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2015 NBA Free Agency: Higher salary cap and alternate paths for the New Orleans Pelicans

The difference in a couple million in the salary cap could have made a huge difference for the Pelicans.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

After Alexis Ajinca agreed to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans I noted that, if the salary cap did come in higher than originally anticipated, Dell Demps could have some reasonable flexibility by renouncing everyone else. Now that the final figures have been tabulated the cap is set at $70 million, providing even more wiggle room than expected. New Orleans is already locked into their path, which is better than what the Dallas Mavericks can say (Mavs fans, and truly no fans in basketball, deserve what just happened). However, what other options could the Pelicans have pursued?

I noted earlier in June that Kosta Koufos would be an ideal candidate to replace Omer Asik if it wasn't for the expected cost. Surprisingly Koufos agreed to a relatively cheap four year, $33 million offer with the Sacramento Kings. A contract of that size, if negotiated with standard 4.5% raises, would begin at roughly $7.75 million in 2015-16. That offer is honestly significantly lower than I expected Koufos to get on the open market. I was, and continue to be, dumbfounded at how cheap that contract looks.

The trick of creating a large amount of cap space for the Pelicans, if they had gone this direction, is the cap hold for Alexis Ajinca. He played on a minimum contract last season, so his cap hold is the two year minimum, or $947,276. However, since the Pelicans hold his Early Bird Rights he can be offered up to 104.5% of the league average salary. Ajinca's four year, $20.2 million contract qualifies.

Cap Space Galore

Renouncing everyone the Pelicans hold rights to does not mean those players will not ultimately re-sign with the team. Furthermore, the four rotation players most critical to retain are Ajinca (discussed above), Dante Cunningham (about to get to him), Asik (replaced via cap space in this scenario), and Norris Cole. Alvin Gentry is already talking about using Tyreke Evans primarily as a point guard. The larger salary cap means Cole would be the only real casualty of going after Koufos instead of Omer Asik. A solid nine man rotation plus increased future flexibility is worth that cost in my opinion.

Cunningham has been with the Pelicans for just one season; they do not own bird or even early bird rights. He signed with New Orleans for three years, $9 million. In order to do that, since the Pelicans did not have cap space, they utilized a portion of the Mid-Level Exception. Instead, as I will demonstrate, there would be plenty of space available to sign Cunningham outright.

CP3

Not only could the Pelicans sign Koufos and Cunningham, they have a little wiggle room to make an even more lucrative offer than the one Koufos agreed to with the Kings. Afterward Dell Demps then signs Ajinca to his contract, pushing New Orleans over the salary cap. The Pels would be a solid nine deep team and would have the full room exception (a two year, $5.7 million contract) to bring in another player before resorting to minimum contracts.

That is more (in the first two years) than New Orleans can currently offer a free agent, such as K.J. McDaniels. As of now roughly $2.6 million remains of the Pelicans MLE while the room exception begins at $2.8 million. Also, the Pelicans retain a great deal of flexibility going this route. The difference in salary between Koufos and Asik next summer is nearly $3 million. Here's what the Pels cap sheet would look like if they went the cap space route. The remainder of the roster positions would be minimum players, not all that much different than what is expected.

CP4

Before when considering using cap space the lower expected cap made this alternative seemed ridiculous. $2.9 million matters in this league. It opens up dramatically different possibilities. Giving up a bunch of experience and continuity to go big in free agency with a $67.1 million cap and a $70 million cap are two very different options.

In this case the ambiguity of exactly what the salary cap would be cut off some more daring options for Dell Demps. What if he renounces everyone and Koufos isn't interested? No other free agent center agreed to a price low enough for the Pelicans to sign without also trading away core players. Did these risks (what if the cap comes in low, what if our target says no) weigh heavily on Demps? There's no way to really know.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Say farewell to what could have been.