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The New Orleans Pelicans need to be eyeing the NBA's 2016 free agent class

The Pelicans have to avoid swinging for the fences in free agency and be smart with their money in order to build a competitive roster.

Two pieces of a championship puzzle are available and the Pelicans need to capitalize!
Two pieces of a championship puzzle are available and the Pelicans need to capitalize!
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans will be 1 of 30 teams chasing the upcoming free agent class with handfuls of cash in each hand. Among the players that will most interest every team will likely include the following group:

Al Horford, Jared Sullinger (restricted), Nicolas Batum, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah, LeBron James (player option), Chandler Parsons (player option), Andre Drummond (restricted), Harrison Barnes (restricted), Festus Ezeli (restricted) Dwight Howard, Mike Conley, Jeff Green, Luol Deng, Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan (early termination option, already said he was going to enter free agency), and Bradley Beal (restricted).

Those are 18 solid, potential free agents that could be available this off-season. Realistically speaking, we can mark off: LeBron, Drummond, and Conley. (I still have a glimmer of hope for pairing KD with Anthony Davis!)

Looking at the Pelicans roster and cap space this upcoming off-season, the sky is the limit for what they can acquire. Let’s start the campaigns for Whiteside and KD! Well… the salary cap is projected to be around $89 million, the Pelicans have $64,916,083 committed (for now) giving them a little over $24 million in cap space. Usually that could net a team two very good players; however, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that the Los Angeles Lakers and other teams are willing to offer Derozan a contract starting at $25 million. (Side note: Davis’ extension starts at $20 million.) Thanks to the salary jump, every team is going to have money to spend. So, the Pelicans may have to make a move if they want to bring in some star help for the Unibrow.

Let’s take a look at the Pelicans signed through 2016-17: Davis, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham, with a team option for Luke Babbitt, and Alonzo Gee has a player option. As Oleh showed us in a recent article, the Pelicans have a statistically elite trio in Holiday-Evans-Davis so that leaves a spot for a starting small forward and perhaps an upgrade for Asik (he needs to be the backup). Not to mention, the Pelicans will be in dire need to compile a solid bench (so that Davis doesn’t have to play all 48 minutes just to compete).

What should the front office to do keep AD happy and the Pelicans in the thick of deep playoff chases in the future?

Before getting to the upcoming class, New Orleans must make several moves before this dismal season ends. My number one move would be to try and flip Eric Gordon’s expiring contract for a young guard to come off of the bench. Then, dump off the unnecessary players to get as much cap as possible for players that can form a competitive roster.

Realistically speaking, the Pelicans are not going to sign a superstar (unless a trade is made for Asik and the Pelicans have the greatest recruiting staff of all time). The team should follow the number one rule of the stock market: buy low and sell high! Trade players who are looking good such as Alexis Ajinca, and then buy the middle tier free agents before the top free agents sign and they have to overpay for the same players. My favorite targets on this list are: Ezeli, Barnes, Sullinger, Batum and Parsons.

Festus Ezeli: 6’11, 255lbs, 26 years old, 18.6 MPG, 8.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG 55.7% FG. Per 36 minutes, he averages 15.6 PPG, 11.9 RPG, and 2.5 BPG! The Golden State Warriors have roughly $80 million committed for next season giving them $28 million to fill out the roster before having to pay the luxury tax (hard cap projected at $108 million). They have to re-sign both Barnes and Ezeli as well as two other players. That means that if the Pelicans are as sold on Ezeli as I am they would have to pay him $15+ million or work out some sort of sign and trade. Either way, get it done! Ezeli in my opinion has a Whiteside-like ceiling and would give the Pelicans a true, solid center.

Harrison Barnes: 6’8, 210lbs, 23 years old, 28.5 MPG, 12.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.9  SPG 49.3% FG, 37.7% 3pt. Per 36 minutes, he averages 15.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.1 SPG. Barnes is a young player who has played an important role in the Warriors’ success. The Pelicans should be trying to force the Warriors to surrender one of their assets (they won the championship for a reason) so if not Ezeli then Barnes. He also has the most potential of the available small forwards.

Jared Sullinger: 6’9, 260lbs, 23 years old, 24.4 MPG, 9.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 42.1%. Per 36 minutes, he averages 14.3 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.3 SPG, and 1.1 BPG. I know that Fisher is on board with Sullinger. Though he is restricted, I still think that the Pelicans should pursue him as a second option to find a center.

Nicolas Batum: 6’8, 200lbs, 27 years old, 34.9 MPG, 16.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 42.4% FG 36.7% 3pt. Batum is quietly having the best season of his career and getting paid almost $12 million so he could get signed for $18 million, but I would prefer one of the cheaper, more valuable targets. Not a bad option though.

Chandler Parsons: 6’9, 227lbs, 27 years old, 24.8 MPG, 9.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 44.8% FG, 31.5% 3pt. Per 36 minutes, he averages 13.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 3.6 APG. Thanks to a return from major off-season surgery, Parsons is having an off year, so perhaps the Pelicans can possibly scoop up a proven 3 and D small forward for a discount?

No matter the case, the Pelicans have to make a strong effort to become contenders well before 2020 when AD could leave New Orleans. This off-season is pivotal: the team has the chance to sign a solid free agent, and with how the season is going, an opportunity to land a top 5 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Though times are currently bleak, we should still have plenty of hope for the future of the franchise.

**All statistics via: basketball-reference.com