Team usually have to wait years to assign grades to draft classes, barring a Lebron James, Zion Williamson, or Ja Morant type of talent being available. Offseason trades offer themselves to more immediate judgments. Just a week into the 2021-22 NBA season, the New Orleans Pelicans are getting mixed results from moving out Lonzo Ball (Chicago Bulls) and Steven Adams (Memphis Grizzlies). While Jonas Valanciunas has been a godsend to the team’s interior woes in the wake of Zion Williamson’s foot surgery, Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky have provided little coming off of the bench.
Lonzo Ball and the Chicago Bulls won their home opener by easily dispatching the Pelicans. The game was not as close as the 128-112 final score suggests and Ball finished with a 17-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist double-double in 35 minutes to open his Chicago accounts. Meanwhile, Temple and Satoransky have contributed only 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists in the first four games combined.
Temple has apparently earned first-year head coach Willie Green’s trust judging by minutes played but Satoransky was a healthy scratch for both of the following road games against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Temple will likely lose the bulk of his minutes when Zion Williamson returns, relegated to spot minutes and a veteran voice role. Just like the 2024 second-round pick from Chicago, Satoransky did not score a point in his first four games with the Pelicans and there will be limited opportunities at a path back into the reserve rotation behind 2020 first-round pick Kira Lewis Jr.
Ball is averaging 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.0 assists with the Bulls. He averaged 14.6 points, 5.7 assists, and 4.8 rebounds last season for the Pelicans. The concerns of a mercurial yet inconsistent and costly contributing piece seem unfounded. Temple ($4.9m) has one year remaining on his deal while Satoransky ($10m) is an expiring contract. Matching a deal for Ball would have given the Pelicans a more productive player with a higher trade value and the team could have still avoided the luxury tax. They have almost $7 million in wiggle room.
Satoransky’s expiring, Hart’s non-guaranteed, and Temple’s cheap roster filling contracts are all very useful in a trade but was it worth losing Ball for little to nothing in return? Ball at a $20 million price point helps this team on and off the court far more than paying Satoransky, Temple, and Josh Hart almost $27 million, especially since those contracts bunded together will still need draft picks included to attract another top end talent like Dame Lillard or Buddy Heild in a trade. Ball already headlined one package for an All-Star. Ball, who just signed a 4 year, $80 million deal giving a team control, would a far more valuable asset. He jettisoned out of town as soon as possible instead of waiting out the market and it could have cost the Pelicans their next big move.
New Orleans saved some cap room for Josh Hart and signed Devonte’ Graham in free agency. Graham has done well filling into Ball’s old starting spot, averaging 17.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 5 assists while waiting to play his first minutes with Zion Williamson. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has helped carry the burden of initiating the offense and is in line for a contract extension after the season. Hart could be a trading chip or a key piece to a playoff run. Still, there were several paths to retaining Ball while also signing Graham and retaining Hart.
New Orleans had almost no leverage when dealing with trade demands from Anthony Davis. The Pelicans had most of the leverage over Chicago as Ball was a restricted free agent. His production and market value were not replaced in this trade, so why did the Pelicans trade Ball in the opening seconds of the offseason instead of shopping for a better deal? Perhaps some answers will come from the NBA’s investigation but the Pelicans are moving on with an eye towards a stable future.
Jonas Valanciunas seems to be a big part of that future. New Orleans and Valanciunas agreed to a 2-year, $30.1 million contract extension just before the season started. The investment is already paying dividends and that is before considering New Orleans also received Trey Murphy III in the trade package. The deal for Valanciunas and Graham costs some first-round picks but New Orleans was able to shed the salaries of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe in the process.
Valanciunas has already weathered his toughest four-game storm of the season. Opening with Joel Embiid, Nikola Vucevic, and Karl Anthony-Towns is a stiff challenge to open a new chapter with a first-year head coach and one of the youngest teams in the league. Even after a rough 3/19 from the field opening night, Valanciunas powers on like the heavyweight professional he is, answering the bell to lead his new team into every game with a refreshed vigor. In the first three roads games of the 2021-22 season, Valanciunas averaged 20.0 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. He shot 54 percent from the field and has yet to miss a free throw with New Orleans.
Brandon Ingram says Valanciunas, “gives us another dimension, knowing we can throw the ball down to him and he can score any time he wants to. (Valanciunas’ road trip) just shows he’s a professional, he’s ready for the moment and he cares about the team. I’m sure he didn’t like his performance (against Philadelphia). He’s a veteran, so he had to show the young guys how to be ready every single game.”
In Williamson’s absence, Green said, “Jonas has been huge for us. I’ve had several talks with him, and I told him, ‘We’re just going to ride you, big fella.’ He played 39 minutes tonight. He actually called a timeout on his own because he was so tired. I just looked at him and told him to just sit down the whole (timeout). But he’s a warrior.”
The New Orleans Pelicans may have lost the battle to keep Lonzo Ball but they won the trade wars of summer by finding a consistent playoff contributor who wanted to be in town. Valanciunas is happy with Green’s first win but he is accustomed to playoff appearances.
“I’m happy for (Green), that was his first win,” Valanciunas said. “I’m happy for him, I’m happy for us. One (Pelicans player) said we can celebrate until midnight, but then we have to forget about it and move on. We can’t get too excited. Long season ahead of us. One is not enough. We need more.”
Considering the assets left and shrinking window to build before Williamson’s maximum rookie extension kicks in, New Orleans can no longer come out of offseasons with a mixed bag of results. The Ball negotiation was not ideal but the team cannot let any negative feelings linger; it is no longer in their control, the team must look forward.
New Orleans has traded for Ingram while drafting Alexander-Walker and Williamson. Graham and Valanciunas have quickly gotten comfortable with the city and this roster. The Pelicans need to win one more trade and Griffin’s organically grown core will be ready to stake their claim as a true championship contender.