In July, David Griffin compared his team’s off-season moves to reading a page of a book “one letter at a time.”
“You don’t really see the picture,” said Griffin, executive vice president of basketball operations at the New Orleans Pelicans. “But what happens is that it becomes a tapestry of movements.”
A month later, the “tapestry” is over. It seems overwhelming – at least in light of senior Griffin comments.
Not only did the Pelicans lose big fish Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. Even free middle and lower level agents would not get their money.
To unravel everything, our Pelicans crew gathered for another table.
Seconds after the free agency opened, the Pelicans sent Lonzo Ball to the Chicago Bulls for sign and trade. They again got Thomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple and a second round pick. What did you do with the move?
Christian Clark: I understand why the Pelicans did not want to pay Ball $ 80 million. As he improved undeniably on his two-year run in New Orleans — turning his crooked jumper into a defensive kick had to be respected — he was still a very inconsistent and very limited player. Alvin Gentry’s quick attack was an ideal fit for his skills, but Balli fought so early that he was placed on the bench for Kenrich Williams. Balli’s ability to break through the defensive line in midfield was never improved, and his defense on the ball left much to be desired.
Balli’s pay would have shown the Pelicans were confident the next 24-year-old would continue to grow. Of course, they were not. That’s fine … as long as you have a solid solid alternative plan. Signing a 3-point shooter, like, say, Tim Hardaway Jr. with the money the Pelicans released leaving Ball to walk would have made all of this feel so much better. But because the Pelicans not only turned down options A and B in the free agency, but also options C, D, E, F and G, letting Ball go goes feels shaky.
Rod Walker: Yes, I know I’m one of the few people who wants to die on Lonzo Ball Hill. I still think he will be an elite defender in the league one day soon, maybe as early as this season with the Bulls. There is a lot of room for improvement in his game, so I understand the Pelicans’ unwillingness to pay that kind of money to keep him close. But I think we will look back a few years from now and wonder what might have been in New Orleans with BIZ (Ball, Ingram and Zion). If I’m wrong with Balli’s development, Pels did well, despite not having a bigger name. Time will tell.
Scott Kushner: The Pelicans telegraphed their lack of interest in closing Lonzo Ball for a long time, which made their inaction in the trading term so confusing. At the time, David Griffin said he would not give up on Balli for the equivalent of a “bacon sandwich”. Well … it might have been a slightly nicer piece of meat, but the package they got from the Bulls in exchange for the Ball was not exactly the main rib.
Whether Ball is worth $ 80 million does not matter much in this context. The Pelicans did not see it as a long-term fit near Williamson and Ingram, so the finances are largely intangible. Moving from Balli is understandable, but allowing a young beginner with a high ceiling to leave for basically nothing in return is a stifling cost that is hard to do with the stomach.
The “most sprayed” move the Pelicans made was the acquisition of Devonte ‘Graham by the Charlotte Hornets, which demanded that they send a first-round lottery-backed election. What do you think Graham’s role is? And how much influence do you think he can make?
Christian Clark: It’s hard to predict what Graham’s role will be when he too seems to have no idea.
“Either way,” Graham said earlier this month, “beginner, off the bench, sixth man, eighth man – whatever it is, I’ll do it.”
Graham is a fantastic teammate, by all accounts. I also think he will extend the defense in a way that Ball never did even though their 3 point total is similar. With Sion Williamson and Brandon Ingram creating clear images for him, I would be shocked if Graham does not eclipse the 37.5% figure he shot from the territory with 3 points last season. In addition to his gifts as an outside shooter, Graham is also an excellent decision maker. The 3.51-1 turnover assist ratio he posted last season ranked ninth among all the players who appeared in 50 games.
On defense, I’m not sure how Graham 6-foot-1 helps a team that has finished bottom-10 in points allowed for 100 consecutive seasons. Graham is probably best suited as a backup to a team whose goal is to pass the playoffs in the brutal West. How coach Willie Green balances around his two All-Star strikers with enough shots while also trying to improve New Orleans weak defense will be interesting to watch.
Rod Walker: Graham averaged 7.5 assists two seasons ago, which is higher than Ball’s average in any of his first four seasons in the NBA. Those assists won’t be as fiery, but he could finish the job by handing it out to his teammates. His outdoor shooting, as should happen with anyone else playing with Zion Williamson, needs to be made even better. The good thing about him is that he seems willing to get off the bench if necessary, but I think he is good enough to be a starter in this lineup. He has started exactly 100 games in his three seasons and this experience can help if the Pelicans choose that path for him. Either way, I think he will be a solid addition to this team and make them better.
The NBA announced its schedule for the 2021-22 season on Friday. Here are 10 quick observations regarding the Pelicans schedule.
Scott Kushner: It looks like Graham’s role will be to fill what the Pelicans wanted to be Lonzo Ball. The shooting numbers are similar, but the attitudes are different. Based on his interviews and those about Graham, he seems eager to embrace a clean filming role, whether it will come off the screens or capture and shoot.
Ball, meanwhile, indicated he felt unused in New Orleans. “They believed it was the best for the team (playing off the ball),” he told reporters in Chicago. “So I just went with him. I’m not the type of guy who would get offended or hide in the corner.”
With Zion and Ingram commanding most of the possessions, someone with Graham skills and perspective should slip into those spins a little smoother than Balli, even if the Pelicans are losing some attacking skills and swapping games.
After finishing the Western Conference in 13th and 11th place in the first two years at the helm of Griffin, do you think New Orleans is able to make a real step forward?
Christian Clark: I believe the Pelicans will improve. Of the three coaches who have been here in the Griffin era, Green has the best chance of holding players accountable without being so demanding as to start sounding like the adults in “Peanuts.” Green is humble and has emotional intelligence. Plus, he has 12 years of NBA experience on his resume, which players must respect.
Of course, it is not ideal that the Pelicans are going through a critical season without a clear guard No. 1. Nickeil Alexander-Walker should have plenty of chances after both members of last season’s starting line-up were sent off. Alexander-Walker is the most important player of the team. If he shows the strong numbers he posted in the 13 games he started last season were not a mistake, and if Williamson and Ingram actually commit to playing defense, real gains are possible.
Rod Walker: Of the eight Western Conference teams that reached the playoffs last season, only three I see the Pelicans have a realistic chance of dancing: the Grizzlies, Mavs and Blazers. And you have to consider Golden State, with a healthy Klay Thompson, will be back in the mix after making the tournament play-in last season. Success for the Pels will come down if they are better on defense and if they are not inflating with late advantages like they did a season ago. I think Willie Green will fix both of these issues. If he does, they can take a 6th, 7th or 8th place. Failure to do the play-in tournament should be considered a failure. Anything Better Than a Seed 6 in the Broken West and Willie Green deserves Coach of the Year.
Scott Kushner: It really doesn’t take much for this team to improve. The natural growth from Williamson (entering the typical Year 3 bloom) and Ingram should provide an organic boost capable of turning many of last year’s close losses into this year’s imminent victories.
While health concerns and a bizarre pile of guards can easily disrupt that progress, the NBA has lowered the level of success claim by extending the format of the game for at least another year. This ensures that two-thirds of the league reaches the post-season.
With an all-Star talent pair, a skilled center at Jonas Valanciunas and a host of new players growing in their roles, there is no excuse for the Pelicans to stumble back into the final third of the NBA.
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