Dejounte Murray trade is first step of David Griffin's promised Pelicans transformation

Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans Pelicans were eliminated from the 2024 playoffs, one question made Brandon Ingram pause longer than usual.

He was asked if New Orleans should target a traditional point guard during the offseason. After staring at the floor for a few seconds, he gave a brief answer:

“It would definitely be helpful,” Ingram said, nodding.

Perhaps Ingram, while also dwelling on his team’s first-round sweep to the Oklahoma City Thunder, was considering the possibility that pursuing that traditional point guard could spell the end of his time in New Orleans. Since that day, much of the speculation around the Pelicans has been centered around Ingram’s future and whether the Pelicans had any chance of trading him for a game-changing point guard to pair with Zion Williamson.

On Friday, just before the start of free agency, the Pelicans made their move for the floor general they’ve wanted add for some time. They’ve acquired Dejounte Murray from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Dyson Daniels, Larry Nance Jr., EJ Liddell and two first-round picks, multiple league sources confirm to The Athletic.

After making the All-Star team with San Antonio in 2021-22, Murray, 27, has spent the last two seasons in Atlanta, where he’s put up some of the best numbers of his career. However, his pairing with Atlanta star Trae Young, one of the more ball-dominant point guards in the NBA, never worked as seamlessly as the Hawks hoped. After finishing 10 games under .500 last season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that at least one would leaving Atlanta this offseason.

As the newest member of the Pelicans, Murray can again operate as a full-time lead ballhandler on a roster loaded with scoring options on the perimeter. Murray averaged a career-high 22.5 points last season, along with 5.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists. He also made a career-high 201 3-pointers, which will be a crucial part of him fitting next to Zion Williamson for the foreseeable future. Murray has been a below-average outside shooter for much of his career, but he made 39.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season and he’s gradually improved that side of his game over time.

Considering how well he’s played when Young was out of the lineup and the fact that he’s under contract for at least the next three seasons at $82.6 million, Murray’s acquisition could end up being a steal for the Pelicans. They somehow managed to pull the deal off without including Ingram.

But that hardly means Ingram’s future with the team is secure. The big question in the wake of this Murray trade is what comes next.

In his end-of-season press conference, Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said there needed to be changes to ensure New Orleans can keep up with the long list of playoff contenders in the West

“In the past, we’ve always erred on the side of continuity, and our takeaway has been, ‘Let’s see this group healthy.’ I think we’ve seen it enough,” he said in April. “I want to be really, really clear: This is not going to be a summer of complacency. It’s time to get better.”

Trading for Murray is a sign Griffin is backing up those words. Very few teams around the NBA can match the size and speed of a roster that, for now, features Murray, Williamson, Ingram, McCollum, Herb Jones and Trey Murphy.

As enticing as that mix may be, the roster is unbalanced and the team’s lack of frontcourt depth after this deal jumps off the page. The only true center left on the roster is Yves Messi, a 19-year-old they drafted Wednesday. Jonas Valančiūnas and Cody Zeller are set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, and Nance is headed to Atlanta. There may be a world where the Pelicans fill their frontcourt hole with a few cheap options via the non-taxpayer midlevel exception or other small trades.

But this Murray deal makes it the likelier next path clear: The Pelicans must find their new starting center by trading Ingram or McCollum. And Ingram is the much likelier candidate, considering he’s in the last year of his contract and has more trade value than McCollum.

Ingram is eligible for a new deal, but the Pelicans have shown little interest in giving him a maximum contract extension, league sources tell The Athletic. Griffin recently made it sound like he was open to signing Ingram.

“Brandon wants to stay here. He believes in what we are building. That is meaningful to us,” Griffin said on Wednesday night. “At the same time, there is a financial reality that we all deal with. I think we’re excited about Brandon. We know he’s excited about us. Usually, those things yield good results one way or the other.”

The reality is that finding the right way to divvy up minutes between Ingram, McCollum, Jones and Murphy was difficult enough, and adding Murray to that group almost guarantees that at least one of those players will see significantly less time on the court than they deserve. That’s before considering the complications of paying McCollum and/or Murphy (a year from now) an exorbitant amount of money to come off the bench.

With Atlanta off the list of potential Ingram suitors, are there still teams interested in him with the right assets to get a deal done? The Murray trade should at least give the Pelicans enough confidence to prioritize a center when making a big swing. Before, other deal proposals were complicated by the Pelicans’ need to add a perimeter player and a starting center. Now, at least, the Pelicans have plugged one of those holes.

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen remains at the top of the candidate list. The Pelicans have shown interest in him for years, and keeping Darius Garland out of potential proposals should make it easier for both sides to find common ground. However, Cleveland may not be interested in giving Ingram the lucrative extension he’s seeking, according to league sources.

Portland’s Deandre Ayton is another interesting option after the Blazers selected UConn center Donovan Clingan in the first round of Wednesday’s draft. However, it’s  hard to see the Blazers wanting Ingram or McCollum, so a third team would have to get involved to supply the Blazers with young pieces to add their rebuilding roster. Perhaps Philadelphia, who may want Ingram if it cannot land another star, can facilitate a three-team deal.

One other idea is a deal centered around Ingram for Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. This would add versatility and depth at the center position for New Orleans and Lopez is on an expiring contract. But, again, would Milwaukee want to sign Ingram to a new deal?

The Pelicans could also look for a younger option at the 5 to help with their salary cap situation and give them a long-term answer at the position. Detroit’s Jalen Duren is an intriguing option; former Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon is the new lead executive for the Pistons and has formed a strong bond with Ingram over the years. The Pistons could easily absorb Ingram’s contract into their salary cap space and instantly become more competitive, while Duren and Zion would form one of the more physically imposing frontcourts in the league.

Utah’s Walker Kessler is another name to keep an eye on. He provides the elite rim protection the Pels have been desperately seeking, and this could be a good time to go after him when his value appears to be down.

One other wild card name to consider is Knicks center Mitchell Robinson, who has been involved in trade rumors with New York hoping to clear enough salary to re-sign Isaiah Hartenstein this summer. Robinson has injury issues, and he may not want to return to New Orleans, where he played high school basketball. But he’s due to make $27 million over the next two seasons and is an elite defender when healthy.

Ultimatey, Griffin’s roster transformation is off to a good start with the Murray trade, but is far from complete. Making the right move to turn Ingram or McCollum into a quality starting center could push New Orleans into a different tier of contenders in the West, but it won’t be easy with so many other moving parts around the league dictating who will be available.

Aggression is important at this time of year. Patience is as well.

A few other thoughts on Murray’s fit in New Orleans:

Managing Murray’s fit next to CJ McCollum will be essential to making this deal work for New Orleans. Last season, McCollum made a concerted effort to become more of an off-ball threat to allow Williamson and Ingram to handle more of the shot-creation responsibilities. McCollum made a franchise-record 239 3-pointers despite only playing 66 games.

The real question will be how effective the Pelicans can be on defense when Murray and McCollum are on the floor together. Despite some of his physical attributes, Murray’s defensive impact dropped off considerably during his two seasons in Atlanta. There are people within the Pelicans front office who believe moving Murray to a situation where he’s not required to be a 20-point scorer every night will allow him to improve his all-around game.

Murray’s specialty on defense is creating turnovers by playing in passing lanes, which fits directly into the Pelicans’ identity on that end. Over the last three seasons, Murray leads the NBA with 250 steals. Jones is third on that list with 233 steals.

If Murray can reclaim some of the focus and physicality he brought on defense in the past, this can be one of the best defensive units in the league again, even after losing two of their most disruptive pieces in Daniels and Nance.

Part of the Pelicans’ motivation in making this deal was undoubtedly their late-game collapses that cost them so often last season. New Orleans was 14-15 in games that were decided by five points or less in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. During “clutch” situations, the Pelicans were 26th in offensive rating and 28th in turnover percentage.

They desperately needed someone to organize the offense and help them get good shots when the game slowed down.

Even though he may not have a reputation among the national audience as a big-shot maker, Murray has been one of the most productive “clutch” performers in the league for years. He’s the only player in the NBA that’s finished top-15 in “clutch” points each of the past four seasons.

This trade was a direct attempt to address that major flaw in this group. With the Western Conference being so ultra-competitive from top to bottom, a considerable improvement in this area could be the difference between fighting for homecourt advantage or a Play-In spot.

Murray’s durability is an important part of this deal that can’t be overlooked. During his two seasons in Atlanta, Murray missed a total of 12 games. With all the injury issues that have derailed the Pelicans team during the Zion era, knowing that Murray can be a reliable piece that stays on the court only adds to his value.

(Top photo: Larry Robinson / USA Today)

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