In the summer of 2013, the New Orleans Pelicans entered the offseason with hope and optimism. They had just seen a good rookie season from their franchise corner stone, Anthony Davis. New Orleans had some interesting pieces around him, which included Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Al-Farouq Aminu, Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez. All they needed to do was keep all their chips in place, continue to build through the draft and rely on the development of the young Anthony Davis.
Well, they certainly didn't do that.
During the 2013 NBA draft, which admittedly was incredibly weak, the Pelicans had the sixth overall pick. The man expected to go first overall was Nerlens Noel, despite his injury problems. For a yet unknown reason, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett (WOAH!), sending the draft, crowd and Bill Simmons into frenzy. Next went Oladipo as expected, followed by Otto Porter Jr for the Wizards. At pick four, the slide was expected to end for Noel, but the Charlotte Hornets (then Bobcats) ended up taking Cody Zeller, as they had a plan to lure Al Jefferson to the South-East division. Even though he was the top prospect, the Phoenix Suns took a shot on Ukrainian center, Alex Len. This left Noel on the board, clearly the best player, all for the Pelicans.
Noel was drafted by Dell Demps, but almost immediately was flipped to the Philadelphia 76ers, along with a first round pick for the 2014 draft (I'll get to that later) for all-star point guard Jrue Holiday. This started what was one of the most confusing offseasons of any team in recent memory.
Entering free agency, the Pelicans went hard after the restricted Tyreke Evans as their marquee signing. Evans had one of the best rookie seasons ever with the Kings during the 2010 season, but didn't show the development many thought he would in the years to follow. In fact, his points per game average droped from 20.1 during his first season, to 15 in his fourth. Demps and his front office ended up giving him a 4 year, $44 million offer sheet. Not only did they do this, but had to make it a sign and trade. This meant they ended up giving away both Greivis Vasquez to Sacramento, who averaged 9 assists per game and was on a ridiculously cheap contract and Robin Lopez, who turned into a very nice starting NBA center. They traded both of them, to overpay Tyreke Evans.
Not only did they give him too much money and give away two quality NBA players, but failed to realize what the signing would do to their team. It crippled them for cap room, they then had three ball handlers on the perimeter, who all started out as point guards and had below average spacing on the perimeter.
It's quite clear that the Pelicans wanted to make the playoffs and by grabbing all of that talent, they were putting themselves in a position to. But injuries to key players and disappointing play from their perimeter players costed them a shot at the postseason. To make matters worse, since they went all in on making the playoffs by giving Evans all of that money and trading two first rounders for Holiday, there was really nothing the Pelicans could do during the 2014 offseason. They didn't have a first rounder during the most stacked draft class since 2003 and didn't have money to target any free agents in a loaded group.
Ah yes, then the infamous Omer Asik trade. The trade that still doesn't make sense to me. Clearly, Asik wanted out of Houston and the Rockets wanted to clear cap space for free agents, so trading for him shouldn't have been too hard at all. Just look at how Houston got rid of Jeremy Lin, they traded a first round pick along with him to the Lakers, just to clear out space. Now, if New Orleans knew what they were doing, they would have known everything I just mentioned and wouldn't have had to give up much at all for Asik. Instead, they gave up their third straight first round pick for Asik. I can hear Daryl Morey laughing from here...
Even this most recent offseason, they re-signed Asik to a massive 5 year, $60 million extension, then deciding to re-sign his backup (who played significantly better than him during the 2014-15 season) Alexis Ajinca, to another massive deal of 5 years and $25 million. Now, I get that the cap is going up, but it is well documented that the Pelicans have Anthony freaking Davis on their team. A.K.A the most talented player in the league. All he needs next to him is a floor spacer, who they have in Ryan Anderson, not two centers on gargantuan deals. Not to mention also signing Kendrick Perkins, who at this stage in his NBA career, literally cannot do anything.
Now that the rant part is (mostly) over. Let's have a check in with what they could have done during this stretch.
In the 2013 draft, instead of trading for Jrue Holiday, let's say that they keep their two first rounders and take Nerlens Noel with the first one. Now with Anthony Davis next to Nerlens Noel, I don't know a single team who isn't scared of that front line. The amount of athleticism, defense and tenacious rebounding in that frontcourt is insane. Not to mention, they have the Kentucky connection.
Next, the Pelicans don't sign and trade for Tyreke Evans and save that money for the following summer. In this world, they also don't trade away Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez for nothing. So, heading into the 2013-14 season, their team looks much better. The spacing, contract situations and draft pick vault is significantly improved. A starting lineup of Vasquez, Gordon, Aminu, Davis and Lopez (while Noel recovers from injury), is much better cap wise and sets them up so much better for the future.
The following summer of 2014 is where they make their move. By this point, Anthony Davis is awesome and ready to be an all-NBA worthy player. So, this is the time to make moves. Now that they actually have a lottery pick in the insane 2014 draft, they have another building block. In that draft, they had the 10th pick. This is the spot where Elfrid Payton went, which is absolutely perfect, considering that the Pelicans need a good young point guard.
In free agency, this time around they don't let go Al-Farouq Aminu, because he's a competent NBA player, but do go after someone to take his starting small forward position. No, I'm not going to give them LeBron or Melo, but I am going to give them one of Trevor Ariza or Luol Deng. Both of these guys were available and either one of them would've been perfect, if they had cap space at the time. All they need out of this spot is a defender to guard the other team's best perimeter threat and someone that can hit open threes. Both Ariza and Deng can do this, so either of them would be fine.
Now their core heading into 2014-15, is definitely good enough to make a playoff run. With Payton, Gordon, Ariza/Deng, Davis and Noel as their starting lineup, not only are they a great defensive team (what they were absolutely awful at last season), but offensively they are still pretty decent with their entire team revolving around Davis. Also, the bench still has Vasquez (assuming he would have re-signed), Aminu, Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez.
Since they managed to make the playoffs with their current, overpaid, ageing team, they almost certainly would have made the postseason with that up and coming team. Not only could they have made the playoffs, but remember, they didn't trade for Asik and still hold a 2015 draft pick. They need a little bit more shooting, so I'll gift them one of R.J. Hunter or Sam Dekker (who was picked by the Rockets with the Pelicans' pick).
The problem with what the Pelicans did and the difference between what they did do and what they could've done, is that Dell Demps didn't follow the first rule that you learn at GM school; be patient. He went all-in with a roster that could not have possibly gone all-in. That roster should have been built slowly, for the future, largely with draft picks and reliance on development. But Demps got carried away with winning now and missed the big picture.
Which is simply, when you have Anthony Davis on your team, wait for the NBA championship to come to you, don't go to it.