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What a turnaround for a team staring down the bottom of the barrel less than six weeks ago.
At 6-22 and following a 13-game losing streak, rumors swirled and speculation began that the New Orleans Pelicans would shift from a fringe playoff contender to an everything-must-go firesale. Could Jrue Holiday be dealt? Would Zion Williamson redshirt and further compromise the NBA‘s investment in the No. 1 overall pick?
Fast-forward six weeks and the Pelicans have won 14 of the 21 games since. Could they now shift from sellers to buyers?
“My feel on the Pelicans is that they’re looking to acquire another veteran as opposed to selling off a veteran,” Brian Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective podcast on Jan. 9. “If anything the Pelicans have seen what a big difference it made to get Derrick Favors back, and they think if they could get another veteran into their rotation that it may even help them more.”
The Pelicans have plenty of reason for optimism. In particular, Zion has gained ground in the race for Rookie of the Year.
But after New Orleans won its third straight game, the Houston Rockets sapped the team’s momentum and pushed it back to 10 games below .500 on Sunday.
Since his debut, Zion isn’t simply outplaying Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant; he’s putting up numbers no player has ever produced. At 26.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, he joins Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns as one of just four rotation players producing such statistics this season. Add in his remarkable 64.1 effective field-goal percentage and no qualified player has ever matched his line.
These numbers aren’t just empty calories. The Pelicans have posted a 15.8 net rating with him on the floor over his last five games. He ranks in the 99th percentile for efficiency differential, and the Pelicans have an expected record of 79-3 when he plays the 5 and a 69-13 expected record when he’s at the 4.
The hype is real, folks.
The balletic grace he uses to skirt multiple defenders and penetrate is only surpassed by his ability to contort his body around some of the biggest and baddest defenders in the NBA.
Switching him onto jitterbug point guards hasn’t aided opposing offenses who seek to expose his size. His incredible balance and footwork give him the ability to match up with positions 1-5.
But at 20-30, the Pelicans still have a lot of ground to gain in the Western Conference despite Zion’s promise.
Catching up to the 24-25 Memphis Grizzlies seems reasonable enough. The Pelicans have won both their matchups and have the NBA’s third-easiest remaining strength of schedule, per Tankathon. Fourteen of their last 15 opponents sit at .500 or below. FiveThirtyEight’s model still gives them a 35 percent chance of landing in the playoffs.
But the Grizzlies aren’t the only problem the Pelicans are facing.
The Portland Trail Blazers have won four straight, and Damian Lillard seems to be using a cheat code. Over his past six games, he’s averaging 48.8 points, 10.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 54.8/57.0/92.3. According to FiveThirtyEight, they have a 53 percent chance to grab the last spot.
Still, the Pelicans don’t need to shake up their core. They can afford to stand pat with their starting lineup. The group comprised of Lonzo Ball, Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion and Derrick Favors is jelling perfectly with a 27.9 efficiency differential in 158 possessions. It’s sixth in net rating (29.1) among groups that have played 50 minutes or more this season.
New Orleans also has plenty of depth in the backcourt. Groups with E’Twaun Moore and Josh Hart have been impressive. JJ Redick is second in three-point accuracy (46.4 percent) among players taking at least three triples per game, and he ranks in the 98th percentile for points per shot attempt.
Jaxson Hayes regularly dishes out highlights while displaying elite length and athleticism, but he rebounds just 13.1 percent of his opponents’ misses without offering any spacing on the offensive end. Nicolo Melli, a 29-year-old rookie, has spaced the floor a bit better in January but is equally ineffective on the glass and gets exposed by opposing offenses with regularity.
If the Pelicans are to take the next step and climb back into the playoff picture, they may need to supplement their lineups with a long wing who can come off the bench to run the floor with Zion. They could use an able-bodied floor-spacer who isn’t afraid to get physical and help defend when Zion gets switched out to the perimeter.
Perhaps most importantly, they need someone capable of boxing out and crashing the boards. The Pelicans rank in the 17th percentile for defensive rebounding with Zion on the floor.
Favors can help anchor such units, but his presence does prevent the Pelicans from maximizing what’s been one of the NBA’s most dangerous lineups. Zion has thrived at the 5, and New Orleans owes it to him to see if those groupings can continue to experience such success.
Instead of placing him back at the 4, the Pelicans need to gauge which units work best as they approach an offseason filled with imminent and expensive decisions. Ingram will be a restricted free agent. Favors will be unrestricted, and Holiday will be eligible for an extension.
Still, they can afford to buy. They could add as many as five players in the 2020 draft and have another asset in draft-and-stash prospect Didi Louzada, last season’s 35th overall pick. They’ve also got all their firsts going forward, as well as three from the Los Angeles Lakers.
With that treasure trove of expendable assets, here are some helpful wing players who could push them into the playoffs.
Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press
New Orleans Pelicans get: Robert Covington
Robert Covington was bound to become a popular name this time of year due to his veteran skill set, his team-friendly contract and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ recent struggles.
The 29-year-old is under contract through the 2021-22 season, but it’s unlikely the Wolves become surefire contenders before that time. Due to their circumstances, they’d be wise to flip the durable vet for a combination of assets that can improve their long-term odds.
Covington would pair perfectly with Zion. Though he’s approaching his early 30s, he should maintain his value with exceptional defense and three-point shot-making.
He would immediately shore up the defense with a steal percentage and block percentage that both rank in the 97th percentile, and he finished 12th in defensive real plus-minus last season, per ESPN. Most notable, though, are his skills on the defensive glass (89th percentile).
On the offensive end, he’s been a major plus for the Wolves this season.
He’s shooting in the 90th percentile from mid-range, which would help space the floor for Zion. While he’s suffered a bit of regression from three-point territory in 2019-20, he was in the 90th percentile on corner threes in 2018-19 and shot 36.9 percent or better on all threes during his previous two seasons while taking over six deep attempts per game.
He’ll get open looks. Look at the attention Zion creates on this possession. He often forces two players to his orbit; the opposing team would rather force the ball away from him than cover the league’s second-best three-point shooter.
If a player like Covington could complement Zion on the defensive end and hit open shots on offense, the Pelicans would be able to make a late run to the playoffs.
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
New Orleans Pelicans get: Nemanja Bjelica
Sacramento Kings get: Darius Miller, a first-round pick (2020 via Cleveland) and a second-round pick (2020 via Washington)
The Pelicans will struggle to find a better volume shooter at the 4 or 5 than Nemanja Bjelica.
He ranks in the 98th percentile for three-point percentage and the 83rd percentile for mid-range efficiency with the Sacramento Kings, skills that should translate well to lineups featuring Moore, Redick and Ball with Zion occupying the dunker’s spot or in the post. At 43.3 percent, Bjelica is the ninth-best three-point shooter among all players taking at least two attempts per game.
Due to his age (31) and their prior financial commitments, the Kings may not choose to guarantee the final year and $7.2 million of Bjelica’s contract. They could instead move him at this deadline and add a pick for their troubles.
As of now, the Kings have $103.3 million on the books in 2020-21, and that’s without coming to a decision on Harry Giles or Bogdan Bogdanovic. If they want any flexibility, they should cut ties and receive an asset now.
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
New Orleans Pelicans get: Meyers Leonard
Miami Heat get: Darius Miller, Nicolo Melli, a first-round pick (2020 via Cleveland) and three second-round picks (2020 via New Orleans, 2020 via Washington, 2021 via New Orleans)
Meyers Leonard may not be one to push the pace, but he can certainly space the floor. At 42.7 percent, he’s 14th in three-point shooting in the NBA and first among centers (min. two attempts per game). His points per shot attempt also rank in the 84th percentile.
While a wing would be preferable, a big with range is certainly someone worth considering. Though he looks like a natural center on paper at 7’0″ and 260 pounds, Leonard has played 80 percent of his minutes at the 4 this season and helped the Miami Heat post a 6.3 efficiency differential.
Granted, he’d be difficult to move. He’s been a key component of the Heat’s success, and their lineup of Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Leonard and Bam Adebayo, their most frequently used group, has been wildly successful, outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions.
However, Leonard has an expiring contract, Kelly Olynyk could add to his workload in his stead, and the Heat have big plans for the summer of 2021 when they’ll have enough space to potentially add two max-salary players. They also don’t have any chips to deal beyond the players on their roster and a 2025 first-round pick.
If they look to get involved in any sort of future deal, they’d need the resources the Pelicans have to offer.
Nick Wass/Associated Press
New Orleans Pelicans get: Davis Bertans
Washington Wizards get: Darius Miller, two first-round picks (2020 via Cleveland, 2020 via New Orleans) and two second-round picks (2020 via New Orleans, 2020 via Washington)
Davis Bertans is the perfect candidate.
At 6’10” and just 27 years old, Bertans could run with Zion for the better part of his career if the Pelicans can manage to lock him up.
Adding him would immediately elevate the ceiling of what they can do offensively.
Bertans ranks in the 95th percentile for points per shot attempt and the 96th percentile as a pick-and-roll roll man, and he has one of the 15 best three-point percentages among players with at least three attempts per game. The Washington Wizards score 117.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which falls in the 96th percentile.
Washington would be wise to keep him long-term, but Bertans is an unrestricted free agent this summer and can walk out of what could continue to be a losing environment with the Wizards getting nothing in return. He could instead fetch a big return if they want to focus on a rebuild, which they should.
Making such a rash decision based on just a six-game sample with Zion sounds risky in a vacuum. But when accounting for what New Orleans would be sacrificing, it really isn’t.
The Pelicans can’t bring in six additional bodies this summer without overhauling nearly half their current roster. They have too many picks to spend. Darius Miller’s value as an expiring contract next year far exceeds that of his potential performance in 2020-21 and can be exploited to build momentum heading into the summer.
“It’s always a difficult time of the year,” general manager Trajan Langdon told the New Orleans Pelicans Podcast. “It’s more difficult when you have a team you like that doesn’t have the record you’d like to have. But I do think we’re trending up.”
The Pelicans can continue that trend by giving Zion a little bit of help in the second unit, and such a move could ultimately buy him and the rest of this up-and-coming group some playoff experience.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@PrestonEllis)