In recent weeks, rumors have surfaced linking the Pelicans to both the Philadelphia 76ers' Jahlil Okafor and the Brooklyn Nets' Brook Lopez. Much differentiates these two players. One is 21 years old, fairly cheap, and would be a move that (hopefully) benefits the future. The other is 28 going on 29, a well-established player who would instantly make a bad team much more competitive.
But one thing is for darn sure. The Pelicans organization wants a 1) a center 2) because they don’t want Anthony Davis to be a center and 3) and they want that new center to be offensively gifted.
Lopez and Okafor are both offensive centers, albeit in much different ways. The Pels have offered a glimpse of their motive, and that alone is reassuring.
Anthony Davis playing significant time at the five isn’t long for this world. This is the reality, despite everybody and their mama (myself included) believing Davis to be the ideal small-ball five. But see, Anthony Davis, and I guess we can also assume his mama because Anthony’s mama probably has the same opinion that Anthony Davis does, prefers not to play the five and he's been vocal about that (see here,1:09 mark).
And it’s hard to blame the organization for accepting the reality of playing Davis at the four. From January 9th to January 25th, the Pelicans played eight games, all of which had Davis starting at center. AD either left the game early or missed the entire game due to injury in seven of them. While not all of the injury issues can be blamed on handling the responsibilities of a center, it’s evident that the organization, along with Davis, believe that their unibrowed star suffers too much damage bumping and bruising with opposing centers. Thus, it’s better for his long-term health if he’s paired with a true center and allowed to operate at the power forward position.
This is the route the organization has chosen, for better or worse. And of the two rumored options, I prefer Lopez. Many have cited his age and contract as potential negatives.
Lopez turns 29 in April, and is signed through the end of next year. He’s owed $21 million this year and $22 million next. I understand that he’s older than the rest of the Pelicans’ core, i.e. Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Buddy Hield, but the timeframe I value is now until 2020, when it’s time for Anthony Davis to exercise his player option within his contract. Until then, the Pelicans are auditioning for Davis’ future services.
Lopez will remain a quality player until his contract expires. He has always been an offensive weapon and has continued to expand his offensive game by adding a three-point shot. The rumors indicate that the Pels are offering a protected 2018 first-round pick in addition to Tim Frazier, Langston Galloway, and Tyreke Evans. That’s great, as long as the 2017 first-round selection stays off the table—this draft is simply too loaded, and the Pels appear destined for the lottery. The other players are mainly included to make the salaries match. Tyreke isn't re-upping with this team after his contract expires, and while Frazier and Galloway have been nice additions, they're rotation pieces and worth moving for a player of Lopez's caliber.
After Lopez’s contract expires, the team can re-evaluate and determine if he’s worth resigning. If the Pelicans are a decent team, I’d be willing to bet he’d stay. If not, or if he refuses to re-sign, then ideally you were a competitive squad for a few years. You built up some goodwill by winning and your core of AD, Holiday, Buddy Hield, and your 2017 draft selection are further along down the road.
Money-wise, he’s expensive—a trio of Jrue (after/if the Pels re-sign him this offseason), AD, and Lopez will comprise a significant portion of the team’s cap space. But considering New Orleans isn’t the most prominent free agent destination, a player of Lopez’s caliber is only acquired via trade. This is a feasible route to forging a good team while keeping your star happy.
Okafor is young, and could certainly still develop—but currently doesn’t fit well next to Davis. Or just in the modern NBA. He’s really, really great in the low-post, and that's been a known commodity since he left college. But man can he slow down an offense. Also, he can't shoot. Also, he isn’t great at defense. Also, he underwhelms on the glass.
If management is unable to pull off a trade for Lopez, I’d still be content with trading for Okafor in exchange for a lottery protected 2018 first-round pick (especially if the Pels can unload a burdensome Omer Asik or Alexi Ajinca contract). The talent is there, and there’s always a chance he develops a quality jump shot or displays more awareness and effort on defense. I mean, things change and he's very young. But the Pelicans should refrain from entering into a bidding war and ponying up additional assets.
Regardless, the Pels have made their intentions clear going forward—they view Anthony Davis as a power forward. It's hard to blame New Orleans for keeping their star happy.