Reading between the lines as Pelicans’ David Griffin offers candid trade deadline comments

LOS ANGELES — Much like other playoff-contending NBA teams, the New Orleans Pelicans remained quiet at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline and didn’t make any moves to change the roster.

In the weeks leading up to the deadline, there was much talk about the team’s desire to find a better rim protector than Jonas Valančiūnas to man the center position, or perhaps a more reliable floor general to share the backcourt with CJ McCollum. In the end, New Orleans stuck with its current core to continue its push for a playoff spot in a loaded Western Conference.

It’s hard to blame the Pelicans considering how the team is playing lately. After Wednesday night’s victory over the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers, the Pelicans (30-21) are riding a four-game winning streak. They’ve finally been fortunate enough to see their full roster play, with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram remaining healthy most of the season.

David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is known for always staying active in the trade market. In the days leading up to Thursday, the Pelicans were in talks with the Atlanta Hawks to sniff out a potential deal for Dejounte Murray, league sources told The Athletic. Ultimately, there wasn’t much traction toward getting a deal done.

Now, the Pelicans will look ahead with this current group and hope to continue rising up the standings and establishing themselves as a real postseason threat. If Williamson, Ingram and McCollum can all make it to April healthy, this group will certainly be one of the league’s tougher matchups.

Griffin spoke with a few members of the media Friday about the trade deadline and his thoughts on the Pelicans season. Here are some key quotes and my thoughts on them.

Griffin: “One of the things we found — this goes back to (my) times in Phoenix and Cleveland — you always try to improve on the margins. You have to be really good to be better than the players we have on ‘the margins’. To be better than the guys we play rotational minutes, you have to be a pretty good NBA player. There just wasn’t the right opportunity for us to go after someone.”

The Pelicans’ depth is one of their biggest strengths, yet it’s also sometimes made head coach Willie Green’s job more difficult this season. It would be hard for any coach to have to divide minutes between useful bench players like Trey Murphy, Dyson Daniels, Naji Marshall, Jose Alvarado and Jordan Hawkins. That’s not even mentioning two-way guard Matt Ryan, who has shot the 3-ball better than anyone else on the roster.

It would have been ideal for Griffin to make a consolidation trade to turn two or three of those guys into one reliable veteran, but that kind of player wasn’t really available. And with this team’s injury history, it’s always better to have too many quality players to choose from than not having enough.

Griffin: “We definitely were trying to be opportunistic (in trade talks with the Hawks). I think a player of (Murray’s) caliber … you listen to those types of things. You try to get as much information as you can. At the same time, you don’t have to force a square peg into a round hole when you’re in the situation we’re in. I think we wanted to listen and be willing to strike if it was the right opportunity — and be mindful of the fact that we like our group if it wasn’t. There were many circumstances that we were a part of that weren’t leaked to the media. There were several opportunities for us to potentially get better and I think we decided that overall, on par, the cost was too high. 

Griffin has never shied away from an opportunity to pounce when a really good player becomes available at the right price. He’s backed off from pulling the trigger on a trade more often than not, but it doesn’t hurt to listen and see if those kinds of players can be had for a reasonable price.

I do think the Pelicans think highly of Murray and his potential fit next to McCollum in the backcourt. I also think the Pels were perhaps even more intrigued by the opportunity to steal 23-year-old Onyeka Okongwu from Atlanta and make him their center of the future. But there was no way the Pels would give up Herb Jones or Daniels to make this kind of trade happen. And as long as that remained the case, there wasn’t much of a chance Atlanta would go forward with a deal.

If it was up to me, any discussions involving Jones’ name would be a non-starter. He is on one of the best contracts in the NBA, having just signed a four-year, $53 million deal last summer. Frankly, he’s already a better defensive player than Murray.

As long as it doesn’t rock the boat in the locker room, Griffin is smart to sneak in during these kinds of moments and see what kind of surprise deals he can pull off. But that should not outweigh his valuation of Jones and Daniels as, potentially, two of the best perimeter defenders in the game.

Griffin: “You tend to know the right time. I think you saw Oklahoma City, by way of example … you wouldn’t call what they did (to trade for Gordon Hayward) an ‘all-in move’ but they’re doing something that gives them a step to incrementally improve. I think in our situation, we’ve continued to do that. Throughout our process, we’ve erred on the side of continuity.”

It’s not a coincidence Oklahoma City came up in Griffin’s answer. The Pelicans know they’ll be competing with the Thunder in the West for years to come. Folks in the Pelicans’ front office are mindful of how the Thunder front office has built a great team with an incredible amount of future assets. Oklahoma City’s patience to this point allows the Pelicans to feel more comfortable taking a similar approach.

This picture from a 2022 press conference with David Griffin and Zion Williamson reflects the current tenor of their relationship nearly two years later. (Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)

Griffin: We’re really grateful that (Zion Williamson) has been able to grow and evolve the way that he has. I think our medical staff has done a really good job with him. I think he’s bought into what we’re doing at a high degree. It all starts with him.  The maturation in his approach has been enormous. … Once that match gets lit in the maturation process, it tends to be a forest fire. I think you’re seeing that with Zion. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

After years of injuries and behind-the-scenes turmoil, the Pelicans finally feel like they’re in a good place with Williamson, on and off the court. He’s happy about what the team has done to put him in a position to succeed this season and they’re happy about the work he’s done to make sure his body is right. Over the past few weeks, Williamson has looked as good as he has at any point. If he continues to ascend and fully embrace his transformation into Point Zion, the Pelicans are going to become one of the most dangerous teams in the West. If Zion reaches and shines in his first postseason, the way most people in the organization expect, the Pelicans’ trajectory rises to a different level.



‘Point Zion’ is back and better than ever. Could it change the Pels’ trajectory?

Griffin: “Jonas (Valančiūnas) has embraced this entire season in a way that you almost never see a veteran starting center who doesn’t have a contract next season embrace it. He understands what he needs to do and he’s joyful doing it here. He’s willing to make whatever sacrifice he has to. It’s funny, because of the fit of the pieces, what you might lose along the way is that (Valančiūnas) is having one of the best years of his career. He’s having an incredible defensive year.”

Griffin: “What goes along with (Zion, Ingram and McCollum) is somewhat (to be determined) to a degree. They’re going to have to be pretty good to be better than Jonas. That’s one of the things that people lose. (People say), ‘Oh, well, I think they need this kind of center.’ Well, that kind of center might not be a radically better basketball player or even as good a basketball player (as Valančiūnas). I think we lose sight sometimes of how incredibly good the guy is because we spend so much time as a fan base talking about what he’s not.

It was fascinating to hear Griffin, in two separate answers, give Valančiūnas one of the most ringing endorsements I’ve ever heard from a Pelicans front office member. It’s clear they’ve been searching out ways to find an upgrade over him. But based on these comments, the Pelicans appear more than willing to sign him to a new contract this summer and stick with him as the starting center.

While Valančiūnas has obvious defensive flaws, Griffin is right in saying that he has been much better on that end this year. Offensively, the Pels’ center is piecing together one of the best seasons of his career. His willingness to sacrifice and play through any physical ailments sets a great example for everyone else in the locker room. And it helps tremendously that he is another player who can score at least 20 points on any given night when one of the big three is out of the lineup.

Having a younger, cheaper center option may be more convenient for this roster, especially if that player can space the floor. But Griffin has a point when he says the Pels shouldn’t allow perfect to be the enemy of good. Is Valančiūnas a perfect fit? No. But he’s one of the more reliable bigs in the league and has consistently indicated he wants to be in New Orleans.

(Top photo of David Griffin: Stephen Lew / USA Today)

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