Summer 2016. It is the closest thing to NBA Armageddon. The salary cap will leap from $67.1 million (recent reports put the new estimate closer to $69 million) to $89 million or even higher. Suddenly nearly every NBA team will have unheard of cap space to be active in free agency. The New Orleans Pelicans have committed over $43 million in salaries for the 2016-17 season alone in the past five days with offers to Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, and Dante Cunningham. They will still have over $17 million in cap space; even after accounting for contracts of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Quincy Pondexter.
The lessons learned this off season have been clear. Cap space alone doesn't matter. Market size is no longer the primary driver of decisions as stars can be made anywhere thanks to social media. Most importantly, free agents want to go to winning situations. Greg Monroe turned down the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers for the Milwaukee Bucks. That the Bucks (41) won more games than the Lakers (21) and Knicks (17) combined played a significant role in the Moose's choice.
In a situation where everyone has cap space just flexibility isn't enough to reel in a big star; it won't be the shiny lights of Broadway either. Winning is the ticket. Winning, a roster capable of continuing to win (and contend), and a franchise and coaching staff capable of articulating that plan.
Pelican Cap Space Projections
Here is what Dell Demps would have to work with if he does not sign another guaranteed contract this summer that continues into the 2016-17 season. In addition to the seven players under contract we also must add the cap hold of the Pelicans first round draft pick (estimated at #18 again, and yes they actually have a pick!) and three minimum cap holds as per the NBA CBA. In total just over $17.1 million in cap space. Enough for a four year, $73 million offer.
Next is if Demps were to trade away Tyreke Evans to create max room. Trading away one of Evans, Holiday, or Asik is enough to create max room for a free agent with seven to nine years NBA experience. Other parameters (draft pick hold and now four minimum holds) remain. Notice that the new free agent's contract does not increase as quickly as AD's; there's the difference between 7.5% raises (Davis) and 4.5% raises (free agent X). Over the course of four years that difference is nearly $4.5 million.
Rounding Up Targets
It is obvious that the Pelicans will be in need of a top line small forward. Luckily for Dell Demps, the 2016 crop is chock full of small forwards and little else. Kevin Durant leads the way but not far behind him are a number of small forward targets Pelican fans have desired for years. This list uses the player's age for the 2016-17 season as of February 1st, the same method used by Basketball Reference.
Kevin Durant (28): Basketball Reference - 6'9" (at least), 240
A grand slam if he chooses New Orleans. There isn't a lot to write here about Durant, he is the crown jewel of July 2016. The Oklahoma City Thunder and his hometown Washington Wizards will also push hard to sign Durant. If he decides to go home the Pelicans probably don't have a shot. If he is looking for his best chance to win titles pairing up with Anthony Davis will look mighty appealing.
Chandler Parsons (28): Basketball Reference - 6'9", 227
Parsons and the next man on this list could be at the Team USA mini-camp this August with Anthony Davis. Might AD try some of that recruiting that is making Chandler Parsons famous? Parsons can be a free agent if he does not exercise his $16 million player option. Considering the cap explosion, that is a near lock.
On the court Parsons is a smooth shooter from deep (37.3% career, 39.3% last season in catch and shoot opportunities) who can also handle the ball a little bit without turning it over. His size opens up the possibility of some time as a small ball four beside Davis at center. He is not a very good rebounder however, posting a career rebound rate (8.5%) much lower than Ryan Anderson (12.7%).
One important note, Parsons will have just six years NBA experience. This sets him up for 25% of the salary cap (closer to $21 million than $25 million) instead of the 30% players with seven to nine years experience can earn.
DeMar DeRozan (27): Basketball Reference - 6'7", 220
DeRozan, like Parsons, will be at the Team USA minicamp and can be a free agent by declining his player option, which is just $10.1 million. Unlike Parsons, DeRozan cannot shoot.
A career 27% three point shooter bringing in a player like DeRozan would demand compromises be made elsewhere. Unlike current Pelican wings DeRozan is quite adept at finding his way to the free throw line, exceeding a 0.4 free throw rate (FTr) in each of the last two seasons. That's more free throw attempts (per field goal attempt) than Anthony Davis earned last season. DeMar DeRozan is more of a 2/3 wing than a 3/4 tweener so the possibility of him logging any significant time at power forward is realistically impossible.
Danilo Gallinari (28): Basketball Reference - 6'10", 225
I covered Gallinari pretty in depth just a week ago. Gallinari will be an unrestricted free agent. He is most similar to Chandler Parsons. However, despite Gallinari making a living behind the arc he gets to the free throw line over twice as often as Parsons.
Offensively is where Gallinari would be valuable as a secondary ball handler and floor spacer. Gallinari was potent as a youngster with the New York Knicks, coached by Mike Dantoni. While in New York over 50% of Gallinari's attempts came behind the 3-point line, where he shot an impressive 37.7%. Even more importantly, despite shooting so frequently from deep Gallinari posted a .400 free throw attempt rate. To put that in perspective, Gallinari got to the line more often (per shot attempt) than Anthony Davis did last year. Danilo makes opponents pay too, knocking down 85% of his freebies throughout his NBA career.
If the Denver Nuggets get off to a rough start I would not be surprised if Gallinari is on the market at the trade deadline or before. Ryan Anderson for Gallinari (with ancillary pieces) would be a move that makes some sense for both teams, especially considering the relationship between Dell Demps and Nuggets GM Tim Connelly.
Nicolas Batum (28): Basketball Reference - 6'8", 200
Batum was just traded to the Charlotte Hornets before the draft. Of this group he has the greatest reputation defensively. On offense Batum developed into a secondary ball handler in Portland and really started stuff the stat sheet with rebounds and assists in the last three years. He's a capable 3-point shooter who had a terrible year in 2014-15 (32.4%) and could be a good case for a bounce back this year. The Hornets offense might not be the best place to bounce back.
Bonus, Restricted Free Agent
Harrison Barnes (24): Basketball Reference - 6'8", 225
Barnes, like Chandler Parsons, will only be eligible for 25% of the salary cap. Unlike everyone else on this list Barnes is a restricted free agent and has not produced at an extremely high level. However, Barnes may be obtainable since the Warriors already have over $68 million committed to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, and Andre Iguodala. In addition, both Barnes and Festus Ezeli will be restricted free agents. Might the Warriors prioritize retaining Ezeli as the heir-apparent to Andrew Bogut? Who knows. They might not care at all about the luxury tax. (They shouldn't.)
If Barnes can be extracted he slots as a capable small forward who can also play minutes at the power forward position. He's the least likely on this list; not only is he restricted but he's a starter on the defending champions.
The crop of free agents really takes a turn for the worse after Barnes, none of whom should cost anywhere near the maximum. There are a few intriguing big men such as Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas, and Donatas Motiejunas; all of whom are restricted. Unrestricted options such as Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, and Al Horford will be near or past 30 while looking for their last big deal.
Who wants to team up with Anthony Davis? That's the only question.