Looking ahead, Pelicans focus on finding a center, small forward

On Wednesday, the day the Pelicans’ season ended, General Manager Dell Demps was asked to assess the job Monty Williams has done as coach of the team.

Demps said Williams was put in an “impossible situation” because of all the injuries the team deal with.

“It’s tough,” Demps said. “It’s unfair to give a true assessment.”

But although he understands the reasons for the team’s 34-48 record this season, Demps clearly was not pleased with it.

“I’m not happy at all,” he said. “We didn’t make the playoffs.”

So with the season over, Demps — with input from Williams — begins the task of improving the roster for next season, with the goal of playing in the postseason. There will be changes — perhaps as many as last season, when Demps brought in point guard Jrue Holiday, guards Tyreke Evans and Anthony Morrow and center Greg Stiemsma.

“We like our core,” Demps said. “We’re going to be creative in trying to improve our roster.”

The most glaring needs are a big, strong center and a bona fide NBA small forward.

Although 7-foot-2 Alexis Ajinca, signed in December, and 7-footer Jeff Withey, a rookie out of Kansas, gave the Pelicans length protecting the rim, big-bodied big men gave New Orleans problems in the wake of Robin Lopez being traded to Portland in the Evans deal.

Stiemsma, 6-11 and 260, was signed to a one-year, $2.67 million contract to give the team the bulk, strength and physicality it needed, but he was woefully ineffective. Stiemsma became only the second player in the past six seasons to play at least 1,000 minutes (1,007) but have more fouls (169) than points (159), according to Pelicans statistician Tommy Cooper.

Stiemsma averaged just 2.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 18.3 minutes. Although he sometimes showed he can block shots, his overall defense often was lacking. The team waived him Monday after he played in 55 games.

Two games in particular stood out to Williams.

“When we played at Charlotte (on Feb. 21), we couldn’t stop Al Jefferson in the low post. And the game at Washington (on Feb. 22), Nene went for 30 points,” Williams said. “You can’t have that and expect to win.”

He could’ve added a game perhaps even more unforgettable for Pelicans fans. Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, 6-11 and 275, bullied the Pelicans for 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds March 31 in the Smoothie King Center. On one play, he knocked down Stiemsma under the rim, then dunked.

Fixing that deficiency would require a trade. Heading the list of free-agent centers with bulk are Spencer Hawes and Marcin Gortat.

For the second consecutive offseason, small forward has to be addressed. Williams likes the rebounding, defense and speed that Al-Farouq Aminu brings, but he is a poor outside shooter, to say the least.

A basic strategy against the Pelicans is to double-team a key player such as Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon or Evans, then rotate to defend against outside shooters, with Aminu often getting an open look because he is not a priority to cover. That was why Evans was put in the starting lineup Feb. 28 at Phoenix.

“We were basically playing 4-on-5 offensively” with Aminu in the lineup, Williams said.

But Evans, at 6-6, is not the answer, either.

“He’s just not a small forward,” Williams said. “When you look at the small forwards in this league — LeBron (is 6-8), Kevin Durant is 6-10. It’s unfair to ask Tyreke to guard them, just like it’s unfair to ask Anthony to play center.”

The Pelicans likely will be in the market for a small forward, in which case Aminu, who was paid $3.7 million, likely will be gone.

The answer may be Darius Miller, who has spent his first two NBA seasons developing. This season, Miller, 6-8, got in better shape by losing 16 pounds, and he was a more confident player, especially defensively.

He opened eyes in a big victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, as his defense against Chris Paul, considered the best point guard in the league, was impressive. In that game, on March 26, point guards Brian Roberts (left knee bruise) and Austin Rivers (upper respiratory illness) were out, and Miller fared well.

“Darius showed us things we didn’t see earlier,” Demps said.

His continued development during the team’s summer enhancement program as well as training camp will be a focus for the team. That would provide the Pelicans with a starter already versed in Williams’ system and who would come much less expensively than signing a good free agent.

“He just needs to be more consistent,” Williams said.

Austin Rivers likely can expect a bigger role next season. He gained Williams’ trust first by working on his weaknesses during the summer, then with improved defense during the season and finally with better play as a point guard near the end of the year.

“He became a two-way player this season,” Demps said. “We’re pleased with his development.”

How that relates to Roberts remains to be seen. He was a big help filling in for the injured Holiday and with Rivers not yet ready. And Roberts is a consistently good outside shooter who also led the league in free-throw shooting at 94.0 percent and had 233 assists to 95 turnovers.

Defensively, he could be better. But teams need three point guards, as injuries this season showed. (Evans can play there, too.)

Aminu and center Jason Smith, who had season-ending right knee injury in his contract year, are free agents. The Pelicans have options on whether to bring back Roberts and Miller at $1,115,243 each.

Morrow has a player option for $1,145,685. He became more productive as his playing time increased, and near the end of the season he was a clutch performer and a good defender, Williams said. Morrow scored in double figures in 11 of the team’s final 14 games.

Demps wants him back.

“There are some things I can’t talk about right now,” he said. “But we like Anthony.”

One change next season is that Evans could be in the starting lineup at shooting guard. He showed in the final 22 games, most notably the last 14 that Gordon missed with a knee injury, that he is one of the team’s best players.

“It’s obvious that Tyreke is a much different player when he is a starter,” Williams said. “That’s something we have to look at this summer.”