Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before: an important Pelicans player has suffered a major injury, and the Pelicans are, as a result, screwed.
This time it’s Solomon Hill, not an especially prominent part of New Orleans’s lineup, but nevertheless a player the Pelicans absolutely cannot afford to lose. Hill reportedly suffered a torn hamstring during routine off-season workouts, and will miss six to eight months of basketball. That timeline takes Hill at least to the end of February, if not through the entire regular season.
Hill’s numbers haven’t been real great with the Pelicans—he shot a dismal and career-worst 38 percent from the floor last season, his first in New Orleans—but his importance in Alvin Gentry’s rotation has much more to do with the general lopsidedness of the roster: Hill is nominally a small forward for the Pelicans, and the only other remotely natural small forwards on the roster are Quincy Pondexter and Darius Miller. Pondexter hasn’t played a minute of NBA basketball since the 2014-15 season, due to injuries of his own; Miller spent the last two years playing in Germany. You can see why Hill’s absence might be a problem!
But even that understates just how desperately screwy New Orleans’s wing rotation really is. Solomon Hill, for all his defensive versatility, is not a small forward in the modern NBA. He’s a poor shooter—he’s shot worse than league average from beyond the arc in every season of his career so far, and has never attempted more than 3.4 three-pointers per game in a season—and a limited ball-handler whose best position, as the league moves more and more towards spreading the floor with shooters, would be power forward.
But he can’t realistically play much power forward on the Pelicans, for two reasons: first of all, there’s really no one else anywhere on the roster who’s even as qualified as he is to play big minutes at small forward; and the Pelicans are brutally overstocked with bigs. They’ve got nearly $60 million in salary tied up in five players who really should not play any position other than center, and another $11 million going to Hill. The team is already stuffing DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis into a starting lineup—if they’re going to get anything out of Hill, they’re going to have to play him away from his natural position.
The Pelicans are already desperately poor on shooting, a formula that really starts to suck, hard, when your two best players are big men who need opportunities to go to work inside, or roll down the lane. There’s been talk this offseason of the Pelicans starting each game with a two-point-guard lineup featuring both Jrue Holiday and [gulp] Rajon Rondo, an idea that, on its face, seems like just a bafflingly wrong-headed way of creating the kind of spacing that most high-powered modern NBA offenses prize. They’re already operating with two centers in their starting lineup—grouping them with two point guards, neither of whom is an especially good shooter, and one of whom is a downright poor and unwilling one, is a recipe for cramped, grinding offense. Hill was an awkward fit in that lineup, to be sure, and his shooting is poor enough that his absence won’t make their spacing problems any worse, but at least the guy could defend NBA wings. Without him, their wing rotation is just incredibly thin.
And the Pelicans are $19 million over the salary cap, and less than $1 million below the NBA’s luxury tax threshold, so adding a legitimate contributor at perhaps the NBA’s least-stocked position is basically out of the question. This is a problem, and not just because it means the Pelicans are going to continue playing brutal, unwatchable basketball! Cousins will become an unrestricted free agent after this coming season, and the best chance the Pelicans have of persuading him to return will be by making a serious playoff push. That was probably a long shot anyway, in the loaded West, but with friggin’ E’Twaun Moore playing minutes at small forward, they are probably toast. It’s not clear that retaining Cousins and trotting out this wacky Cousins-Davis frontcourt is even all that great an idea, but if they want the option beyond this season, the Pelicans need to start compiling evidence that it actually, you know, works.
A thing to watch headed into this season was always going to be what would happen with Cousins if the Pelicans start slowly and fall behind in the West. If keeping him long-term becomes unlikely, it would behoove the Pelicans to move early to recoup some of what they lost to get him in that lopsided deal with the Kings. With the team once again headed into the season desperately hobbled, that decision might come sooner than later.