As we roll into the mid-summer, the New Orleans Pelicans are at another crossroads in their franchise history.
What, you expected something else? These are the Pelicans, and this is just about an annual event.
This time, the team embarks on a pivotal offseason in which it must not only hire a new head coach – its third head coach in as many years – but arguably must also find some way to gather enough footing to make a push into the postseason. Since taking over as team president, David Griffin has attempted to quickly assemble a winning culture to capture the hearts of the local fanbase, one that’s been scarred by repeated false starts. The past two years have sadly been no different.
The good news for Griffin: New Orleans will always back a winner, at least in my experience. The bad news: convincing the fans they actually have said winner could take a bit longer than is ideal, as Lucy yanking the football away is almost an accepted tradition.
Griffin acted quickly to dismiss Stan Van Gundy after one season, and I credit him for making a decisive call to move away from someone he evidentially felt was not the answer. That said, Van Gundy made some good points on the way out. Among those: This team is very, very young, and the NBA playoffs aren’t usually populated with very young teams. Also, as noted above, the members of this very young team tenured enough to have been here during Alvin Gentry’s final year as head coach will be learning their third new system in as many years.
Nevertheless, the team is moving on in a new direction. The popular thought at the moment is the new hire will come from the staff of one of the two teams currently settling matters in the NBA Finals: Willie Green of Phoenix and Charles Lee of Milwaukee, with Green emerging as the favorite in the past few days.
Longtime fans of the franchise will remember Green for his time here in New Orleans as a shooting guard during the Chris Paul era. Prior to Phoenix, he was with the Golden State Warriors staff for two championship runs, so if the Suns close this series out, this could be his third championship. A nice start to a coaching career that began just five years ago; maybe this is the right guy at the right time for New Orleans.
The more important matter, of course, will be finding the right mix on the floor. The first domino may well be determining the fate of point guard Lonzo Ball, a restricted free agent, meaning the Pelicans can match any offer. It’s a very important one. Aside from one season with Rajon Rondo, the team has struggled without a true floor leader … well, since Chris Paul was traded years ago. A litany of combo guards have come through, and some of them very good, like Jrue Holiday. But for a team that is best equipped to funnel offense through its frontcourt, first through Anthony Davis and more recently through Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, a true set-up passer and playmaker would be ideal.
That’s what makes this choice so tough: Ball could perhaps be that guy. He’s certainly a good passer, and a distributer first. He doesn’t have the experience or knowledge of a Rondo, but that’s to be expected. He’s got size and great length, and possibly could evolve into one of the league’s better defensive guards. But he’s been around long enough to have a reasonable read on whether he can be your lead guard – he’s improved each year, but unless he has one more gear to reach, Griffin might determine he needs to look elsewhere to get this team to the next level. I have a feeling they’ll move on, if they can find a willing sign-and-trade partner. I don’t foresee them letting him go for nothing, barring an offer way above their valuation here.
Then the team needs to make a decision on Josh Hart. This one I think may be a bit easier. Hart is a strong rotation player and depending on the money it will take to keep him, I have a feeling his skillset will be valued here – and in that I’m including how hard he plays and the fact he is, by all accounts, a fantastic guy to have in the locker room.
Outside of the organization, the team can attempt to add some help via the 10th pick in the NBA Draft, or they might trade the pick for some veteran help – a scenario that’s gained a lot of traction in the rumor mill. That pick may not be the only thing up on the block, as the Pels have as much draft ammunition as anyone thanks to the war chest they acquired from the Lakers and Bucks over the next several seasons.
Griffin could take his big swing now and cash in, or could take a smaller bite and focus on growing from within. He has plenty of options to weigh, as he determines which direction to take on this fork in the road.