On August 27, 2017, it was announced that New Orleans Pelicans projected starting small forward, Solomon Hill would miss most of the 2017-2018 season with a torn hamstring. Despite Hill not being very productive in 2016-2017, averaging seven points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 52.7% true shooting, this injury came as another shot to the Pelicans already incredibly thin wing situation. Soon after, the team was rumored to be interested in signing free agent forwards, Dante Cunningham and Shabazz Muhammad, as well as working out Josh Smith, who has not been in the NBA since 2016, along with Chase Budinger and Martell Webster, who have not been in the league since 2015.
If I had to describe the Pelicans wing situation in one word, it would be dire, as it is something the team seriously needs to address if they want to make the playoffs this year. If not, they should give away DeMarcus Cousins immediately to the highest bidder, and walk away from another year disappointing franchise player, Anthony Davis, with another playoff no-show. This is something that the Pelicans probably do not want to do unless Dell Demps and friends are some sort of anarchic, Dark Knight Joker bunch, and if that’s the case, I call Alvin Gentry as Harvey Dent, and I guess Davis would be Batman. But assuming that this is not the case, let’s look at the three possible solutions to the Pelicans small forward hole, and which the team should choose.
Sign A Free Agent
Although this is the direction the Pelicans seem to be going in, it could very well be the wrong thing to do, as at this point in the offseason, there simply are not many quality options left at small forward. The five rumored options for the Pelicans all have their flaws, as Cunningham and Smith are ultimately more power forwards than small forwards, and Muhammad, Budinger and Webster all have severe defensive problems. Other notable veteran wing free agents, like Tony Allen, Gerald Green, Matt Barnes, Anthony Morrow, Mike Dunleavy and Brandon Rush would all be very below average starting small forwards, as well, with all of them are either lacking durability, shooting or defense, which will make them easily exploitable when playing big minutes.
The Pelicans could also look at some younger, more unproven wing free agents like James Young or Darrun Hilliard, but despite definitely having the drive and athleticism to play big NBA minutes, they all lack the NBA experience, and polish to do so.
The best option from those mentioned may very well be Mike Dunleavy, who despite being almost 37 years old and missing 40% of his teams’ games for the past three years, is at least a consistently good three-point shooter, shooting between 38% and 43% every year since 2010-2011, and a league average defender, with a 0 defensive real plus minus last season. He is definitely not an ideal player to be starting at small forward for an NBA team, but despite his injuries, Dunleavy does have the least red flags when on the court.
Make A Trade
Getting a decent wing in a trade should be very hard for the Pelicans to accomplish, as not only do they lack the salary room, being 16 million dollars over the salary cap, but they also lack the assets to get one. The Pelicans are currently paying the injured and disappointing Hill 12.2 million dollars and the somehow more disappointing Omer Asik 10.6 million, and so the Pelicans, who already traded away their 2016 first round pick (Buddy Hield) and their 2017 first round pick in a 2016 deadline deal with the Sacramento Kings for DeMarcus Cousins, may need to give away their 2018 first round pick to get a quality wing. This all for a team that probably maxes out as a seventh-seed anyway.
The Pelicans have been rumored to be looking to trade for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Iman Shumpert, who is a better and more well-rounded player than would-be starter Hill, but who would the Cavaliers possibly want from the Pels, who will need to send a big contract back to acquire Shumpert’s 10.3 million in 2017-2018? Asik? Well, the team already has enough offensively limited centers with Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic and Edy Tavares, and Asik is much less valuable than Shumpert as it is. The only other way a Shumpert to New Orleans deal could get done financially is if the Pelicans involve multiple players, which once again plague the already shallow team.
Although getting a better wing than free agency has to offer may seem like the more attractive option for the Pelicans, it does not seem to be possible for them, as they simply do not have the assets or cap space to trade for a competent wing.
Stay Within The Team
If the Pelicans front office do feel as if there are no answers to this problem in a trade or in free agency, they could just give the starting job to someone already on the team, which could happen in one of two ways.
They could start Darius Miller, the only other legitimate small forward on their roster, but being that Miller has played just 1460 minutes in the NBA over three years, it would be a similar problem with signing one of the aforementioned unproven free agents, just without the burden of signing someone else.
Or the team could do something more unorthodox, and play a starting lineup with three guards. After all, Alvin Gentry is not against trying unique lineups, as he will start both Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, who have played 92% and 79% of their minutes at point guard respectively, according to Basketball-Reference, so starting another guard is not out of the question. And unlike at small forward, the Pelicans are actually pretty deep at guard, not only rostering Rondo and Holiday but quality offensive shooting guards like Ian Clark, E’Twaun Moore and Jordan Crawford, as well. And out of the three, Moore is probably the best option, as he has a 6’9” wingspan, which could help him defend small forwards, and is still a good enough off-ball scorer, which would make him ideal playing with point guards Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo.
And no, this lineup will probably not be a very defensive one, as Holiday is the only one of the three to have a positive DRPM, at 1.2, but their length is not terrible, with Rondo and Moore having 6’9” wingspans, and Holiday having a 6’7” wingspan. And this length (20’1” combined) is not necessarily the source of their probable defensive weaknesses, as there have been many good point guard/shooting guard/small forward trios with similar size. For example, the San Antonio Spurs trio of Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons, who held opponents to a 94.7 offensive rating actually have a smaller collective wingspan than the Pelicans. And sure, their success is probably just a mix of Popovich magic and Dewayne Dedmon rim protection, but this guard trio will still be playing with Anthony Davis, who despite not being as good of a rim protector as Dedmon, is still far above average, and affects opposing offenses about as much, despite being a worse rim protector, as the two both have DRPMs of 3.9, in addition to that, Cousins’ own .6 DRPM should positively affect the Pelicans defense, as well. And it is not as if the Pelicans need their defense to be as good as the Spurs anyway, as the foursome of Cousins, Davis, Holiday and Moore produced a 110.1 offensive rating, which is above average, 1.3 points above average.
And although Rondo has equal chances of being a highly positive or highly negative factor to their offense, if Rondo is not playing well, they could take him out for Crawford or Clark, who are both better offensive options than anyone else who could play with the foursome. That foursome was also a good defensive one, as well, with a 104.6 defensive rating. And so although the team would be lacking wing defense without Solomon Hill, the lineup would still definitely be a net-positive.
It may be peculiar in the current NBA landscape for teams to forgo wings when they have proven to be so important, but at this point with their only minute-worthy small forward out for most of the year, having very little quality wings in free agency and having no cap room for trades to acquire a good wing, it is the time that Gentry puts on his D’Antoni/Kerr hat (both of which he has coached with) and create a unique way to make this team successful. Starting Moore at small forward is probably the way to go, as he provides the team with good offense, and should not be too much of a problem defensively.