melli appeared happy to be here. It helps that Chicago is just a detour.

“I’m still going to the Bahamas,” he said.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks still on top of trade deadline talk edition

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We are about 24 hours away from the NBA Trade Deadline, and today’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings are heavy on trade talk. The Bucks and Lakers remain on top, but the Raptors are climbing fast.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (43-7, Last Week No. 1). While the Bucks are talking to teams, the sense from sources is they will stand pat at the deadline. Which makes sense. The Milwaukee Bucks remain on a 70-win pace this season, with a +11.8 net rating that compares to the Durant-Curry Warriors of a few seasons back (Cleaning the Glass projects the Bucks to “only” have 68 wins this season). Milwaukee remains the clear best team in the NBA this regular season.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (38-11, LW No. 2). The Lakers continue to dangle Kyle Kuzma in trade talks, but because he makes just $2 million (low in NBA terms), it becomes hard to match salaries and trade for a quality player. The Lakers will be more active on the buyout market and maybe they will land Darren Collison. Things seem to be returning to a more normal rhythm around the team following Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, but LeBron James‘ words at the first game back were worth remembering.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (36-14, LW 5). Winners of 12 in a row, the Raptors are poised to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers, although the most likely action is they stand pat. With all the injuries the Raptors have had to battle through — the latest is Norman Powell’s broken hand — they could use a little more depth, but finding a deal that works is not that simple. Congrats to Nick Nurse, who will coach his first All-Star Game this year.

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (34-15, LW 6). Boston is in the market for a rim-protecting, big-bodied big man, and Daniel Theis tweaking his ankle (he is out Wednesday, maybe longer) is a reminder how thin the Celtics are up front. The challenge is, with Clint Capela off the market, there may not be a good trade option for Boston (Andre Drummond is not a good fit, and it’s too hard to construct a deal for his $27 million salary anyway). If any All-Star Game roster spots open up due to injury, Jaylen Brown should be near the top of the list of replacements.

Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (35-15, LW 4). The Clippers are looking at trying to find a more traditional big man and maybe more shooting at the trade deadline, using their 2020 pick and Moe Harkless’ salary as the bait. Maybe that’s enough to land Andre Iguodala (and keep him away from the Lakers), but in the end the Clippers may stand pat — and that’s fine. This team is still +12.1 per 100 possessions when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on the court together, and that will happen a lot more in the playoffs.

Heat small icon 6. Heat (34-15, LW 7). Pat Riley and company are always active around the trade deadline, and they would love to find a trade that sends out Dion Waiters (and maybe James Johnson). However, mostly the Heat will keep their powder dry and look for a blockbuster move this summer that brings another star to to with Jimmy Butler. With Monday’s win over Philly, the Heat are 8-3 against the other top seven teams in the East (13-9 overall against +.500 teams).

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (35-16, LW 9). Denver became the fourth team in Tuesday night’s blockbuster 12-player trade, and they did well for themselves. Denver added depth with Gerald Green, Noah Vonleh (a third center), Shabazz Napier (an overqualified third point guard), and Keita Bates-Diop, plus they get Houston’s 2020 first-round pick. While they lose Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangómez, the Nuggets could not have re-signed both next summer. Denver made a statement last week with back-to-back road wins at Utah and Milwaukee.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (31-19, LW 10). Indiana is expected to be quiet at the trade deadline any moves they make likely are on the fringes of the roster. Teams have called about Aaron Holiday but have been shot down. Victor Oladipo is still getting his legs back underneath him and finding his rhythm, he’s shooting just 20.5% through three games. That will improve.

Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (32-18, LW 11). The Rockets have gone all-in on small ball — they have traded away Clint Capela and got back wing shooting and defense in the form of Robert Covington. P.J. Tucker is now the starting center (Rockets fans, pray for his knees to hold up) and Jordan Bell can play a few minutes behind him as needed. James Harden is out of his slump and the small ball has worked so far in the regular season, but is this a viable playoff strategy in the West?

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (32-17, LW 3). All is quiet on the trade front in Utah, the biggest news is that Mike Conley is back to being the starting point guard. The Jazz have dropped four in a row and the reason is the defense has been dreadful, allowing a 120 defensive rating in those games (for perspective, the Wizards 116.3 defensive rating is worst in the league for the season). With their next five games against playoff-bound teams (starting with Denver on Wednesday).

Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (31-19, LW 12). Dallas was around the fringes of the Robert Covington trade talks, and they have been linked to Andre Iguodala (but denied it), however don’t expect much movement from Dallas at the deadline. With Luka Doncic sidelined by a sprained ankle, Kristaps Porzingis has stepped up with 35 and 38 in his last two games. Interestingly, Dallas is 14-12 at home but a much stronger 17-7on the road.

Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (30-20, LW 13). A team that a few months back was expected to be a seller at the deadline may stand pat. Chris Paul and Steven Adams aren’t going anywhere, their big contracts have kept teams at bay. Danilo Gallinari is still part of ongoing trade talks, and that could come together before the deadline, but as of now things are quiet. The Thunder had a rough schedule in January and came out 12-5 and comfortably in the playoff mix in the West. Chris Paul will be an All-Star for the 10th time this year.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (31-20, LW 8). Philadelphia had been in the mix for Robert Covington, but with him headed to Houston this may be a quiet deadline in Philly. This is not necessarily a good thing — this team needs to be shaken up (and Brett Brown could be the fall guy for it after the season). The road issues for Philly have become such a thing that Ben Simmons is calling the team “soft” — and Mike Scott agreed with him. The Sixers are an NBA-best 22-2 at home, but just 9-18 on the road, and that includes losing 10-of-12.

Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (23-28, LW 16). Damian Lillard‘s ridiculous hot streak — which included being the most Kobe-like player on the court the night of his tribute at the Lakers’ return to action — ended with an off-night Monday. Still, that streak has Portland just 2.5 games out of the playoffs, and they are close to getting healthy with a Jusuf Nurkic return. Don’t expect Portland to make a trade deadline move to add a player, if anything happens it will be a small move to get them below the luxury tax line. BTW, GM Neil Olshey’s name surfaces in some of the “who is next to run the Knicks” rumors.

Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (25-25, LW 14). Expect Andre Iguodala to be traded by the deadline, the only question is where? Clearly, he and his camp didn’t like some of the names that surfaced, hence the leaked “I will sit out a year” comments if he’s not sent to a team he approves. The Grizzlies should not care about that and take the best offer presented. The team’s young players want the trade to happen, Dillon Brooks said this week: “I can’t wait til we find a way to trade him so we can play him and show him really what Memphis is about.”

Nets small icon 16. Nets (22-27, LW 21). Brooklyn made its moves last summer, and while they have kicked around some trade talk — they were in some preliminary talks with Atlanta about John Collins that went nowhere — expect them to stand pat at the deadline. Kyrie Irving is out again, this time with a sprained knee, so once again it’s back to the Spencer Dinwiddie show in Brooklyn for a week or two.

Spurs small icon 17. Spurs (22-28, LW 15). San Antonio is shopping wings DeMarre Carroll and Marco Belinelli, hoping to find them new homes at the deadline (with teams that may have a bigger role for them). However, any move will be around the fringes of the rotation, not its core. The Spurs have started the annual Rodeo Road Trip 0-2 (losses to both Los Angeles Teams) and they have six more games before they return home Feb. 26.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (20-31, LW 17). While there are still teams calling about Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors, it appears the Pelicans will stand pat at the trade deadline and make a playoff push. That said, 5.5 games to make up, and four teams to leap, is a tall task. My favorite Zion Williamson play of the week his him ripping the ball out of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hands.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (22-28, LW 20). While there are teams calling about Evan Fournier, and to a lesser degree Aaron Gordon, the Magic are currently the eight seed in the East and seem likely to keep the roster in take and aim for the postseason. The playoffs are a reasonable goal considering the Magic have the fourth easiest remaining schedule in the league. If Orlando decides to make dramatic changes to the roster it’s more likely to come this summer.

Kings small icon 20. Kings (19-31, LW 22). The Kings have fielded a lot of calls about Bogdan Bogdanovic, but have yet to find a trade that works (no, Kyle Kuzma is not an option). Bogdanovic wants a bigger role and that may not be something the Kings can offer, plus he is a free agent this summer, so he can just bolt. Sacramento also is still expected to find a trade for Dwayne Dedmon before the deadline, the big man wants out and the Kings are ready to move on, plus plenty of teams could use depth at center.

Suns small icon 21. Suns (20-30, LW 18). Phoenix remains deep in talks to acquire shooting guard Luke Kennard from the Pistons for a first-round pick, but so far the deal has not been finalized. That trade would make sense for the Suns, who need more shooting to go with Devin Booker. Speaking of Booker, yes he should have been an All-Star, and if a player is forced out due to injury he should be the guy at the front of the replacement line.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (19-33, LW 19). Chicago is getting calls about Thaddeus Young — the Clippers are among the teams interested — and that’s a name and a deal to watch as the deadline nears. Teams also have called about Zach LaVine but have been turned away. The injuries just keep hitting Chicago hard, with point guard Kris Dunn’s knee sprain being the latest.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (18-34, LW 23). At the start of the trade season Andre Drummond’s name came up a lot as a target, but sources tell NBC Sports that market is now nearly dead. Drummond brings skills, but the game is moving away from Drummond’s style and he makes $27 million (with an opt-out after this season), both of which are keeping teams away. There is a lot more interest around Derrick Rose and it’s more likely he gets traded before the deadline.

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (17-32, LW 24). The Wizard are not going to be sellers at the deadline, teams keep calling about Davis Bertans and the message is the same: Washington isn’t trading him and they plan to re-sign the sharpshooting big man this summer. If anything, Washington could be a buyer at the deadline, with Tristan Thompson being linked to the Wizards.

Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (15-36, LW 27). Steve Mills is out as team president, but what that really means will depend on who replaces him. Will James Dolan hire an experienced executive — Masai Ujiri’s name is linked, I think Daryl Morey would be an interesting fit and may be open to a move after the season — and give that person complete autonomy to make changes to the culture? Or, will it be someone safe and more of the same? Scott Perry is running the show through the trade deadline and Marcus Morris talks are ongoing.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (13-38, LW 25). Atlanta was the big winner of the four-team trade — they landed a quality pick-and-roll center in Clint Capela, a guy on a reasonable contract, and they did it without giving up their first-round pick or John Collins. Speaking of Collins, it won’t happen at the deadline but expect to hear a lot of trade chatter about him this summer as Atlanta decides if he can play next to Capela, and how much they want to pay him (his rookie contract is up in the summer of 2021).

Hornets small icon 27. Hornets (16-35, LW 26). The Hornets have been talking to the Knicks about a possible Julius Randle trade, with some combination of Terry Rozier, Malik Monk and Dennis Smith Jr. going to New York, however, that may not have a lot of traction. Congrats to Devonte’ Graham, who will be competing in the three-point shooting contest All-Star weekend, he deserves a little shine considering the season he’s had.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (13-38, LW 28). Expect Tristan Thompson to be traded before the deadline — he wants out and there are a number of playoff teams looking for the toughness and shooting he can provide for the playoffs. There is no heat around Kevin Love talks right now, he’s more of a summer trade (if it even happens then). Collin Sexton has been putting up some decent numbers of late, even if he still pounds the ball into the ground like he’s James Harden.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (12-39 LW 30). While the Timberwolves made a push and there was a lot of media buzz about D'Angelo Russell being traded, that was never likely (unless Minnesota made a Godfather offer). The Warriors do want to see what Russell and Stephen Curry look like in the same backcourt (if it goes well it just raises Russell’s trade value). Plus, because of the Russell sign-and-trade, the Warriors are hard-capped, if they wait until after July 1 they can be far more creative in a trade. That’s when a deal is likely to happen.

30. Timberwolves (15-34, LW 29). Thanks to the combination of injuries and the team’s current 12-game losing streak, the last time Karl-Anthony Towns was on the court for a Timberwolves win was November 27. Minnesota made a push to get Towns a friend in D’Angelo Russell but the warriors don’t want to do that dance until next summer. The bench additions of Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangómez — both guys the team can re-sign this summer — make the four-team trade a good one for the Timberwolves. It gives them bench depth.

Zion Williamson has big dunk, block, scores 15 but Pelicans still fall to Nuggets

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Zion Williamson is still making plays — his first NBA dunk and a dramatic block shot came in his second NBA game — and he is still facing a minutes limit, much to the frustration of fans in the arena.

And the Pelicans are still looking for their first win with Zion in the lineup.

Williamson had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus six rebounds, in his second NBA game. One highlight was his first NBA dunk, finishing an alley-oop from Jrue Holiday just :40 seconds into the game.

However, the most eye-popping of his second game highlights was a fourth quarter blocked shot of Malik Beasley.

Williamson played just 21 minutes, about three more than his first game but still under a tight minutes limit. The crowd chanted “we want Zion” late in the fourth, but the Pelicans are wisely bringing their No. 1 pick along slowly as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn meniscus.

The Pelicans also lost the game 113-106 to a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic‘s 27 points and 12 rebounds.

New Orleans is now 0-2 with Williamson in the lineup. When the team won 11-of-16 just before his return, the Pelicans pulled back from trade talks for Holiday, Derrick Favors, and J.J. Redick to make a playoff push. New Orleans now sits 4.5 games out of the playoffs in the West and would need to leap four teams to get in — if the wins don’t start coming soon (and a lot of them), David Griffin and company will have to reconsider what they do at the trade deadline.