A fun thing is happening in the Rookie of the Year race. Long presumed to be the sole property of Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, the award now has two new candidates: Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel and Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton.
Neither the 76ers or the Magic are particularly worth watching at the moment, but Noel has developed into a destructive defensive force, averaging nearly two blocks and two steals per game, and Payton’s impressive season is hitting another gear, notching back-to-back triple doubles against Dallas and Portland.
The curious thing about that duo, though, is that they were selected with the two first-round picks the New Orleans Pelicans traded to Philadelphia for point guard Jrue Holiday. Philadelphia traded the 10th pick, used on Payton, to Orlando for the 12th pick (Dario Saric) and a future first-round pick.
Although given a year head start, Holiday has played in roughly the same number of games since the trade as Noel and Payton. Unfortunately, Pelicans have failed to take the next step and get into the playoffs. It’s difficult to say the deal has turned out well for the Pelicans, but was it the right move at the time?
The 2013 NBA Draft
New Orleans entered the 2013 draft committed to building around Davis and shooting guard Eric Gordon, who was the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade. Gordon was headed toward restricted free agency in July, and a knee injury limited him to only nine games in his first season in New Orleans.
Tom Benson was then fully entrenched as the Pelicans’ owner, and he was dedicated to getting his new toy into the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Complicating matters was the relative lack of talent in the draft. None of the prospects were considered to be stars, particularly at point guard—a position the Pelicans were desperate to fill.
Noel, the draft’s best prospect, slipped to the Pelicans at number six. Normally this would be good news, but there were two problems: Noel might not have enough size to play next to Davis, and would be unavailable until late in the upcoming season due to an ACL injury.
With Noel still on the board, the 76ers called and the deal was struck: the Pelicans got Holiday, while the 76ers got Noel and the Pelicans’ 2014 first rounder, protected for the top three picks (this protection is important). Holiday was 23-years old and coming off of an All-Star campaign, averaging 17 points and eight assists per game. He was brought in as the final piece of a “Big Three,” and to make Davis’ life on offense much easier.
Getting a 23-year old All-Star for two first-round picks is usually a good deal. Still, it was something of an overpay in Holiday’s case. He had probably maxed out his potential, and on a better team he was best suited to be a third option. Given a weak draft class, though, the deal becomes more justifiable.
The Other Options
The 2013 draft class wasn’t going to provide the Pelicans much help. Michigan point guard Trey Burke was presumably the other option they were considering, but he was an undersized and struggles to score. Shooting guards Ben McLemore and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went seventh and eighth, but they both had major holes in their games and played the same position as Gordon. Center Alex Len was probably the best fit in terms of ability and need, but he went to Phoenix at number five.
A year later, we know the draft’s four best players are Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th to Milwaukee), Victor Oladipo (2nd to Orlando), Rudy Gobert (27th to Utah) and Noel. It’s easy to say the Pelicans should have traded the sixth pick to Utah in exchange for the 14th and 21st picks and selected Antetokounmpo and Gobert, but no one knew what those guys would develop into.
Things get a bit cringe-worthy when you look at other trades made in the year before and after the 2013 draft.
Four days before Davis made is NBA debut, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for two first-round picks, rookie Jeremy Lamb (the 12th pick in the 2012 draft) and Kevin Martin. The Pelicans could have made a similar offer of two picks and rookie Austin Rivers (10th in the 2012 draft), but they just signed Gordon to a maximum contract, and they didn’t have a veteran scorer like Martin to include in the deal.
Two weeks after the 2013 draft, the Los Angeles Clippers sent point guard Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix in a three-team trade. Phoenix only gave up a second-round pick and Jared Dudley in the exchange. We don’t know if the Pelicans knew Bledsoe was available, or whether they would have been willing to gamble on his potential over Holiday’s already established resume.
While it’s true that Holiday wasn’t the only young star available via trade over the last few years, it’s difficult to raise an argument against him being the right player at the right time for New Orleans. If patience wasn’t an option for the Pelicans, there’s no evidence to suggest something better was on the horizon.
New Orleans Voodoo?
The events following the Pelicans’ selection of Davis with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft are just weird. Take a look.
June 28th, 2012: The Pelicans take Rivers with the 10th overall pick, one selection after Andre Drummond goes to Detroit. Rivers flops, as does most everyone picked after him, with the exception of John Henson and Terrence Jones, two players who share a position with Davis.
July 11th-14th, 2012: The Phoenix Suns sign Gordon to a maximum contract offer sheet, which the Pelicans match against the player’s wishes.
Summer 2012: Gordon complains of lingering knee pain. He eventually misses half the upcoming season.
October 27th, 2012: The aforementioned James Harden trade to Houston goes down. Would the Pelicans have been in play had they not re-signed Gordon?
January 10th, 2014: Holiday, more durable than not during his career, is diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right leg. He would miss the rest of the season following surgery.
April 14th-17th, 2014: The Pelicans enter the final two games of the regular season on an eight-game losing streak and tied with Cleveland for the 9th fewest wins in the league. New Orleans closes out the season beating Oklahoma City and Houston to finish with the league’s 10th worst record.
May 20th, 2014: The Cavs win the draft lottery with one of the ping-pong balls given to the team with the ninth worst record. The combination would have belonged to New Orleans had it lost the final two games.
January 21st, 2015: Holiday suffers a recurrence of his right leg injury. Initially expected to miss only 2-4 weeks, Holiday has yet to return to the lineup.
Combined with the historically bad 2013 draft class, which was salvaged only by two European prospects selected outside the lottery, it’s almost as if the stars refuse to align for the Pelicans and Davis. The one truly questionable decision they made was to match the offer sheet for the unhappy and injury-prone Gordon. Everything else was bad timing or bad luck.
Despite all this, the Pelicans are making/have made a real run at the eighth seed in the West this year. Davis is at worst the third best player in the league now, and only getting better.
The Good News
The Pelicans don’t have a first-round pick this year (traded to Houston for Omer Asik), and they have limited roster flexibility for the summer.
That all changes in 2016 when Gordon and the useful but also injury-prone Ryan Anderson come off the books. Factor in the dramatic salary cap increase due to the new NBA television contract, and the Pelicans will have a ton of money to spend on a loaded free agent class.
New Orleans might not have the pull of Miami or Los Angeles, but good players will be lining up to team with Davis. As bad as things have gone, the Pelicans and their fans can still look forward to July 2016 for a chance to redo their build around Davis.
Photo: USA Today