Self-awareness is key in all aspects of life. That’s important near the NBA trade deadline.
At this point in the NBA calendar, teams spend countless hours evaluating assets and assessing how much it might be worth to load up the present or prepare for the future.
Getting that process right doesn’t start with evaluating the other 29 teams. It’s about looking in the mirror.
This is especially true for a team like the Pelicans.
After losing six in a row and 11 of their last 14, the confidence this group once exuded has diminished significantly. Losing your two best players for a few weeks will have that effect.
Of greater concern, however, is the ground they’ve lost in the race in the West during this last tough stretch. After holding the second-best record in the conference at the start of the month, New Orleans and the 13th-ranked Lakers are now separated by just three games.
After missing 29 games with a foot injury, Brandon Ingram finally returned to the lineup on Wednesday. It was the jolt of life the Pels needed to regain their traction. But it also heightened the sense of urgency around everyone within the organization.
If they’re going to get back into the upper echelon of the West, they’ll have to start showing it sooner rather than later with a tough road trip coming up next week, including games in Milwaukee, Denver and Dallas.
And that’s where self-reflection comes into play.
Clearly, the Pelicans have enough talent to be considered a serious threat to reach the Western Conference Finals when fully healthy. Zion Williamson, Ingram and CJ McCollum have what it takes to trade shots with anyone when they’re at their best.
With those aspirations and so much talent, it makes sense for a team to seriously consider what it would take to follow the likes of O.G. Anunoby, Bojan Bogdanovic, and John Collins.
But the Pelicans are in a unique position.
Their Big 3 have played just 172 minutes combined this season. As good as they look, they still have a long way to go to develop the chemistry and cohesion needed to compete on the playoff stage.
History tells us that experience is one of the most valuable commodities any team can bring into the postseason, and the Pelicans are sorely lacking in that area. Ingram got his first taste of the bright lights last season, and Zion has yet to log his first playoff minutes.
Even with the addition of another savvy veteran, the Pels will have an uphill battle against battle-tested teams like Golden State, Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver and the LA Clippers.
That doesn’t mean New Orleans can’t knock any of them off in a playoff series. When fully healthy, Pels have enough firepower to scare anyone.
The real question is this. How much of the future should they be willing to sacrifice for a better opportunity in the present?
Ingram and Williamson are obviously untouchable. Dyson Daniels and Trey Murphy are considered key pieces of the puzzle. Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall are seen in the same light, but it’s even harder to find deals that will work with them since each of them is making less than $2 million this season.
Devonte’ Graham and Jaxson Hayes are the main culprits that have been swirling in Pelicans trade rumors since the summer. They have shown some flashes, but they have little value on the open market.
A big part of the conversation around New Orleans heading into the deadline will be the franchise’s willingness to give up a first-round pick (or two) to make a deal. They have future picks from the Lakers (2024 or 2025) and Bucks (2027) in the treasury, as well as trade rights with the Lakers in 2023.
The Pelicans could put enough on the table to make themselves a serious player for just about anyone expected to be available at the Feb. 9 deadline.
This is where self-reflection comes into play again.
Would it make sense for this team to give up future picks to improve the current roster?
And that question goes beyond whether it’s worth giving up a future pick on Bogdanovic or Collins.
A far more important assessment is how New Orleans plans to build a roster in the near future with Williamson, Ingram and McCollum all making $30-plus a season. The Big 3 and Valanciunas are traded for more than $118 million in 2023-24.
It’s only four players.
As much as they’ve gotten away with it in the past, it’s becoming clear that the Pelicans will eventually have to pay the luxury tax in the near future to keep key pieces of this roster. But they are in no rush to reach that day.
The wiser move would be to continue using draft picks, acquiring young players on cost-controlled contracts. This should provide the flexibility needed to build the rest of the roster without feeling pressured to shed valuable veterans like Valanciunas or Nance.
That doesn’t mean they should ignore calls from anyone inquiring about Milwaukee’s 2027 first-rounder. But it will be crucial for this franchise to continue building internally with the assets they have. Their roster is a great example of how much freedom having young, impactful players on rookie contracts can give a team as they project for the future.
If anything, a team like Memphis has laid out a great blueprint for what the Pelicans can do to maintain their viability as a serious contender without wading into luxury tax waters.
Of the 15 players on the Grizzlies’ current roster, 12 were either acquired by Memphis through the draft or signed out of college as undrafted free agents. They’ve done an incredible job of developing talent within their organization, and it’s easier to predict the future with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson and Desmond Bain remaining long-term on huge contracts. In a market like Memphis, that’s not easy to pull off.
New Orleans will have to deal with the same challenges.
But there’s another factor here that the Pelicans can apply to themselves.
The Grizzlies have felt similar pressure over the past few seasons to make a big move and give themselves a better chance at a title. They would be more justified in investing their chips now with the team they have built and their experience over the past two postseasons.
Memphis has held on for the most part, and many expect them to do so again this year. Their main reason is simple. they’ve built a team full of guys who enjoy playing together and don’t want to mess up anything special.
It’s not the end of the world if a smaller market team sits back and enjoys the fruits of their creation. There are benefits that can arise from what the team says. “We’ll go with the guys who brought us here.” That amount of trust in the group often leads to them feeling more invested in the big picture progress of the franchise.
This is not the approach the Pels should have for the rest of the season. Certainly, the pressure to put Zion in a championship season will increase each season he remains in New Orleans.
But with this team, they were able to develop something special in the locker room. The bond they’ve formed individually and the city of New Orleans is unlike anything the franchise has experienced in more than a decade.
If they can recreate that magic with a few more healthy bodies, there’s no need to trade future assets to upgrade a spot or two at the back of the rotation.
They got a chance to show that what they have as a whole can be greater than the individual parts. That’s the path to real cultural change that takes years, not just talent pooling.
Given this team’s financial outlook and what they’ve shown when Zion is fully healthy, it makes sense to take it slow and not rush anything. We’ve seen elsewhere how much that patience can pay off in meaningful ways.
(Main photo of Zion Williamson and Pelicans Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)