Additions of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans have New Orleans Pelicans Ready to Make Big Leap in 2013-14

It looks like a lot more than the name will be changing for New Orleans’ NBA franchise this season.

The league’s free agency period has been open less than a week, and already the New Orleans Pelicans (nee Hornets) have been making moves that show they’re ready to once again be a player in the Western Conference.

It started on draft night, when the Pelicans drafted Nerlens Noel of Kentucky, who shockingly fell from being the presumptive #1 overall pick all the way until just days before the draft all the way down to #6. But instead of keeping Noel and setting up a Kentucky Wildcat frontcourt tandem with him and Anthony Davis, they immediately traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers (along with next year’s first round pick) for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.[caption id="attachment_118" align="alignright" width="200" caption="New Orleans already has a beloved Drew. But now we also have a Jrue!"][/caption]

To say I was happy about the acquisition of Holiday would be a vast understatement. I had gone into the night hoping that they would land Michigan guard Trey Burke with the sixth pick. This was even better. The Pelicans filled the point guard position not with a promising rookie, but a proven All-Star. Holiday can do it all: score, pass, and handle the ball well. He was among the league leaders in turnovers last season, but that could possibly be at least partially attributable to being in the position of having to try and do it all for a bad Philadelphia team. And at only 23 years old, he’s not even in his prime yet; he could still get better.

If that wasn’t enough, the Pelicans have followed it up with a big move in free agency, agreeing to terms with one of this year’s most valuable assets: Tyreke Evans. The Pelicans acted fast, immediately offering the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year a 4-year, $44 million deal when the free agency negotiation period began, and Evans has verbally agreed to formally sign an offer sheet for that on July 10, the first day that teams can sign players. Sacramento can match the offer, but instead the two teams, along with Portland, have reportedly already agreed to a three-team sign-and-trade deal that will deliver Evans to the Pelicans, while sending New Orleans’ Greivis Vasquez to the Kings and Robin Lopez to the Trail Blazers.

The loss of Vasquez is disappointing, as he made an impressive leap last year into the top half of NBA point guards (and arguably top 10). Keeping him around would’ve given the Pelicans good depth at the position, and perhaps the top backup point guard in the league. And the loss of Lopez means that the team will have to look to acquire a center. Davis and Ryan Anderson are plenty capable of filling in at that spot, but neither is a true center. Nonetheless, they had to clear cap room to make cap room to acquire both Holiday and Evans, and losing Vasquez and Lopez’s contracts will net them about $6 million in cap space, which makes the deals possible.

Still though, the Pelicans are putting themselves in a position to make a big leap next year. Holiday and (if he’s healthy) Eric Gordon will be one of the NBA’s top backcourt duos, Anthony Davis will continue to improve and grow into himself as an NBA player, and if Evans is willing to be flexible for the sake of the team, he’ll either make a fine starting small forward, or become a top sixth man in the league, similar to what Manu Ginobili has been for San Antonio.

So consider this hypothetical starting lineup: Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, Moderately-Priced Center to Be Named Later (J.J. Hickson perhaps?). Ryan Anderson, Al-Farouq Aminu leading the charge off the bench. If Austin Rivers can recover from a disappointing rookie season and become a solid rotation player, this looks like a playoff team. The X-Factor, of course, will continue to be Gordon.

[caption id="attachment_117" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Eric Gordon, Year 2. Hopefully he doesn't have to force the smile so obviously this year."][/caption]

Gordon’s health and happiness have been the biggest question mark over the franchise ever since he came to New Orleans in the Chris Paul trade. If he’s happy, healthy and motivated, Gordon could be one of the top shooting guards in the league. But if he’s not, he could continue to drag the franchise down from where they could be. Head Coach Monty Williams and General Manager Dell Demps need to have a long talk with Gordon (if they haven’t already) to find out where his knee and his head are at. If he’s committed to winning here (hopefully the recent moves have motivated him some), then let’s see what he can do. If he isn’t, then there’s only one course of action to take: start shopping him like mad.

Getting any real player assets for him at this point may be tough, but see if you can get someone to give up a couple of draft picks for him, clear that $13 million off the salary cap, then make a run at another marquee free agent. My pick? Andre Iguodala. Losing Gordon and picking up Iguodala would allow them to move Evans to shooting guard, and put one of the top defenders in the league at the three spot. Of course, this all depends on Gordon’s mindset, as well as Iguodala’s willingness to come to New Orleans. But Demps should be prepared for the possibility of dealing Gordon if he’s not ready to give it his all.

Overall though, it’s been a great couple of weeks to be a New Orleans Pelicans fan. Bringing in Evans and Holiday to team with Gordon and Davis gives the Pelicans a great young core of players that also possesses NBA experience. And yes, I did call them in the playoffs last year, and they weren’t close. But that was a best-case scenario that depended on a lot of things going right (almost none of which did). That all said, it’s undeniable that they’re putting together a loaded starting lineup.

It’s not a stretch to say that this is a team that could very well make the jump from second-worst in the west to the playoffs. But no matter what happens, it’s safe to say that this is going to be fun to watch.

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