- Jrue Holiday can walk in free agency while the Pelicans lack cap space and a first round pick. The clock is already ticking on DeMarcus Cousins's time in NOLA.
While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make. CBA expert Danny Leroux breaks down the major challenges and opportunities for the New Orleans Pelicans in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
Anthony Davis is the most recent New Orleans Pelicans first round draft pick on their roster five years after they selected him first overall. Trading all of their selections since, including this year’s for DeMarcus Cousins, has put the organization in a challenging position. The lack of a low-cost talent base made 2016 signings like Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore necessary and the team relies heavily on their stars. Even so, they have two elite big men capable of taking over a game and New Orleans possesses the ability to reconfigure their rotation around that unique strength. While a significant challenge, their deficiency on the wing could become a useful sales pitch for certain players as the market thins out in mid-July.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Pelicans this offseason:
Jrue Holiday: The Pelicans’ spending over the past few years has put them in a brutal situation with their point guard because they do not have the salary cap space to adequately replace Holiday if he leaves. On top of that, a deal close to his maximum likely puts New Orleans into the luxury tax for 2017-18 and beyond if Cousins re-signs next summer. Finding the best possible solution will be incredibly challenging but also essential to the team’s chances of being a playoff team the next few seasons.
Adding Depth: Outside of retaining Holiday, the front office’s biggest priority needs to be signing players who fit in with their new frontcourt. Shooting is a mandatory skill to provide space for the Davis/Cousins combination but the Pelicans will also need capable defenders on the wing. Considering the Mid-Level exception is their largest allotment of usable money, it will be hard to check both boxes but Demps will have to get close.
Shedding Salary: One way for New Orleans to be able to retain Holiday and add talent through free agency would be to offload salary already on their books. Unfortunately, that comes in the form of largely undesirable contracts. 2016 signees Hill (three years, $36.8 million remaining) and Moore (three years $25.9 million), may be the most palatable of their significant expenditures remaining but dumping either Omer Asik (three years, $23.9 million) or Alexis Ajinca (two years, $10.2 million) would be preferable due to their surplus of big men. Getting any one of those contracts off the books could open the door for using the larger Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception and possibly the Bi-Annual exception but likely requires attaching an asset to make happen. Are the Pelicans really ready to give up another pick?
Potential Free Agents: Jrue Holiday (Unrestricted), Dante Cunningham (Unrestricted- Declining Player Option), Donatas Motiejunas (Unrestricted), Jordan Crawford (Non-Guaranteed), Axel Toupane (Non-Guaranteed) and Quin Cook (Non-Guaranteed)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: None
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): $13.8 million
2017 Draft Assets: No first round pick (traded for Cousins) but have own second round pick (#40).
Potential Targets: If Holiday returns, New Orleans’ greatest need is on the wing. Someone like CJ Miles or Mike Dunleavy (if he hits the market) would make sense as a low-usage floor spacer, while Thabo Sefolosha and Jrue’s brother Justin Holiday fit more on the defensive side of the equation. They could also look at restricted free agents like Ben McLemore and Jonathon Simmons but their current teams would likely match any offer the Pelicans can make due to their limited means. If Holiday leaves, point guard becomes the biggest priority and they will likely be looking at fringe starters like Patty Mills and former Cousins teammate Darren Collison to fill the void.
Pressure Scale: 8. Most teams that miss the playoffs are not on pins and needles about their third-best player returning but the Pelicans are an unusual case in many ways. Their lack of financial flexibility makes every decision incredibly important and Holiday’s choice will have massive implications for their competitiveness next season and moving forward. Considering Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent a year from now, how the team fares in 2017-18 could affect his willingness to stay long-term. Those pressures must also balance with the desire to stay fiscally responsible and retain draft picks. Something will have to give unless Holiday takes meaningfully less than his maximum to stay and finding out which objective the front office sacrifices will be fascinating.
State of the Franchise: Maintaining, hopefully. The Pelicans outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions when Davis, Cousins and Holiday were on the floor together. Despite a small sample size (376 minutes in 17 games), the Pelicans need that trio to play up to their potential in order to reach the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. Of course, that also requires a return from unrestricted free agent Holiday, who will have no shortage of offers around the league. Demps and the front office also have to re-tool both the starting lineup and bench around their new nucleus with a likely focus on shooting and perimeter defense if possible. They will be able to sell free agents on playing time and exposure, thus making New Orleans a natural fit for perimeter talent looking for a “make good” opportunity after striking out in a more limited market than last summer. Even so, it will be difficult to identify and secure good fits considering their limited teambuilding tools. That familiar win-now pressure must be reconciled with the team’s future and there are no easy answers or quick fixes to solve everything. As such, like most teams the Pelicans will have to do the best they can and hope health and talent win out in the end.