Lewis: Upgrades change Pelicans outlook

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps talks about draft prospects with the media after attending a workout session June 14 at the Alario Center in Westwego. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps talks about draft prospects with the media after attending a workout session June 14 at the Alario Center in Westwego.

It went a little noticed on draft night, but Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps began his media briefing with what most took to be a perfunctory thanking of owner Tom Benson and his family for “giving us the all the resources we need to upgrade the roster.”

As it turns out, Demps sincerely meant what he said that night.

Dealing the rights for Nerlens Noel to Philadelphia for All-Star guard Jrue Holiday, acquiring restricted free agent Tyreke Evans and the other additions, subtractions and retentions over the past two weeks makes clear that this is not your father’s Hornets, er, Pelicans.

Certainly it’s not the franchise presided over by cash-strapped George Shinn and then an NBA trusteeship during its first 10 seasons in New Orleans.

The bottom-of-the-roster reordering of the past two days was necessary to avoid the luxury tax. It’s doubtful the Hornets ever faced that problem.

And it’s no longer the team that admittedly took a step back last year when Chris Paul was allowed to take his talents to Venice Beach.

While the Hornets unsuccessfully tried to build a contender by bringing in veteran talent to complement Paul, the Pelicans are hoping to do so by building a young but proven core of Holiday, Evans, Anthony Davis, Jason Smith and Eric Gordon, depending on how much his knee is bothering him on a given night.

Maybe having teammates who give you hope will facilitate a medical miracle for No. 10.

To get to where they are, the Pelicans had to give up starting center Robin Lopez and point guard Greivis Vasquez, both coming off career-best seasons, plus both this year’s and next year’s first-round draft picks, although the 2014 No. 1 is protected in case things totally go south.

They also wound up giving a one-year renewal to erratic small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, meaning the weakest position on the team seemingly wasn’t upgraded unless Evans can convert to the 3.

There’s always a price to pay.

But indications are that the trade for Holiday was going to happen even before Noel fell from the projected No. 1 pick to No. 6.

That shows that Demps had both the OK and the mandate from Benson to get better sooner rather than later.

Benson said so last fall, when he declared, “We want to win. And we’re going to do what’s necessary to get a winning club.”

In that regard, Benson is no less patient than his fellow moguls.

Surprisingly, only four NBA coaches — Greg Popovich of San Antonio, Eric Spoelstra of Miami, Scott Brooks of Oklahoma City and Rick Carlisle of Dallas — have been in their current positions longer than the Pelicans’ Monty Williams, who is going into his fourth season.

So both Williams and Demps will be operating with a sense of urgency, as they should.

To be sure, nobody expects the Pelicans to be playing into June next year.

These were not league-shaking moves like Houston landing Dwight Howard and Golden State signing Andre Iguodala.

But in a loaded Western Conference where you either get better or you get left in the dust, there’s a consensus that the Pelicans have done the former, perhaps enough to get them into the playoffs next year.

But Benson said he sees the day when the Pelicans will be considered among the NBA’s elite teams, just like his Saints are in the NFL, or at least were until recently.

“If there are going to be just a few elite teams (in the NBA), then we’re going to be an elite team,” he said. “The Spurs have shown that it’s possible. So has Oklahoma City.

“We’re going to be there. People are going to notice, and they’re going to be there with us.”

Bold words. But how much more realistic does that sound than it did two weeks ago?