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The New Orleans Pelicans May Not Be Good At Drafting, But At Least They Know It

Some teams just aren’t great at drafting, and some are just downright unlucky. That’s okay. Not everyone can be the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. But there’s value in recognizing that, in owning up to one’s shortcomings, because, well, ignorance is bliss.

The Charlotte Bobcats have been the NBA’s whipping boy for years, and for good reason: thanks to some shoddy drafting in some shoddy drafts, they failed to amount to anything. Raymond Felton never developed into the point guard he was expected to after three solid years at the University of North Carolina; Sean May spent only 82 games in a Bobcats uniform before his career became remembered for failed medical tests and “conditional problems”; Adam Morrison, the third overall pick in the 2006 Draft, was never able to replicated what made him special in college, where he became an All-American and one of the NCAA’s All-Time great scorers.

The list goes on and on, but the point is: not everyone has the luxury of striking gold in the draft, year after year.

The Bobcats paid the consequence for their decisions — 511 loses in 10 seasons and zero playoff victories. Even though they found themselves in the lottery year after year with a chance of grabbing the NCAA’s best players, luck ran its course, and it’s only now that they are starting to dig themselves out of the huge hole.

That’s part of the reason why the draft is exciting. For people who spend the entire season drooling over how prospects could make the transition into the pros, nothing is set in stone. For the Bobcats, the draft ended up being a franchise killer. For teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the draft has been a weapon for them to add even more ammo to their artillery.

But, again, not everyone is that lucky. If the Bobcats could go back and change what happened between 2004 and 2014, they would. So, with that in mind, why do teams like the New Orleans Pelicans get chastised for trading lottery picks for proven players?*

* Last year, the Pelicans traded Nerlens Noel (the sixth pick in the draft) for Jrue Holiday, and in the day leading up to the 2014 draft, it was reported that they have traded a future first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Omer Asik. 

The Pelicans have a luxury the Bobcats never did: They have someone, a star, to build around. Anthony Davis is only two years into his NBA career, but the writing is on the wall — it’s clear the Pelicans’ future is hinging on his development. With that in mind, each move they make from here on out may be what keeps him a part of their franchise.

LeBron James left Cleveland for green pastures in 2010 after the Cavaliers’ front office failed to surround him with pieces that maximized his potential. Their situation was different, obviously, as they were the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference, forcing them to yield to the free agency to rebuff their roster. But the Oklahoma City Thunder have done a formidable job over the years of surround their cornerstones, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, with the right pieces. They’ve got the scouts in place to maximize their drafts picks, but not every team is that lucky, and there’s nothing shameful about admitting that.

What if the Pelicans are just downright bad at drafting? More importantly, why is it bad if they recognize that and make moves to cover their tracks?

Taking Anthony Davis with the first overall pick was a no-brainer in 2012. Taking Austin Rivers with the 10th wasn’t. (In hindsight, seeing as John Henson, Maurice Harkless, Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger, Miles Plumlee and Draymond Green were all available at that point, they dropped the ball, big time). Cole Aldrich never amounted to anything after the then-Hornets took him with the 11th pick in 2010 (they traded him on the night of the draft to the Thunder), and Julian Wright only spent four seasons in the NBA before embarking on a journey that sent him to the D-League and then Europe. They hit home with Chris Paul in 2005 and David West in 2003, but after that, the Pelicans/Hornets don’t have a good draft history.

You know what you’re going to get out of Jrue Holiday, and you know what you’re going to get out of Omer Asik. Their salaries are a little heftier than the rookies they could’ve brought on, but they’re also surefire pieces. Holiday is a one-time All-Star, and even though that came in a season when the Eastern Conference was lowlier than all lows, it holds credence, nonetheless. Likewise, Asik is a proven rim-protector and one of the best defending bigs in the league. Although he comes on a one-year rental, he’ll be a perfect fit alongside Anthony Davis by taking some of the defensive load off of his shoulders. And if he does prove to be the missing piece in their big defensive puzzle, they’ll have an opportunity to re-sign him.

Hindsight makes the draft look easy. Kawhi Leonard would likely be the second overall pick if we re-did the 2011 draft, yet he was an unknown commodity at the time, which is why he slipped to the 15th pick. (Sticking with that draft, only five players in the top 10 picks that season are currently starters on their respective teams — Kemba Walker, Brandon Kniht, Jonas Valanciunas, Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Other than Enes Kanter, the rest are simply pieces to fill out the roster).

Hitting a home-run in the draft isn’t easy. If it was, draft busts wouldn’t be a hop topic. Year after year teams fail to get value out of their lottery picks. It happened last year, it’ll happen this year and it will certainly happen in the future. Trading lottery picks isn’t sexy. As fans, we gravitate to the unknown. The three month period between the draft the taste of the regular season is spent reading up on the past of draft picks, watching scouting reports and imaging how they could fit in if all goes to plan. It’s fun, exciting and nerve racking all at the same time. But seeing as very few lottery picks live up to their potential, it’s OK to take the safe option sometimes. It prevents teams from making a decision that could haunt them from years to come, and sometimes it works out for the better.

That’s what the Pelicans have done, that’s what they’re doing, and it could be what builds them into a Western Conference powerhouse. They’re bringing in pieces that not only compliment Anthony Davis on both ends of the court, but ones that make his job easier. Whether or not those pieces come in the draft, through trades or in free agency, the important thing is that it happens.

Scott Rafferty

  • Scott

    Trading for Jrue Holiday was a mistake- he wasn’t a proven commodity and his all-star selection was based on stats driven by being the main cog for a $hitty 76er team! Giving up 2 first round picks for him was a$$inine! Trading a future #1 for Asik, who has an expiring contract is another mistake-what will you have when he walks? Another hole to fill and no 1st round pick again! The reason the Pelicans dont draft well is just poor work on the parts of the scouting and management teams; the reason you win is you build with your won picks and shrewd trades; aspects the Pelicans can’t seem to grasp.

    • family_style

      What’s the chance we would’ve drafted someone last year + this year that would amount to more than Jrue? I think you’re highly overestimating that chance.
      Pelicans will have Bird rights on Asik, so there’s a good chance of keeping him long term.
      Another thing is timelines and timing. If you want to build from the draft you run the risk of chasing that carrot forever with nothing to show for it. The Pelicans are going all in now, instead of when AD is nearing the end of his contract and surrounded by a bunch of draft busts.
      Also, it will be interesting to see what happens tonight, the offseason has only just begun.

      • Scott

        Just because they have first dibs on Asik doesn’t mean he’ll resign and if he doesn’t then you’ve given up another #1 for a one year rental and nothing to show for after next year-to me trading picks, especially #1′s, are what teams close to championships do and the Pelicans aren’t even close. To me this smacks of a management looking to appease fans and ownership with a playoff appearance as well as saving their fannies rather than being home again next year and them looking for jobs. Maybe its a way to appease AD by them being able to say to him-”We did what it took to get you and the team into the playoffs” hoping that makes him happy while he wants to hear them say-”We’re doing what it takes to make the Pelicans a championship team”. To me the selection of Noel and whoever they would draft at #10 this year would bring them closer to a championship than Holiday and Asik will. Granted, Noel hasn’t played any games yet but if he ends up nothing more than a middle clogger/rebound specialist and someone like Stauskas at #10 this year the Pelicans would have been better off was well as having next years #1.

    • Bobby

      Thank you for that analysis Scott. Your factual insight is invaluable.