New Orleans shook up its roster with a pre-draft trade agreement that sent Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams to the Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and an exchange of draft picks. That trade was folded into a three-team deal with the Hornets once the Pelicans reached an agreement with Devonte’ Graham in free agency.
Valanciunas, who agreed to a two-year extension this week, is more of a scoring threat than Adams while providing the same rugged inside presence. He is now signed through the 2023-24 season and will hopefully be able to complement Williamson’s unique skills. The Pelicans gave Adams a similar extension after acquiring him last year, so the team is counting on better results from its commitment to Valanciunas.
The Pelicans decided against bringing back point guard Lonzo Ball, even though they could have matched offers for the restricted free agent on the open market. Instead, they worked out a sign-and-trade that sent Ball to Chicago in exchange for Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple and a future draft pick. The deal gives New Orleans a stronger veteran presence in its backcourt and potentially opens up more playing time for young guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis.
The other significant move in free agency was re-signing swingman Josh Hart, one of the pieces still remaining from the Anthony Davis trade. Hart, who has been a useful bench player during his two seasons in New Orleans, agreed to a three-year deal that only has guaranteed money in the first season. The Pelicans can waive him by June 25 if they want to get out of the final two years of that contract without a financial hit.
In the draft, the Pelicans used their first-round pick to add Virginia forward Trey Murphy, who shot 43.3% from three-point range last season and should help space the court. Alabama’s Herb Jones, taken with the 35th pick, provides a strong defensive presence and is expected to see time as a backup center.
Every move the Pelicans make is under the shadow of a looming decision by Williamson, who will be eligible for a rookie scale extension next summer. No player has ever turned down a maximum-salary rookie extension, but there has been speculation that Williamson might consider doing so if he’s not happy with the direction of the team. Amid rumors that Williamson’s family wants him to move on and that he has a strained relationship with head of basketball operations David Griffin, there is an obvious need to make progress before that offer gets put on the table.
The offseason shakeup leaves the Pelicans with a much different group to put around their two stars. They have security with Ingram, who is under contract through the 2024-25 season, but the direction of the franchise will change drastically if Williamson doesn’t accept an extension next year.
The Pelicans’ season:
Injury concerns with Williamson are already threatening to throw this season into chaos. He underwent surgery on his right foot during the offseason, and there’s no firm timetable for when he’ll be able to start playing. Williamson is a game-changing talent when healthy, but he has played just 85 total games in his first two NBA seasons.
The Pelicans know what to expect from Ingram, who has become one of the league’s most consistent scorers. He has averaged 23.8 PPG during both of his seasons in New Orleans and was an All-Star selection in 2019-20. He’s capable of carrying the offense until Williamson returns.
The Pelicans need a strong season from Graham, who was overshadowed by rookie LaMelo Ball last year with the Hornets after a breakthrough season in 2019-20. They were confident enough in the 26-year-old guard to give him a four-year deal and let him take over for Lonzo Ball. New Orleans needs to work out the roles for its other guards and determine whether it’s better to play Satoransky or use those minutes to develop Lewis and Alexander-Walker.
The Pelicans are hoping to at least reach the play-in round, but it seems like a lot to ask in a tough Western Conference where the top eight or nine teams appear already set. A quick return by Williamson would help as New Orleans will need big things from him to become a contender. But no matter what happens on the court, the real excitement for the Pelicans will begin next offseason.