Heading into 2017-18, the New Orleans Pelicans currently have 11 guys with guaranteed contracts. But only two of those players can be classified as wings.
At guard, New Orleans appears ready to roll out a rotation featuring Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Jackson, and Jordan Crawford (non-guaranteed). When it comes to bigs, NOLA has been hoarding, with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, and Cheick Diallo in the fold.
That leaves Solomon Hill, Quincy Pondexter, and Darius Miller (non-guaranteed) along the wing.
Pondexter was a big part of NOLA’s last trip to the playoffs, but sadly he hasn’t been healthy enough to suit up since 2014-15. Appearing in 45 games (and starting 28) after a mid-season trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, Quincy canned a career-best 1.6 threes per game on 43.3 percent shooting while putting the clamps on defensively. Nevertheless, Pondexter will turn 30 next March. And having missed two years in a row, there’s reason to question whether he can provide a similar impact even if he returns to full strength.
Meanwhile, this might be Darius Miller’s final opportunity to make it in the NBA. If the 27-year-old wing earns a spot on the roster, that’ll give New Orleans four former Kentucky Wildcats (Miller, Rondo, Cousins, Davis). If Miller or Pondexter can provide a boost off the bench, that would certainly up the Pelicans’ playoff odds. Re-signing Dante Cunningham would help too.
However, the unquestioned starting small forward (barring extenuating circumstances) is Solomon Hill.
Hill underwhelmed in his first year with the Pelicans, with averages of 7.0 points (38.3 FG, 34.8 3Pt, 80.5 FT), 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.4 blocks in 29.7 minutes per game. This led to many pundits doubting NOLA’s decision to spend $48 million (over four years) for his services. And plenty of Twitter jabs.
There were two positives to take away from last year though: namely, his defense and durability (80 games, 71 starts). Solomon is an extremely versatile stopper boasting a strong build (6-7, 225 lbs.), competitive fire, and quick feet. The term LeBron-stopper gets thrown around far too much (whoops!), but Hill is the only Pelican with the size, strength, and speed to occasionally slow James down both in the post and along the perimeter.
Furthermore, Hill has made 82.2 percent from the charity stripe during his four years in the league, and he also posted a career-best percentage from beyond the arc last season. Solomon has all the tools needed to be a quality 3-and-D forward. If he continues to improve his outside shooting, New Orleans will be a good underdog bet to sneak into the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
Health is the key ingredient for success in the Big Easy, but Hill’s potential ascension is the X-Factor. It probably took him a little while to adjust to his new role and situation, which is reasonable considering that Solo played his first three years with the then-plodding Frank Vogel-led Indiana Pacers before transitioning into Alvin Gentry’s uptempo offensive system. To Hill’s credit, he grew more comfortable as the season went on, as evidenced by his career-high 30-point explosion against the Houston Rockets in mid-March.
The field of Western Conference franchises that can’t be considered surefire lottery teams is twice as large as the assumed top four (GSW, HOU, SAS, OKC). The Clippers, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, and Jazz might not be as good as they were last year, but they can’t be counted out. The Timberwolves are moving on up. The Nuggets aren’t messing around. Even the Mavericks will be in the mix (as long as they re-sign Nerlens Noel). How many of those teams will be projected to win fewer games than the Pelicans? Maybe the Mavs, but any others?
The Lakers, Suns, and Kings are the three most likely lottery teams. But if Phoenix somehow swoops in and snatches Kyrie Irving, they too would become threats to make the playoffs. This means there is no room for error if New Orleans is truly hoping to eclipse at least four of those seven middle-class squads. Some untimely injuries, an extended losing streak, or a simple string of bad luck could lead to a free-fall in the standings.
Assuming Hill starts at small forward alongside Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins, he’ll likely be left open on the reg. Rondo and Hill will be afforded plenty of space while defenses focus primarily on A.D., Cousins, and Holiday. Rondo isn’t suddenly going to become a knockdown outside shooter, but Hill’s combination of progress from three and steady free-throwing offers hope that his best days on the basketball court are still ahead of him. If the Pelicans can count on Hill to knock down open shots in the flow of the offense, everything will be that much easier for their stars (and former star).
Things are very rarely as bright or gloomy as they seem. Amidst no shortage of outside noise, a breakout season from Hill could seriously catapult the club’s long-term outlook. A little momentum can go a long way.