The New Orleans Pelicans roster is loaded from top to bottom. In fact, the Pelicans were already one of the best teams in the league with Zion Williamson healthy during the 2022-23 season, running out to a top seed in the Western Conference standings before their best player went down with injury.
Thus, the Pelicans didn't exactly need to pull off some groundbreaking moves in free agency to ensure that the team has enough weapons to make the leap towards contention next season. For as long as Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum are healthy, the Pelicans should, once again, be able to make some noise in the playoff picture.
And that's exactly what the Pelicans did in free agency, deciding to make a few small moves to sustain the team's push towards being one of the best squads in the league. They re-negotiated terms with Herb Jones, a player who's been instrumental for the team for the past two seasons, agreeing on a four-year, $54 million deal to keep the lockdown defender in the team for the long haul.
They also added Cody Zeller, fresh off a run to the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, to replace Willy Hernangomez as the team's third-string center. And in a move made with the future in mind, the Pelicans also signed EJ Liddell, one of the team's two-way players last season, to a three-year deal.
Overall, the Pelicans did exactly what many thought they'd do come offseason time. But a closer look shows that the Pelicans may be a bigger free agency winner than many think.
Here are grades for the Pelicans' moves during the 2023 NBA free agency period.
Signing Herb Jones to a four-year, $54 million extension: A+
Oh what a draft steal Herb Jones has ended up being for the Pelicans. Drafted 35th overall in 2021, Jones endeared himself to the coaching staff from the onset with his incredible defense, earning him rotation minutes from the start of his career. And now, all of the 24-year old wing's hard work has paid off in the form of a four-year, $54 million extension from the Pelicans.
For starters, Jones is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, both with the eye test and advanced metrics. There may not be a more tenacious on-ball defender than Jones. He shadows the movements of the players he defends with sublime footwork and incredible lateral quickness. He doesn't get too handsy, and he almost always leads the opposing player away from their comfort spots on the court.
Jones' 7'0 wingspan makes him such a tough player to get a shot over. Even the likes of Kevin Durant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have had difficulties scoring over the Pelicans wing.
This wingspan also makes him such a nightmare to pass around. His length is a headache to deal with in the passing lanes, allowing him to rack up a healthy amount of steals which lead to easy transition opportunities for a Pelicans team that thrives with pace.
This elite defense alone makes him worth his contract, and then some. Is Jones that worse of a player than, say, Luguentz Dort, a player who makes around $3 million more per year on average? Perhaps not.
The huge question mark over Herb Jones will be his ability to contribute on offense. At the moment, Jones has one of the worst gravities in the association. Teams park their worst defensive players on Jones, daring him to shoot from the outside. And he rarely makes teams pay, shooting a dismal percentage on uncontested shots.
But Jones is elite at an important facet of the game, which should make him a valuable piece for the Pelicans for years to come. And for them to pay him just $13.5 million per year? That is a major steal, ladies and gentlemen.
Signing Cody Zeller to the veteran minimum: B+
Cody Zeller, despite signing for the Heat late in the season, impressed the team enough to earn a spot on the playoff roster. Not only was he a passenger as well, he also played a few important minutes for the team off the bench, providing the Heat with some toughness down low, some strong screens, and a huge presence on the glass.
Zeller nails the little things that helps his teams win, and the Pelicans expect him to do the same for them. The 30-year old big man knows his role and plays it to the best of his ability. And for the veteran minimum, Zeller should bring a winning mentality to a team that's looking to take the next step.
Signing EJ Liddell to a three-year, $6.2 million deal: B
The Pelicans clearly believe that EJ Liddell is ready to contribute, even in a bit role, after recovering from the torn ACL he suffered last year. Liddell, a 6'7 power forward, can shoot it from deep, as evidenced by his body of work in college, and he can also be a positive defender in the frontcourt.
At such a low price, there's virtually no risk for the Pelicans in this deal, especially if they trust Liddell to become an impactful player for the team in the long run.