With the Phoenix Suns shocking the planet by acquiring Kevin Durant one hour into the final day teams could make trades, the day turned into an arms race as the rest of the Western Conference desperately scrambled to put together the pieces that could help them keep pace with the newly formed powerhouse.
The Golden State Warriors got Gary Payton II back. The Denver Nuggets got Thomas Bryant. Both teams based in Los Angeles added three new players (the Lakers did it before the Durant trade, but you get the point).
And what did the Pelicans do? The team rumored to be involved in the OG Anunoby sweepstakes. The ones who were nudged to inquire about the availability of Mikal Bridges after he was sent to the Brooklyn Nets in the Durant deal. What did they do?
They got…Josh Richardson?
On the surface, the deal seems pretty underwhelming, especially when you think about the caliber of players they were rumored to be in the mix to land. But as the old adage goes, “you don’t just a book by its cover.” So let’s dig a bit deeper and see if the contents look any better.
To properly appraise the competency of any transaction, one must first identify the team’s specific needs and then determine how well said deal satisfied those needs.
For the sake of simplicity, we are going to assume Zion Williamson is relatively healthy post All-Star break because, to be frank, without him, this team’s chances of being a darkhorse title contender are fugazi – it’s not f****** real.
So with a relatively healthy Williamson, the team’s biggest flaws are spacing, shooting, and rim protection. They are 26th in three-point attempts per 100 possessions (don’t take threes because they can’t make them) and 23rd in blocks per 100 (a solid measure of rim protection).
On the year, Richardson is a 36 percent three-point shooter (43rd percentile for his position) and has a block percentage of 0.9 percent (52nd percentile), per Dunks & Threes. The latter mark is a respectable percentage for his position, but wing players hardly ever do much for you by way of rim protection anyways.
Okay, so it looks like he addresses none of the team’s issues. Bad trade, right? Not necessarily. The stats we just cited are devoid of a key element – context.
Richardson’s three-point shooting numbers may seem unspectacular. But you also need to factor in that he accumulated that percentage while playing on the 2022-23 San Antonio Spurs – a team bereft of any on-ball creation.
This lack of advantage creation meant that Richardson was often left to forge for himself, which is not an optimal environment for his skills.
In his essence, Richardson is a “3-and-D” player, just like Anunoby and Bridges. He’s at his best when he has teammates who can create separation, force a second defender to occupy their airspace, and find him for rhythm jumpers.
Gee, that sounds a lot like…
Richardson now goes from being overburdened on the undermanned Spurs to being able to feast off of Williamson’s interior gravity.
A better depiction of Richardson’s marksmanship can be seen when looking at his three-point stats from last season when he split time with the Boston Celtics and a more competitive iteration of the Spurs. Last year, his conversion rate was 41 percent from beyond the arc (94th percentile, per Dunks & Threes).
Okay, now on to the matter of defense. We cited shot-blocking earlier because, generally, good shot-blocking means good rim protection, which means good defense.
The Pelicans’ roster is a bit funky because they have a bunch of big bodies, but none of them are really great rim protectors.
The other issue with this quadrant is that none of them can really shoot, so they need said rim protector to be able to shoot threes and block shots. The problem there is that everyone in the NBA wants that, and there are only so many players that fit that mold (hence, why Myles Turner is so highly-coveted).
But as we discussed with the Miami Heat defense, there is another way to build a good defense.
If you can’t adequately protect the paint, just don’t let them get there. But how do you do that? Simple, great perimeter defense.
Enter: Josh Richardson.
Okay, I will concede that that segway was more for theatrical purposes and that Richardson isn’t really a “great” perimeter defender.
However, he does have a reputation for always being an above-average/good guard wing defender. And while the Spurs’ defense has been abysmal (the worst in basketball), he himself has solid activity indicators – 65th percentile for his position in steal rate (per Cleaning the Glass) and 77th percentile in deflections per 36 minutes (per NBA.com).
This is the part where Pelicans’ fans counter that New Orleans already practices this perimeter-focused approach, and that’s why they don’t allow many shots at the rim (10th in opponent rim frequency) and already have a good defense (7th in Defensive Rating). Richardson’s skills are just redundant, and he’s going to take minutes from the young guys!
There’s two problems with this line of reasoning. One, the Pelicans’ defense has actually been on a downhill trajectory because their opponent’s shooting luck has started to regress to the mean after teams started out the year shooting way worse on opponent shots against them than they normally would (different story for a different article).
And two, a big part of their point-of-attack defense has been the brilliance of Naji Marshall and Herb Jones, both of whom are sub-32 percent three-point shooters. In the playoffs, these tenacious defenders will likely become offensive liabilities, as defenses will elect to help off them to focus on greater threats and dare them to beat them with their shooting.
When that does happen, the Pelicans now have Richardson to come in and mime their defense impact the best he can while also providing a much more credible outside shooting threat.
In the deeper rounds of the playoffs, when game-planning gets more intense, teams are going to counter his shooting by running him off the line with a technique known as the fly-by closeout (to visualize, look at this example provided by Ben Falk).
This is the part where Richardson’s trials and tribulations in San Antonio become worth it. Because he did so much creating for himself, it gave him the opportunity to improve his midrange game. This year he shot 49 percent (91st percentile) on 5.4 attempts (83rd percentile) per game.
Now when a team tries to run him off the line, he can take a dribble or two inside and seamlessly flow into his midrange pull-up. That’s a wrinkle neither Jones nor Marshall have yet, and quite honestly, one that even the sharpshooting Trey Murphy III himself is still working out.
So yeah, while it’s not to the degree Anunoby or Bridges address their weaknesses, the Richardson trade does fulfill its responsibilities in that regard. And on top of that, New Orleans didn’t have to shell out any of their major assets in the process, which they undoubtedly would have had to in order to obtain one of the two wing stoppers we’ve been referencing.
This brings us back to our original question: was this deal enough to keep pace with the Suns?
Funny enough, even with the Durant deal, Phoenix, on paper, still seems to be a preferred matchup for the Pelicans (see why here).
And I think this fragility of playoff series’ being decided by who matches up against who well speaks to how slim the margins are in the West. The Pelicans could get a bad draw, run into a team that neutralizes their strengths, like the Memphis Grizzlies, and get bounced in the first round. Or, they could get a lucky slew of opponents that can’t handle their interior scoring prowess and ride that wave to the NBA Finals.
With a parity-rich ecosystem like that, the best a team can do is add as many relievers in the bullpen as possible in hopes of preparing for the different variables that could be thrown their way. The Richardson move does that for New Orleans, which makes it a win in my book.