Two things happened yesterday that drove conversation among Pelicans fans’ desire for the team to get better. The Washington Wizards reportedly made all of the players on their sideshow circus of a team available, and the Pelicans defeated the Spurs 140-126 to go 10-7 on the season.
Earlier in the day when Woj dropped the Wizard news, Pelicans fans and writers far and wide crackled their knuckles and fired up their Trade Machines, trying to find a way to bring Bradley Beal or (to a lesser degree) Otto Porter or John Wall to the Crescent City. I think it made sense for images of Beal to dance in our heads: after all, the Pelicans were only two games above .500, and with the news that Elfrid Payton will miss at least six weeks with a broken finger, wanting to upgrade talent is a noble idea. I found myself imagining Bradley Beal running sets that have been run for E’Twaun Moore, increasing the Pelicans’ championship window and convincing Anthony Davis to sign the extension and try to win a title in New Orleans.
But as I watched the Pelicans overcome a shaky first quarter to outscore the Spurs 110-97 over the last three, I started to think about what the Pelicans actually have right now, and what they would have to give up to get someone of Beal’s caliber. Yes, there is a school of thought that you should go for a star if you can get one, but I think fans focus more on who they’re getting and less on who they’re giving up. Bottom line, the assets I’d be okay with losing are not valuable enough to make a trade, and the assets that are valuable are too valuable to the Pelicans to let go. So let’s look at the assets the Pelicans would likely have to drop to acquire Beal or even Porter, and why the current players on the team may be a better fit.
For months, the only trade pieces that have come up in wing acquisition talks have been Solomon Hill and the Pelicans’ first round pick. Hill has found himself duct taped to the bench since Wesley Johnson came to the team, and the first round pick is likely to be late teens to early twenties. Neither one seems to be enough to acquire a needle mover. Johnson himself has been playing admirably in the wing spot lately, playing tough defense and hitting timely shots, but his value doesn’t jump off the page either. So if you want to get a star talent, or even just a talent upgrade, the team would need to send some combination of Moore, Julius Randle, or Nikola Mirotic (obviously Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis are untouchable in any trade talks). And all three are playing at a level that makes me hesitant to send them out, even if it gets a target like Beal. Last night against the Spurs, all three proved their value and fit in ways that made it clear that this team may be good enough as is.
Moore scored 24 points in a variety of ways. I think the biggest difference in Moore this year in confidence, both his own confidence and confidence of his teammates in him. Last night after the game Jrue confirmed that:
Jrue Holiday excited by a question about E'Twaun Moore: "Thanks man, appreciate it. Yeah, he's been hooping…Trying to get him off that curl, get him into the paint — he rarely misses. Or even just wide open threes, just be able to knock those in. Getting him started early."
— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) November 20, 2018
Part of it may be Moore being comfortable in playing guard rather than forward, but Moore has been reliable and consistent, and the team is running set plays for him as well. One of the more common plays is having Moore curl off of a pick and getting a pass in stride, leading to a floater.
Moore has always been good in scoring off of assists, but this year he is getting better at making plays for himself.
Beal, an All-Star and the most coveted player in the Wizards organization, may be better than Moore in a vacuum. But Moore has been a valuable part of this team, he is liked well by his teammates, and I’m not convinced that losing him in favor of Beal is a clear upgrade — especially when you consider the Pelicans would have to part with one of Randle or Mirotic as well.
And that is where it becomes even shakier for me. Throughout last night, the three bigs clobbered the Spurs in different ways. Davis steadily barraged the basket with dunks and jump shots. Randle messed around and got a triple double, bruising the interior with bullying drives to the basket. And Mirotic provides so much value because of his size and sniping ability. Look at how Mirotic’s quick trigger early in the game stays in defenders’ minds.
And then a few minutes later, watch Rudy Gay be so desperate to keep Mirotic covered that he doesn’t even step towards Moore’s cut to the middle of the court. That kind of gravity and spacing is invaluable to the team, even when Mirotic doesn’t touch the ball.
More than just the individual skills of the three big men, it’s about the fit, about how they all combine to attack in different ways. The way Gentry stacks them, they all have time against bench defenders, and because of the versatility, it is impossible to stop them all at once. If the Pelicans send one of the bigs to Washington, or anywhere to get a talent upgrade, the Pelicans lose this ability to use their biggest strength in a league of small ball.
It seems easy to say that the team needs improvements because they are only three games above .500, but I think it’s more important to look at the stories of the season rather than the results. The Pelicans started out 4-0 with a healthy roster. Then, they lost their best player and their starting point guard (who hasn’t returned for a full game since) and lost six straight in perhaps the hardest part of their schedule. Finally, they have gone 6 of 7 since getting Davis healthy. This team has shown they are capable of being great. They are nearly unbeatable at home, the only loss coming without Davis. And with the conference bunched up like it currently is (the Pelicans are only 1.5 games out of the first seed), the Pelicans shouldn’t feel desperate to make a move.
I certainly understand the desire to get talent. There is the keeping AD argument, where you need to show Davis you’re willing to build a championship contender, and swings for the fences are likely appreciated. But Davis wants to win, and this team has shown when it is moderately healthy, it can. There may be time to find some upgrades later in the season, but with the individual players playing as well as they have, I think the team should show patience and see how good this team can be as the season goes on.