As the clock ticked closer and closer to 3 p.m. ET, the trade deadline appeared to mark an inflection point for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Stuck in the dregs of the Western Conference standings and without the services of two of their top five players for the rest of the season, the Pelicans appeared in position to cash in on their big-name free agents-to-be. After swapping all of its draft picks the past three years for more established twentysomethings, maybe this would be the moment the franchise decided to surround Anthony Davis, its all-world wunderkind, with a fresh injection of youth.
But when faced with an apparent fork in the road, the front office instead forged a third path: They hit hold.
When the 3 p.m. ET buzzer sounded, the Pelicans, despite their efforts, were still the employers of Ryan Anderson and every other player who started the day on the roster. The move they did make -- getting NBA sophomore Jarnell Stokes and cash for a future second-round pick -- registers but a small ripple in what turned out to be a pretty lackluster deadline.
That deal, however, does seem like a clear victory for New Orleans, the type of fringe move that general manager Dell Demps has shown a knack for (think Quincy Pondexter, Norris Cole and Ish Smith). The Pelicans picked up the 22-year-old Stokes, the 35th overall pick in 2014 who currently leads the D-League in player efficiency rating, and enough cash to cover his salary this season for the price of reducing Miami’s luxury-tax bill. He’s not the active 3-and-D wing that Alvin Gentry’s system craves, nor the catnip ball of hope that is a future first-rounder. But Stokes, with just 144 NBA minutes to his name and a modicum of pre-college and pre-draft pedigree, is exactly the type of low-risk, high-reward flyer the Pelicans should be investing in with the back end of their roster. They could also waive Stokes and funnel the funds acquired to pay for Bryce Dejean-Jones, another promising D-League pickup who has started eight games this season but remains unsigned after two 10-day stints.
Not all rebuilds have to be done with a hard, Sixers-style reset. In fact, evidence suggests that tanking doesn’t work, and building through the draft, a la the Oklahoma City Thunder, is more pipe dream than path to the top. Sure, the lottery pick that became Harrison Barnes has worked out for the Warriors. But in perhaps their biggest move (or non-move) of the day, the Pelicans held on to their own first-rounder. And with the odds of landing inside the top three of the lottery (12.3 percent) currently higher than the odds of creeping inside the West’s top eight (1.5 percent), and with Pondexter, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon all on the injury list, it’s likely the Pelicans will land such an asset anyway.
In the meantime, virtually the same roster goes back into the lab in search of the internal development that was expected before the season under Gentry and defensive guru Darren Erman, but has largely been derailed by injuries.
Gentry has been in this position before. He helped reset the Suns to their "7 Seconds or Less" ways after the identity-altering trade for Shaquille O’Neal didn’t work out and was an assistant when the Warriors decided against trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love. While the Pelicans' head coach cautioned against extracting any big-picture approach from those recent experiences, he again noted the degree of mystery that lingers over a team forced to go with a rotating cast of characters for the bulk of the season.
“We never really had the team on the floor that we anticipated,” Gentry said Thursday morning. “It is. It really is difficult to judge exactly what we could have been or how we could have gotten there.”
New Orleans is tied for the NBA’s 10th-best net rating between Dec. 13, the day after Jrue Holiday sat out his last back-to-back, and Jan. 25, Evans’ final game of the season. That might not be enough to consider these Pelicans some unrealized dynasty, but it’s enough to serve as a flickering beacon of hope, or at least enough of a reason to hold on to this current core if the right deals don’t materialize.
The Pelicans still have options. They still retain the Bird rights of unrestricted free agents Anderson and Gordon. They still have this year’s first-rounder and two seconds (the lesser of their own and Sacramento’s, plus Denver’s) to boot. And they still have Davis, one of the most prized possessions in the league.
A big change did not occur before the deadline, but that doesn’t mean the Pelicans are stuck this way, mired in the dreaded in-between zone, forever.
“We’re not gonna ever just play out the string,” Gentry said. “We’ll have goals that we can set for ourselves. I think the big thing for us is that we have to demand certain things down the stretch. And the discipline part of it has to be important. Just play out the games and be competitive every night out.”