Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin has been preparing for this offseason his entire professional life. He learned the ropes all the way up the career ladder in Phoenix until becoming a Senior Vice President in 2007. Griffin eventually found his way to Cleveland to put his stamp on a full rebuild but then Lebron James moved back home. Griffin has an elevated sense of ownership over the direction and future of the New Orleans Pelicans, more than he felt he had with the Suns or Cavaliers. That is just one reason the next 18 months will define David Griffin’s career and chart the path of the next eight to ten years of New Orleans Pelicans basketball.
Griffin was an in-house hire after almost two decades in Phoenix. That culture was built before he ascended to an executive chair. Keeping Lebron James satisfied with the roster was more important than building a culture in Cleveland. Once James announced his return, Griffin immediately traded his selection for the first overall draft pick, and his handpicked coach was replaced 18 months later due to “a lack of fit” with the players despite having the best record in the conference.
Griffin’s relationship with Gayle Benson is different than his with Dan Gilbert. This allows him to feel more of ownership with the New Orleans Pelicans and he tries to transfer that feeling throughout the franchise. That ownership and accountability are at the core of the championship culture he is attempting to build. Griffin’s has been able to operate differently in New Orleans. He also gets a different level of credit and blame for the product on the court.
Griffin’s first two seasons in charge have been a mixed bag at best due to injuries. Griffin took his fair share of the blame for the underwhelming season just completed by the New Orleans Pelicans admitting, “We need to make the pieces fit a little bit better. I think you all could see that this was a rather wonky group at times for coach. We did not have enough shooting for him to play versatile lineups. We did not have enough attention to detail.” However, he prefaced that acknowledgment with, “This is exciting for me. I think the injuries really slowed us but we are not slowing down off the court. This is when we get to really put the pedal to the metal and build this team in a way that makes sustained success possible.”
Griffin had a five-year plan when he was hired and landed Zion Williamson in the NBA Draft. He will stay the course charted before the pandemic with Stan Van Gundy. Griffin continued in defense in Van Gundy saying, “There were not enough five-on-five practices. I cannot explain what that really means to people that are not basketball fans. When you are not getting to address on a daily basis the things that you are doing wrong as a young team and actually work on those things, it makes the coach’s job almost impossible.”
Griffin knew he would need help in making these decisions so he stocked the diverse front office with former champions including Trajan Langdon and Swin Cash. He also stocked assets in the way of future draft picks and a variety of useful contracts. The Pelicans can send multiple first-round picks to any team wanting to send New Orleans an All-Star without depleting their supply of cheap rookie contracts to fill the roster in future seasons. The Pelicans will have six players on rookie contracts if they keep their pick this summer. Though those contracts can help a team avoid a luxury tax bill, not many teams make a deep playoff run with that many young players.
Griffin knows New Orleans cannot wait for someone who is now in high school to help Williamson and Brandon Ingram. The timeline in New Orleans aligns with Zion Williamson’s pending contract extension next summer. Even if New Orleans fails to sign or trade for an All-Star talent, they should look to spend some draft capital to upgrade the rotation. While draft capital alone might not be enough, New Orleans has several moveable contracts to free up two maximum-level contract slots.
Eric Bledsoe ($18m) has only one year left on his deal guaranteed, is only 30 years old, and still has plenty of decent playoff basketball left in the tank, just probably not in New Orleans. An extension is unlikely but flipping Bledsoe could net the Pelicans two decent role players that provide the shooting and basketball intelligence Griffin says the team lacked this past year. A deal bringing in just one player and draft picks would free up a few more million in cap space.
Stephen Adams ($17m) is a proven vet that helped hold the season together at times but his lack of versatility around Williamson limits his usefulness. His contract spans the next two seasons giving New Orleans plenty of leverage. They could look to move him for value or keep him in a role that might not match his cap hit but would keep his steady presence in the locker room next to Jaxson Hayes.
If Lonzo Ball signs an offer sheet beyond what New Orleans is willing to pay the Pelicans will explore all options of a sign and trade deal. Bledsoe, Adams, and Ball would add up to over $60 million in outgoing salary that would need to be replaced. The signing of Naji Marshall ($1.5m) could signal the departure of restricted free agent Josh Hart (approx. $10-15m). Attach a few draft picks and prospects that will not get the developmental time need nor be able to contribute soon and New Orleans could find a way to accommodate $70-75 million on the books when including trade exceptions.
Should Miami or Portland decide to start a rebuild, New Orleans would be primed to chase Dame Lillard, C.J. McCollum, or Jimmy Butler. The Washington Wizards could move on from Bradley Beal. The Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, and Chicago Bulls might be willing to make a deal. Griffin has a variety of controlled assets and contract options to build out this team.
Not every big move must be made immediately despite Zion Williamson’s frustrations with losing. Griffin’s front office has this offseason, the trade deadline, and next summer to sort out their sustained championship culture strategies. How will the team manage its surplus of draft picks in the coming years? How will New Orleans navigate the free-agent market and negotiate with their restricted free agents? Most importantly, will it be enough?
Enough to convince Williamson not to take the same path as Anthony Davis or Chris Paul? Enough to convince Gayle Benson to pay the luxury tax bill that comes with chasing an NBA Finals appearance? Will it even be enough to earn Griffin a few more years on the job through a contract extension? To start answering those questions requires a substantial rebuilding of the roster and that is why David Griffin is planning some career-defining moves for the New Orleans Pelicans this offseason.