The New Orleans Pelicans are just one player away from becoming contenders in the Western Conference.
There was plenty of buzz in New Orleans at this time last year when its team won the NBA Draft Lottery and it was clear Anthony Davis would be drafted No. 1 overall.
After a subpar year where injuries and poor defense ruined its preseason goals, the players will work diligently all summer to get into a position where the playoffs are within reach come next April.
A disappointing record of 27-55 landed New Orleans in the lottery yet again, where this time they were awarded the sixth pick.
Though the luck was not in their favor, coach Monty Williams wasn’t too upset with the way things turned out. He told John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
If you do your work, you’ll be able to find a good player. With these kind of players that can fit in a system, you can end up being a better player at a lower pick.
There are several ways to address this draft. The Pelicans need depth at the point guard position and at center. However, there is a glaring need at small forward and it would take a slight miracle for Georgetown’s Otto Porter to fall to No. 6, so general manger Dell Demps may have to explore other areas to address that position.
The draft will be a day in which we see the best available being taken early and often. It works out that at No. 6, the positional needs of the Pelicans can be taken care of by selecting the best available.
So which way will the Pelicans go? There are a few options for both the frontcourt and the backcourt. C.J. McCollum or Trey Burke? Cody Zeller or Alex Len? Any of these players would help New Orleans on its quest to become playoff contenders once again.
The Pelicans will be in need of frontcourt depth. They have Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and an option on the return of Robin Lopez, but adding a big man with the sixth pick might be the direction Demps decides to go.
If that’s the case, the pick to make is Indiana forward/center Cody Zeller. He is long with a wingspan of 6’11” and he can jump. ESPN's Chad Ford tweeted that Zeller set a record at the NBA draft combine for the highest vertical leap in a decade for a player 6'9" or taller (35.5 inches).
He puts himself in good position around the rim, ready for a put-back or a rebound. For a player that is 7’0”, Zeller handles the ball extremely well—he can put the ball on the floor to get to the basket or spot up for a jumper.
His rebounding increased at Indiana, where last season Zeller averaged 8.1 rebounds per game. He’s always been a great scorer, but the improvement of his defensive game makes him a much better basketball player. With his long reach, he also manages to block an average of 1.3 shots per game.
Zeller’s performance at the combine marked him as the most athletic big man in the draft and his value increased. He moved into the top 10 in many mock drafts, and his basketball IQ, mixed with his quickness and defensive presence make him an intriguing prospect.
With Davis and Zeller on the floor together, Davis could play center. If Anderson is on the floor with Zeller, then Zeller would play the 5. He could benefit from adding some muscle and gaining weight, but he has the potential to be a player very similar to the style of Davis.
Zeller would bring energy, mobility and an explosive step to the rim. The Pelicans need a big man to pair with Davis. His athleticism and ability to run the floor and be involved in transition further add value to Zeller.
This would be a situation where the Pelicans go with the best man available, develop that player and utilize his skills.
He could play his role in making the Pelicans competitive in the Southwest division. A big man with the capabilities like those of Zeller is a rarity in the NBA. He has the size to be a great professional player.
If he can handle the strength of other NBA centers on the defensive end, the Pelicans could have their frontcourt of the future with Davis alongside Zeller.
There’s a lot to like about this kid. With an ESPN Hollinger player efficiency rating of 30.37, Zeller would make an immediate impact in the Pelicans frontcourt.
Trey Burke is a versatile point guard with a keen eye on the court. He’s a player who could come off the bench—or even start—and run the Pelicans’ offense.
Burke is a great scorer, but he emerged into a strong leader and floor general as well. This past season at Michigan, Burke averaged nearly seven assists per game. He finished the season with a 6.7-to-2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio and comes into the draft as the No. 1-ranked point guard, per ESPN’s NBA DraftTracker.
He excels coming off the screen as he is a solid shooter off the dribble. Burke averaged 18.6 points on 46.3 percent shooting in 2012-13. He waits to see what the defense is giving him before he makes a decision on whether to shoot or pass.
The Pelicans are in the market for point guard depth, as there are no certainties on the roster behind Greivis Vasquez. Brian Roberts has a non-guaranteed contract and Demps could look to part ways if he can address his need in the draft.
Burke is an all-around point guard. He steps up when his team needs him, but he doesn’t have to be the shooter in every situation. The 20-year-old needs to work on his lateral quickness and intensity on the defensive end, but he is a high-value pick with a lot of upside.
He can contribute right away and push this team in the right direction with his focus and leadership attributes. His abilities on the pick-and-roll and patience to wait for a play to develop are great qualities in a young point guard.
With Vasquez recently having an arthroscopic procedure on his ankle, the Pelicans need some insurance at the point. He should be ready for the season, but if not, then the Pelicans may have Trey Burke to start in his place.
If Burke is available at No. 6, the Pelicans should seriously consider drafting him, as he might be the player who gets the franchise back into relevancy.
If Burke is off the board and there isn’t anybody left who Demps is high on, he could opt to trade the pick. At No. 6, there is still a slim possibility they trade up, perhaps to select defensive specialist Victor Oladipo, but it is more likely they trade down.
Now, the Pelicans could go one of two ways. The picks route: trade your lottery selection for a later pick and a future first-round pick; or the player route: trade the lottery pick for a proven talent plus a conditional second-round pick.
In this scenario, there is a trade for picks. Make a deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, who own four picks in the draft, for the 40th selection, a second-round pick in 2015 and a first-round pick in 2014.
With the talent level of next year’s draft class, you can’t go wrong with an extra first-round pick.
Using the 40th selection in this year’s draft, the Pelicans should select Bucknell center Mike Muscala, a high value pick that could be a steal at No. 40.
For a 6’11” power forward/center, Muscala has long range on his jump shot. With his size, he makes himself a force in the paint and can convert from both inside and outside.
He has the versatility to have a long NBA career. Muscala would give the Pelicans another scoring threat from distance off the bench. He is a strong post player, something the Pelicans lacked last season, and he will help clog the paint on defense.
Muscala has seen a steady increase in points, rebounds and assists throughout his four years at Bucknell. As a senior, he averaged 18.7 points and 11.1 rebounds.
He is quick for 6’11”, able to run in transition, drive to the lane and block shots. He has the potential to be the sleeper of the entire draft.
On the Pelicans, Muscala would back up Lopez or Davis and come off the bench.
This move would potentially enable the Pelicans to draft a viable backup option, and adding a consolation pick in the 2014 draft is just an added bonus.
There are plenty of free agents who fit the open criteria for the Pelicans. This is the route that would best address the small-forward position. With the cap flexibility the Pelicans have, there are options like Andre Iguodala to fill the void.
As the draft gets closer, we’ll get a better idea of the strategy each team implements into the process.
You can’t flip a switch and expect to automatically be in contention, but each of these scenarios will improve this Pelicans team, and just one needs to happen for New Orleans to challenge for a playoff spot.