Last offseason, the Pelicans were convinced their moves would shift the culture around the franchise.
They acquired hard-nosed veterans Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams to bring some toughness to the starting lineup. They hired the defensive-minded Stan Van Gundy to be the head coach who could hold their young stars accountable.
Less than a year later, all three of them are about to find new homes.
On Monday, the Pelicans agreed to a trade that will send Bledsoe, Adams and picks No. 10 and 40 in the 2021 NBA Draft to Memphis in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas and picks No. 17 and 51 in 2021, multiple sources confirmed. The Grizzles also acquired a top-10 protected 2022 first-round pick from New Orleans via the Los Angeles Lakers. Due to league rules, the Pels cannot finalize the deal until free agency begins on Aug. 6.
ESPN was the first to report the deal.
This move opens up a few different options for New Orleans heading into a critical offseason for the franchise. It rids them of two players who struggled to fit next to franchise cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. But more importantly, it removes their hefty contracts from the books and provides additional flexibility once free agency begins.
Adams was up and down for most of his first season in New Orleans. There were times when his physicality and offensive rebounding proved valuable. He just wasn’t enough of a threat in half-court situations. His impact on the defensive end wasn’t quite what the team expected coming in. Nagging injuries throughout the year took away some of his explosiveness we’ve seen in the past, but there were times when it looked like his days as a starting center were numbered.
By season’s end, the decision to hand Adams a two-year, $35 million extension before he played a minute in New Orleans seemed like a disaster. Despite that mistake, the Pelicans front office deserves some credit for moving the deal and finding another quality big man to take over that spot.
Bledsoe was a different story from Adams. His dropoff athletically was apparent from the start of the season, and it had a dramatic impact on both ends of the court. He wasn’t enough of a downhill threat on drives to keep defenses honest, and his 3-point shooting was streaky at best.
After being named to the All-Defensive team in back-to-back seasons with Milwaukee, Bledsoe was a shadow of himself as an on-ball defender. Opposing guards roasted the Pelicans routinely on the perimeter, and he did very little to slow the bleeding. New Orleans gave up nine 40-point games in 2020-21, and all nine of them were by guards.
Van Gundy decided to stick with his starting lineup, which included Bledsoe and Adams, down to the bitter end in hopes they would figure it out. It never happened.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans had a minus-0.5 net rating and gave up 117.8 points per 100 possessions when Williamson shared the floor with Adams and Bledsoe. When Zion was on the floor without them, the Pelicans posted a plus-8.0 net rating and surrendered a 108.6 defensive rating.
The lack of scoring threats surrounding Williamson and Ingram dragged the offense down, and those struggles were exposed even more because the defense was so bad for most of the year. There are conflicting stories about who truly wanted the vets to get those consistent minutes despite their poor play. I’m sure some of it came from Van Gundy, and some of it came directly from the front office. Regardless, the fact that Bledsoe ended the year with more minutes than anyone else on the team was an indicator of just how disastrous the season was.
Grading the trade
Having said all that, Pelicans EVP of basketball operations David Griffin and his front office pulled off a pretty good deal in turning the Adams and Bledsoe contracts into a starting center with offensive skill and a reasonable contract.
The cost was moving from No. 10 to No. 17 in Thursday’s draft and giving up one of their future Laker picks. It was well worth it. Griffin shouldn’t get too much credit for giving up picks to make up for last offseason’s poor decisions, but coming out of the deal with a player like Valanciunas is a win-win.
Valanciunas is coming off what was probably his best season as a pro last year after averaging 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds on 59.2 percent shooting last season (all career-highs). He was a crucial part of the improbable playoff push Memphis managed to pull off, and he went for 29 points and 16 rebounds in their play-in tournament win over the Golden State Warriors.
While Adams can toss around most centers he goes against on a nightly basis, Valanciunas brings that same level of physicality with much better finishing ability and a wide range of post-up moves to take advantage of smaller matchups.
Per Synergy, the 29-year-old scored the fourth-most points among all players (249) on post-ups last year, trailing only Joel Embiid, Julius Randle and Nikola Jokic. He was also No. 3 in offensive rebounds and No. 6 in points in the paint.
Valanciunas is much more comfortable than Adams operating on the perimeter, and he’s not afraid to let a 3-pointer fly if he’s left open. The Lithuanian has made a combined 53 3-pointers over the last two seasons. But that’s not where his impact will be felt most.