The New Orleans Pelicans will soon be at a crossroads. At season’s end, both Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will be free agents, and it is very likely that only one will be back with the team next year. With the salary cap increasing yet again, both players will demand large contracts in terms of monetary value and length. Neither is worth is a max contract based on the numbers they put up, but in the current NBA market, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some teams offer either player one (especially Holiday), or at least something close to it.
If that happens, the Pelicans will almost certainly let one player walk. Is that the smart move? Would the team instead be better off letting both players leave, committing themselves to a rebuild as Anthony Davis works towards his prime? Let’s examine all the possible scenarios.
Keeping Holiday, Letting Evans Walk
This is the most plausible outcome of the Pelicans’ offseason. The team loves Holiday, and he is a true difference maker for them. The team is 15-14 in games that he plays, compared to just 2-13 when he doesn’t. For a team fighting to make the playoffs, Holiday’s ability to merely step on the court may make all the difference.
The Pelicans have had one of the top defenses in the league since moving to a small lineup (a clunker against the Brooklyn Nets not withstanding), allowing only 101.5 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games, good for fourth in the league over that time span. It’s unclear if the Pelicans’ defense will remain that staunch over the rest of the year, but they are ranked 7th in defensive efficiency on the season, and Holiday is a big part of that rise up the ranks for a team that has been dreadful on defense for nearly a half decade.
Holiday is a big, strong guard who can fight over screens and also check some wing players in the post. He has great hands, and at times he’s able to simply cut off opposing guards and just rip the ball away.
In the western conference, you need a player that can defend the top backcourt players without compromising the rest of the defense. The Pelicans have that in Holiday, so why not hang onto him?
On the contrary, letting Evans walk this offseason is probably the smart decision. He has documented knee problems, and needs the ball in his hands as much as possible in order to be effective. The Pelicans want more of an equal opportunity offense and Evans style does not mesh with that philosophy. Indeed, with Evans on the court, the Pelicans assist percentage is only 53.3, which would rank in the bottom five among the entire league. When Evans is on the bench, that number rises all the way to 60.2%, which would rank them inside the top 10, and is much more in line with the Pelicans 59.4% overall mark on the season.
Letting Evans leave may be the easiest way for Gentry to finally see his offensive visions for the Pels come to fruition.
Letting Holiday Walk, Keeping Evans
This would be a tough sell for the franchise, and barring a doomsday scenario, it’s next to impossible this happens. What would this mean for the Pelicans as a team?
Well, they would undoubtedly be worse off defensively. Evans isn’t the worst defender, but he’s a huge step down from Holiday and he is never going to be a difference on that end. Offensively, I’ve talked about his penchant for holding the ball. But, where he differs from Holiday is his determination to get to the rim.
Holiday averages 7.5 drives per game, but that isn’t necessarily an indication of attempts at the rim. Holiday is more at home in the in-between sections, shooting over smaller guards and from the post. Evans, at his best, is a wrecking ball going to the hoop, using a herky-jerky game and a strong body to get defenders off balance before dumping it off or finishing.
If healthy, and used full time as a point guard, Evans may be able to get back to the form he displayed in his rookie year. The Pelicans are not likely to take that risk, however, and Evans will likely be looking for a new team next season.
Re-sign Both Players
This would be another route that I’m sure the Pelicans front office would prefer not to have to take, but they have done weirder things over the past few years, so it would not be too surprising. In fact, if their goal is to hover around the 7th or 8th seed every year, this would be the most logical course of action.
Their cap would be completely tied up based on what Holiday and Evans stand to make in the open market, and they would have almost no remaining avenues with which to improve the team. Sure, they could bank on personal improvement, but unless Anthony Davis and Buddy Hield become the second coming of Kobe and Shaq, the team’s ceiling would always be limited to being a fringe playoff team.
At this point, Holiday and Evans are who they are, and even when they are playing as the best possible versions of themselves, it is not enough to put a team over the top. That’s not even mentioning the fact they are unable to sustain peak play for an entire season.
Letting Both Players Walk
This option is one I believe the team should seriously look into. Even if they only choose to resign Holiday, they aren’t any closer to being a good team, but they won’t be bad enough to add top level talent through the draft. They will be confined to NBA purgatory, which is the last spot any franchise wants to be.
Every year they don’t show any progress, the chances of Davis leaving when his contract expires increases. Would a near 30-year-old Holiday, Buddy Hield (who would be close to getting his first contract at that time) and whoever they add with mid-first round picks be enough to convince Davis to stay? He’s a loyal player and has expressed that he wants to stay in the Big Easy, but at some point winning will be his top priority.
So, why not try and surround him with top level young talent? They have shown just how bad they can be without Holiday, and adding young players with potential represents the clearest path to contention. They can sit out the Golden State-Cleveland era, and have players hitting their primes and peaks at the same time. If Davis sees potential with a young squad, he may be inclined to re-up and help bring the team to glory. It’s a low-risk, high-reward proposition, which can’t be said for the other options presented here.
Regardless of what the team decides to do, they are looking at a few more years of futility. That isn’t their preference, but you reap what you sew in life and in the NBA. A slew of short-sighted personnel decisions have left the team with no easy route to success, and now they are going to have to make a decision that could shape the direction of the franchise for years to come.