Executive Vice President of Basketball Operation David Griffin’s vision is finally coming into focus after his third year of leading the New Orleans Pelicans. With the help of VP of Team Development Swin Cash and General Manager Trajan Langdon, the Pelicans are going into the offseason with the roster, cap space, and draft assets needed to prop open a championship window for the next decade.
New Orleans has made a lot of progress since Griffin came to town. The respect now shown from the national media and rival front offices is more noticeable than ever. Griffin stood firm on his “untradeable” roster and the Pelicans have remained in the spotlight even after getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns.
Some outsiders might say placating Zion Williamson and getting back in his good graces was the biggest priority this season. Those inside the building are adamant: This project is bigger than one person on the court and in the front office. The hope is the culture stays no matter who goes. Griffin has admitted as much in several interviews, including his first on the job.
“We came into the year wanting to play meaningful basketball games, and that was going to be the mark of success,” Griffin said during exit interviews. “So I think by every other metric, you’d have to say this was an incredibly successful season, based on the fact that we got eight postseason games and three elimination games. What that’s going to do for us in terms of jumpstarting our future is just almost unimaginable, coming into the year, and certainly, when you’re 1-12 and 3-16, it’s absolutely unimaginable.”
Head Coach Carousel Ends
Every squad needs a leader to help them soldier along. The critics can point to three coaches in three years but at least Griffin got it right in the end. Keeping Alvin Gentry was not totally his call and then the relationship soured. Hiring and then firing Stan Van Gundy after one season were questionable decisions at the time of both announcements.
No one questions the authority and staying power of Willie Green. Contract extensions for the front office and Green would be in order if the Pelicans make another playoff run next season. Green’s coaching “from a place of love” also got Zion’s attention.
“I’m grateful that (Williamson) understands exactly what he’s witnessing,” Griffin said during exit interviews. “He was visibly moved in the locker room last night, as the whole team was and so we’re grateful that he along with the rest of the group have bought into what we’re trying to achieve.”
Trade Market Moves
Griffin replaced ‘Dealer’ Dell Demps as the head of the organization. Quite honestly, the team’s reputation was questionable before Griffin got to town. Star players did not seem to want to stay here and then Griffin’s reputation was taking hits in the first two years.
Teams were like vultures to a carcass after the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades, leading to the Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade fiasco and filing a grievance with the league office. Griffin ignored the low-ball offers trying to pick apart his playoff roster and now looks all the wiser after taking two games off of Chris Paul and Monty Williams.
Davis for Brandon Ingram might have been the best trade in franchise history. The Pelicans are still getting payoffs from the Lakers. The Pelicans exceed expectations but lucked out with the Los Angeles Lakers pick falling into the lottery.
The Los Angeles pick dropping into the 8th spot give New Orleans another affordable talent to add to a roster growing more expensive by the day. Holiday brought back enough assets that the Pelicans could acquire CJ McCollum and still have ammo left to snag a playoff-caliber starter, if not another All-Star, before the next trade deadline.
Griffin effectively traded the team’s two 2022 picks three times. He split protections on the Pelicans 2022 pick between the Charlotte Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers to bring in CJ McCollum and Devonte’ Graham. The Hornets get the 15th pick this year while Portland will wait until 2025 to get the Milwaukee Bucks pick via the Holiday trade.
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He used the other pick in a trade with Memphis to grab Valanciunas. Memphis may grab the Lakers 2022 pick but it is more likely New Orleans will instead convey a couple of second-rounders to Memphis that would not fit on the roster anyway.
Finding Affordable Free Agents
The Pelicans could hardly get a free agent to town to hear the pitch last summer. Perhaps that is why the team has been extended contracts of trade targets. The Steven Adams deal was panned but it did help bring in Jonas Valanciunas.
Devonte’ Graham is still getting comfortable. His role changed four times last season. He signed up to play with Zion, wound up leading the team for a few weeks, then ended the year playing through pain in the playoffs. He is not in line for an extension but there is reason to believe he can contribute more next season. .
The Pelicans do not need to go shopping for a big name this offseason. New Orleans only has room to sign their first-round draft pick with 14 players already on the books. Their only free agents are Tony Snell, Gary Clark Jr., and Jared Harper. Expect a calmer offseason than usual, per Griffin.
Drafting With A Purpose
Zion Williamson was the obvious choice for the Pelicans in Griffin’s first draft. Trading the 4th overall pick in 2019 netd Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Hayes emerged as a decent starter this year but will move back to a reserve role sharing time with Larry Nance Jr. behind Williamson next season.
The jury is still out on a young, now rehabbing Kira Lewis Jr. Didi Silva was always a longshot to stick in the NBA and has already been moved on with Alexander-Walker. Trey Murphy III, Herb Jones, and Jose Alvarado might be the best three-man rookie class in the history of the league. The front office has gotten positive value out of every single pick so far, except for Williamson.
The hope is that wait is over and Zion will enter next season healthy with dried ink on a five-year contract extension. Griffin explained the contract extension talks “will be a challenge. When it’s time to have that, we’ll have it. And right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy, and (being in) kind of elite condition to play basketball and we’ll start there.”
Front Office Final Grades
The hiring of Van Gundy, trading Holiday for Bledsoe and then giving Adams an extension were not setbacks. They were just moves that stagnated the “sustainable championship culture” progress being made. Now those spots on the sideline are filled by Willie Green, Jonas Valanciunas, and CJ McCollum. Most every move that looked like a mistake was corrected, which deserves credit as well.
No front office lucks into this type of culture. Larry Nance Jr. said he has never seen a culture like this in his professional career. Willy Hernangomez was “untouchable” for family reasons that went beyond what scouts saw on the court. The front office created a culture that values every player, not for the salary cap hit but for their overall chemistry.
It’s not quite ring chasing but it’s a foundation that attracted the highly respected NBPA President CJ McCollum. That in itself says a lot. The front office gets A’s all around for assembling a team this city embraces because of how it represents New Orleans.
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