Make Up or Break Up: New Orleans Pelicans

It had been three years since the New Orleans Pelicans made the playoffs and the last time they were there, the Golden State Warriors eliminated them en route to the NBA title. New Orleans is none too happy about the possible positive foreshadowing for the Warriors, as again their season ended to Golden State. Things were supposed to different for the Pels this season with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in the frontcourt, and a healthy Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo in the backcourt. Everything changed in late January when Cousins suffered a torn Achilles. The team adjusted by making a midseason trade with the Chicago Bulls for Nikola Mirotic to help take some of the pressure off Davis, who suddenly found himself thrust in the MVP conversation as he carried his team through the stretch run of the regular season and into the sixth seed in the playoffs. With AD the central focus, New Orleans finished the year with 48 wins, the most during the Anthony Davis era.

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There were positives: The Pelicans swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Many didn’t have New Orleans winning the series against Portland, let alone wrapping things up without a loss. That the Pelicans won one game against a team they stood no chance against should be seen as a moral victory. This offseason should be filled with optimism in New Orleans, but Dell Demps knows full well that he has a decision to make with Cousins who will be an unrestricted free agent in July.

What’s Wrong

Cousins’ torn Achilles puts New Orleans in an interesting position. It’s not everyday a team has a pair of talented, All-Star big men on the roster, especially one as skilled as Cousins who could be  the best center in the NBA. Even with his injury the big man will still be looking for a huge payday this summer, but the question is will New Orleans give it to him? By all accounts, Cousins, whose hometown is two hours from New Orleans, wants to remain with the Pelicans, and if we’re being honest, the team can’t afford to let him walk, even if re-signing him moves them into luxury tax territory. With Mirotic under contract for another season, it seems silly to not see how far this group can go once Cousins regains his health, but for a small market team like New Orleans, having to pay the luxury tax may not seem worth it.

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Rondo will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer and it would be silly for the Pelicans not to bring him back. At 32 years old, the veteran point guard still has a lot left in the tank and his contributions on the court and locker room leadership was a welcome addition to the team this season. He proved his worth in the postseason; Playoff Rondo dropped peak Rondo nightly averages of 10.3 PPG, 12.2 APG, 7.6 RPG and 1.4 SPG. The only reservations is whether he can do it over the course of a regular season when he’ll be 33.  Ian Clark, who played sporadically in the regular season and got some shine in the Pelicans last two playoff games, will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

New Orleans does have one bad contract they would ideally like to get rid of and that belongs to Solomon Hill. Two summers ago, the University of Arizona product signed a four-year, $48 million extension in 2016 and played in 21 total games all year—12 in the regular season and nine in the playoffs. Buyer’s remorse is rough, finding a trade partner for that contract will be rougher.

How To Fix Things

With the stretch-run core of Davis, Holiday and Mirotic locked in for 2018-19, Demps should ideally try and keep this trio together for another run. Of course that also means trying to get Cousins to commit to a new deal. If the Pelicans can somehow find a way to eliminate Hill’s contract, that would be ideal, but probably unlikely. New Orleans should also consider bringing Rondo back as well. Even at 32, he’s been durable and still a proven winner. The guard seems to complement the other players well and with his head for the game. He understands his teammates, plays well with backcourt mate Holiday and knows how to put teammates in the best position to succeed on the floor—all of the things you want in a lead guard.

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Because New Orleans doesn’t have much cap flexibility, their only recourse is to bring this squad back for another season and see what happens. Anthony Davis is going into the prime of his career and has established himself as one of the best players in the League. Bringing back Cousins will make them a much tougher team for other squads to face, and while having the best frontline in the NBA and an even more solid backcourt isn’t enough to guarantee a title, their personnel will surely be enough to make them an annual playoff team and as we all know, once the postseason starts, anything can happen. Of all the small market teams in the NBA, New Orleans is in arguably the best position of any of them to achieve long term, consistent success.