Before the NBA Lottery on May 20th, there remains a lot of basketball to be played. However, for the 10-12 teams who are already realistically (if not yet mathematically) eliminated from the playoffs, that is the most important date on the horizon. Unfortunately for a team like the Philadelphia 76ers, all that losing might be for not. The team with the second worst record in the NBA has not won the lottery since it expanded to 14 teams in 2004 and results in an average draft position of 3.8.
For Pelican fans (currently slotted 11th) the news is more dire -- a team has not jumped up from 10th or worse into the top three since 1999. Of course, the then Charlotte Hornets finished with the best record outside the playoffs, won the third overall selection, and picked Baron Davis. Are we depressed yet?
Current projection is $62.5 million. RT @Flaco3027 what is the cap for 2014-15 season?— Larry Coon (@LarryCoon) July 10, 2013
The actual salary cap for this season ended up at $58.679M, an insignificant increase from the first reported $58.5M. For this summer, I am going to focus on the $62.5M number and some of the options available to the Pelicans front office. While there are some expectations that Monty Williams may or may not be gone at the end of the season, I have read no report to suggest GM Dell Demps is also potentially on the chopping block.
As for concerns about Monty's remaining two years under contract, remember that owner Tom Benson currently employs the most expensive coach in American professional sports. Paying a coach, or even two coaches (a new hire and Monty's remaining guarantee), is not beyond reason.
There are a couple assumptions here. First, Anthony Morrow will not exercise his player option and instead become a free agent. Since Morrow was signed as a free agent this summer, the Pelicans will not have bird or early bird rights. Any move to sign him must be made into cap space or utilize an exception. CBA FAQ is your friend for such information.
Second, I do not expect the team to make qualifying offers to Darius Miller or Brian Roberts. Miller is used so sporadically, I do not see any long term plan for him in the franchise. Roberts is a trickier dilemma, but his presence (as noted in this article by Jason Calmes over at Bourbon Street Shots) takes opportunities away from Austin Rivers. Call me crazy, but the upside on the guy about to turn 22 is higher than the one soon-to-be 29.
Third, I expect both Jeff Withey and Luke Babbitt to be brought back despite both contracts lacking a guarantee. They amount to cheap depth and still fit the age profile Dell Demps is looking for; notice that the oldest players on this list are Anderson and Ajinca who BOTH turn 26 on May 6th! By the way, I have listed everyone's age as of the league year, so as of February 1st of 2015.
Roster Fit and Cap Space
With those nine players under contract and two cap holds (the third hold would be offered in a contract) the Pelicans have $5,632,170 of cap space. It is important to note that this number exceeds the $5,305,000 Mid-Level Exception available to teams above the salary cap but below the luxury tax apron. To get to that number, they must relinquish the Bird Rights to Al-Farouq Aminu and Jason Smith. In addition to that cap space, the team would then again gain the Room Exception (explained here) of $2,732,000. However those two values (cap space and the Room Exception) CANNOT be combined.
As seen above, the roster currently under contract consists of two PGs (Jrue Holiday, Austin Rivers), two wings (Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans), two stretch fours (Ryan Anderson, Luke Babbitt), two rail-thin centers (Alexis Ajinca, Jeff Withey), and one superstar (Anthony Davis). The team lacks the archetype "3&D" players (think Danny Green) or burly bangers under the basket. Outside, the team is heavy on players who can penetrate but lack shooters. Inside, the team is heavy on shooting and shot blocking but lacks the girth to defend bigger centers or dominate the glass.
Looking at Aminu and Smith you can see why they are redundant: both supply something the Pelicans already have in spades. Aminu is the more valuable of the two thanks to his otherworldly rebounding and ability to play small ball four (if the coach would ever jump on the bandwagon already). Smith is lauded (correctly) as a leader and a consummate professional; but injury problems and fit matter more.
Deciding to maintain both cap holds eliminates the cap space AND the room exception, replacing those options with the MLE, the Bi-Annual Exception of $2,077,000, and veteran minimum contracts. Either $5.6M in cap space and the $2.7M room exception or $5.3M MLE, $2M Bi-Annual, and bringing back Smith and/or Aminu. The calculus in either direction is difficult. Can Dell Demps get similar production from two minimum contracts that he could from Smith and Aminu? I doubt it.
I will begin with the most mundane of probabilities. The Pelican front office will look at the team's 15-16 record on January 3rd despite Ryan Anderson missing nine games to that point along with Anthony Davis missing seven, and decide to bring the gang back plus adding a rotation player with the MLE. Both Jason Smith and Al-Farouq Aminu are re-signed to similar deals, eating up the $5.6M in cap space, and then the team goes to the free agent market to find the missing piece. This position is most aligned with Dell's recent interview with Sean Kelly. The highlights are below.
Coming into the season we knew we had a lot of new faces and we put in a lot of new parts. We wanted to see how they would gel together. My thinking was, let’s see how the first 15-20 games, let’s see how this group looks and then Ryan (Anderson) breaks his toe so you don’t really get a true evaluation. Tyreke (Evans) comes in and doesn’t get to play in the preseason because of his ankle. Then we got the group together and we go on a stretch and we go 12-10. We are feeling pretty good. We are thinking like we are going to make some noise and then the next thing you know, the injury bug hits us. Ryan gets the injury then Jrue gets the injury and Jason (Smith) and Tyreke and then bam, you lose nine in a row. I thought we had just gotten right back in that mix and we are about to make a run and the injuries hit us. It has been unfortunate. I still want to see this group play together. I believe in this group and we still want to add more pieces to this group. I think we are a fun group to watch. We are explosive. We can score a lot of points and I think moving forward we want to add a couple more pieces on the perimeter and interior and improve our defense. I think we will be able to score with anyone in the league...
Of course. We are not into max games so we are not going to be looking for players with contracts more $10 million but we have a number of exceptions that we can use and we have a couple of ways we can get creative as well.
The most mundane option appears to be the one the Pelicans are most likely to pursue. So the team brings back Aminu and Smith and now are faced with a gluttony of wings who function best driving (Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Rivers) and bigs who are not big enough (Davis, Anderson, Smith, Aminu, Babbitt, Ajinca, Withey). One of these two deficiencies (a catch and shoot wing or a banging big) must be addressed with the MLE. What are our options?
Stay tuned tomorrow to find out! Part II.