Reports indicate that New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps is pursuing either Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor or Brooklyn Nets big man Brook Lopez to pair with All-Star Anthony Davis.
Those same reports state that New Orleans would give up either Alexis Ajinca or Omer Asik and a 2018 first-round draft choice in exchange for Okafor or Lopez.
How do either of those deals make any sense for the Pelicans other than in ridding themselves of two players who clearly have no place in the team’s future?
Okafor, still on his rookie contract, would be a bargain but he’s fallen out of favor in Philadelphia, a team that used the number 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft on the former Duke Blue Devil. Joel Embiid is Philly’s favorite son now, and both Nerlens Noel (whom the Pelicans sent to the Sixers in the Jrue Holiday trade) and Dario Saric have surpassed Okafor in the frontcourt pecking order. An effective and efficient low-post scorer shooting better than 51 percent from the floor for his career, Okafor still presents plenty of risk.
Okafor missed 29 games his rookie year, mostly due to a torn ligament in his right knee, and has only played in 35 games so far, this season. For a team that has been as snake bitten by injuries as the Pelicans, it’s hard to see why they would take a chance on a 300 pound center with an injury history, especially when running is such a big part of the Pelicans offensive philosophy.
Okafor’s career player efficiency rating is 16.3, just slightly better than average. In 88 games, he’s posted exactly 12 double-doubles (and just one this season). He’s a decent rebounder, averaging eight boards per 36 minutes, but he turns the ball over more than he makes an assist. He also is limited as a rim protector, averaging just one block per game for his career.
Like Okafor, Brook Lopez is a gifted scorer in the post. At 28 years of age, he’s a proven commodity, playing at least 72 games in six of the past eight seasons. This season, the twin brother of former New Orleans Hornets center Robin Lopez averaging 20.3 points per game, the fourth time in his career he’s done so.
Here’s the rub. Brook is shooting a career-low 46 percent this season. Lopez is a worse rebounder than Okafor; his average of 5.2 boards per contest is the second lowest of his career. He’s also set to be paid nearly $23 million next season. That’s a huge contract for the Pelicans to absorb, especially when you consider that the team has some tough decisions to make regarding free agents to be Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas.
Acquiring Lopez makes sense for a team looking to add a final piece on its way to a championship, but that isn’t the Pelicans.
Let’s do a quick recap for those of you who haven’t been paying very close attention. The Pelicans are currently 20-32, good for last place in the Southwest Division and 12th in the Western Conference. New Orleans is almost as close to falling into last place out west (four games ahead of the Phoenix Suns) as they are to catching up to Denver (3.5 games behind the Nuggets).
With 30 games remaining in the regular season, New Orleans would have to go 18-12 to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Of those 30 games, only 13 are at home and 16 are against teams which would be in the postseason if the season ended today.
That’s an incredibly daunting task for a team whose longest winning streak is four games.
Undoubtedly, Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps and Head Coach Alvin Gentry must be feeling the heat. Gentry is headed for his second straight losing season since coming to New Orleans and Demps is staring at his fifth losing record in six seasons.
The promise to Davis was that they would build a contender around him as soon as he signed his contract extension before last season, but it is pretty easy to say that whatever plan the team had hasn’t worked.
New Orleans dug itself into this hole by making short-sighted decisions; trading high draft picks, overpaying free agents, and assembling a roster that just doesn’t seem to fit together. The Pelicans can’t dig themselves out with more of the same.
It’s time for the franchise to realize that it has to erase the chalkboard and start on a new formula. The best opportunity for the Pels to right this ship is to go young. Remember, Anthony Davis will still only be 24 years old when next season begins. His contract means he isn’t going anywhere. The Pelicans have to be honest with themselves and with Davis, admit they messed up and try to move forward.
The probability of either Okafor or Lopez making the Pelicans a true championship contender is low, and if New Orleans continues to spin its wheels, Davis will ask to be moved no matter what.
If the Pelicans want to make a trade, they should be moving players out and receiving financial flexibility and draft picks in return.
Building a truly talented young core around the team’s superstar seems like the only viable option at this point. That means a commitment from top to bottom to improve every facet of the organization, not applying band aids to deep cuts. And this team has a lot of cuts.