Pelicans look to improve after polarizing offseason

Jeremy Rosen, Contributing Reporter

Matthew Tate

The New Orleans Pelicans had one of the busiest and most polarizing offseasons in basketball leading into the 2021-22 NBA season. After a disappointing 2020-21 season record of 31-41 and landing just one spot out of the play-in tournament, the organization made many drastic changes to the roster and coaching staff that has led many basketball fans to question the decisions of the Pelicans’ front office.

Early in the offseason the team traded away their two biggest player acquisitions from the previous season, Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe, to the Memphis Grizzlies. The Pelicans traded away these two players and the 10th overall pick in the draft in exchange for center Jonas Valanciunas and the 17th overall pick

Both Adams and Bledsoe proved to be poor fits around the team’s young stars, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, and were some of the most overpaid players in the league based on their production last season. Valanciunas is a talented center that can space the floor for Williamson and averaged 12.5 rebounds per game last season.

By trading down in the draft, the Pelicans selected shooting guard Trey Murphy III from University of Virginia with the 17th overall pick. Murphy is best regarded for his shooting ability, shooting 43.3% from the three-point line in his last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

In the second round of the draft, the team also drafted Herbert Jones, Jared Butler and Greg Brown. All three of these second-round picks will likely spend the beginning of their careers in the G League to allow them to develop.

The team controversially did not re-sign point guard Lonzo Ball to a new deal this offseason, despite the fact that he was a restricted free agent. Ball instead signed with the Chicago Bulls on a four-year, $85 million dollar contract that the Pelicans chose not to match in order to retain his rights. In a sign-and-trade deal, Chicago sent New Orleans veteran players Tomáš Satoranský and Garrett Temple, as well as a second-round pick, in order to sign Ball.

The decision left many NBA fans confused, as Ball is a great young player that played very well alongside Williamson and fit the timeline with the team’s other young stars. The decision was made in order to save salary cap space, as the organization pursued star free agents Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry

When both stars signed to other teams, the Pelicans instead signed point guard Devonte’ Graham to a four-year, $47 million contract in a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets. Graham is a talented scorer and shooter, but lacks the defense and playmaking that Ball provided.

The Pelicans also fired head coach Stan Van Gundy after just one season with the team. Pelicans’ David Griffin, executive vice president of basketball operations, decided to hire Willie Green for the position. 

Green was an assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the Phoenix Suns last season, helping lead them to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993. The hope is that Green can give the Pelicans a stronger defensive identity and help to provide a stable environment for this young roster to develop and build chemistry with each other.

New Orleans will begin their season with a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 20, facing a strong team led by star center Joel Embiid. The Pelicans will be without Williamson for the opening weeks of the season as he recovers from a foot injury he sustained during the offseason. Brandon Ingram will need to be the primary scorer on the team until Williamson returns, and either Josh Hart or Naji Marshall will likely be elevated to the starting lineup.

This season, the team will look to make a push for the playoffs and further develop the young talent on the roster. Young guards like Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. have shown flashes of potential and will take on much larger roles in the backcourt this season. 

The team has fallen short of expectations so far in the Zion Williamson era, and signs of success will be needed in order to keep the young superstar happy in New Orleans.