Dream scenario time! The New Orleans Pelicans open free agency in a couple days and I have the perfect plan to get Anthony Davis and company back into the playoffs. To keep things as realistic as possible I'm not going to include wild trade scenarios where tons of talented players changes teams. In addition, New Orleans will not be signing a top 15 free agent in this year's class according to SB Nation, CBS Sports, or Hoopshype. Sounds realistic enough, right?
These targets are not going to be bargains, but the Pelicans won't be offering max contracts either. The big contracts I propose are realistic and suggested from outside Pelicans fandom. Let's focus deliberately on what New Orleans needs; shooting and defense on the wings. Along the way we'll bring back a couple favorites that joined the team as last season wound down and say a fond farwell to a number of Pelicans we've come to know and love (or hate).
Come on Dell Demps, bring your notepad along. Let's get to work.
Housekeeping and clean up
Alonzo Gee has yet to make a decision on his player option. I assume he declines it in this scenario. As GM I will not seek to retain his services.
A couple simple things to take care of here. First, make qualifying offers to both Tim Frazier and James Ennis. This makes both players restricted free agents. New Orleans does not hold Bird Rights to either player, but I suspect teams are not going to be offering enormous contributors to 26 year olds who have yet to take hold in the league.
Up next, renounce every other Pelicans free agent. Thank you very much Ryan Anderson for the wonderful memories but we need some defense. Farewell Eric Gordon it is truly awful that your body broke down. There's an alternate universe out there where you turn into a top five shooting guard in the league. Goodbye Norris Cole. Hasta la vista Kendrick Perkins.
Creating more space and saying farewell
At this point the Pelicans have almost $20 million in cap space. That's not going to be enough to execute this plan so Tyreke Evans is going to find himself a new home as well. Some team out there needs a point guard and while it would be nice to receive a future first round pick even a pair of seconds, like Ish Smith returned, is more than enough.
Where? Plenty of teams still find themselves in need of a point guard around the league. The Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, Philadelphia 76ers, and Sacramento Kings do not have a competent point guard under contract. Mike Conley will fill one of those posts and Memphis is still in the lead to retain his services. That still leaves four starting point guard positions open around the league.
The Sixers are the best trading partner in terms of assets (Sam Hinkie did well on that front) while Brooklyn and Sacramento are predictably bereft of such things. For purposes below I will assume no players come back, with Evans landing in Philadelphia or Chicago for a draft pick of undetermined value. However, with the Bulls shopping Taj Gibson and the Kings shopping Ben McLemore those could be potential returns in the coming days.
Ordering a pair of wings
New Orleans needs wings. Not a wing. Not a single small forward. Multiple players capable of playing on the wing. A rotation of Buddy Hield, Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham, James Ennis (assuming he is re-signed), and Luke Babbitt is horrendous. The Pelicans learned the horror of their lack of depth as another season passed with decidedly below average play on the perimeter.
Pondexter is the only player that is truly a two-way player, and he's coming off of multiple knee injuries. Should Pelican fans hope he's health? Absolutely. But the Pelican front office should be doing everything in their power to have multiple contingencies, as I will in the following paragraphs.
This is a wild guess but maybe 4 years, $70 million? https://t.co/LQCZNtnliA— Peachtree Hoops (@peachtreehoops) June 26, 2016
Is that an overpay for Kent Bazemore? Possibly. Can the Pelicans afford a slight mistake on value if it helps establish the correct culture in the locker room? Yes. Bazemore is a worker. He earned his way into the NBA. He embraces the day-to-day grind. He's "undersized" for a small forward yet backs down from no challenge and plays far larger than the game program leads fans to anticipate.
Kent Bazemore can start at small forward. I know this because that's exactly what he did for the Atlanta Hawks last season. Both Basketball Reference and Nylon Calculus estimate Bazemore logged nearly 80% of his minutes at small forward last season. Sign Bazemore to that contract with the expressed believe that he will be the starting small forward on opening night.
I think pretty high - he's as versatile as they come, can knock down shots, great locker room guy. $8m not crazy https://t.co/d6Y47U3q1H— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) June 14, 2016
Concerned that Bazemore is too small or not versatile enough? I have plans to bring in two wings, not just one. While Bazemore is a small forward who can play shooting guard as well Jared Dudley is a small forward who plays quite a bit of small ball power forward as well. Dudley makes a team better. Last season New Orleans brought in Kendrick Perkins to serve as a mentor. That's a fine idea, but Perkins was a negative on the floor. Not so with Dudley.
Dudley is looking for a three year contract. There's some risk there considering his age, but I see his game as one that will endure. He's already demonstrated the ability to play some small ball power forward and his shooting will always keep him on the floor. Three years, $24 million it is for Mr. Dudley.
Fit and intangibles
Between Dudley (slotted as the reserve small forward/power forward along with Dante Cunningham) and Bazemore (starter) this dramatically improves the situation on the wings. Quincy Pondexter can move to his more natural position at shooting guard and split time with Buddy Hield. Dante Cunningham and Luke Babbitt remain, although in diminished roles more fitting their talents. Pairing Cunningham and Dudley off the bench at small forward and power forward should allow both to showcase their positives while better hiding their negatives.
Adding Bazemore and Dudley is about more than talent. It's about attitude, adding two winning players who understand what the work of the NBA entails. Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo are recognized for their work ethic, but every one the NBA works hard. Think back to all the rants Alvin Gentry launched into after losses when a Pelicans team that quite frankly seemed entitled early in the season took the gift of an NBA contract for granted. This franchise suffers from a lack of leadership inside the locker room. It took multitudes of injuries and a roster full of players just trying to hang on in the league to produce the effort Gentry desired. The effort every fan, rightly or wrongly, believed was owed on the floor.
Filling out the roster
There are still holes remaining to be filled. First up is finding a couple reserves behind Jrue Holiday at point guard. Trading away Tyreke Evans is an enormous gamble in this sense. Thankfully, I have two guys in mind. First, Tim Frazier, being a restricted free agent, would be brought back into the fold. I will estimate a contract of three years, $6.2 million for our purposes here. I wouldn't be surprised if he's more expensive (someone drives his price up) or less (his restricted status drives away potential suitors).
Next up, it's time to give Pelicans summer league star Larry Drew II a chance in the NBA. He's played just 12 games in the NBA and bounced around the globe. It's not an upside play, per se, but Drew's knowledge of the system should make him a capable third point guard just in case. Here a three year, $3 million contract (with much of it unguaranteed) should do the trick.
Just three roster spots left. Cheick Diallo should be signed with cap space. The Pelicans could use an exception but both the room exception and minimum exception are limited to two years. Allowing Diallo to become a restricted free agent with only his early-bird rights is the road to ruin in case he develops well. Three years and $4 million with the third year unguaranteed, a similar contract to the one Jordan Mickey signed as the 33rd pick last season, is in the bag.
James Ennis, hanging in restricted free agency, should also be brought back. We saw what a lack of depth can bring and he demonstrated some real ability in his short stint. Let's bring him along at a similar number to Diallo's, but with just the first season guaranteed. Finally, it's time to fill the 15th roster spot and swing for the fences. Brandon Ashley has long been a favorite of mine. He's another combo forward and somewhat of a project. But he can defend (7'3.25" wingspan), shoot the three, crash the glass, and is younger than Buddy Hield. A contract identical to the one Diallo signs, but with less guaranteed, is what I show below.
Peeking at the salary cap
|Larry Drew II||PG||26||$1,000,000||$1,045,000||$1,090,000|
Contracts in italics are either team options or unguaranteed. Bold is a player option.
Wait, we still have cap space? Heck yeah we still have cap space. And $27 million in room next summer? Damn straight. If there is another amnesty provision I could make Omer Asik disappear, retain Jrue Holiday, and still have over $20 million in cap room.
Mixing up the proper chemistry
The result is a roster with veterans, rookies, and more than a few players holding on to an NBA contract for dear life. Good. The Pelicans practice and locker room could use that hunger. Davis, Holiday, Dudley, Bazemore, and Pondexter form the leadership (and a potentially deadly finishing lineup). Buddy Hield can be thrown into the fire (as a starter) without watching him burn (in the closing minutes of close games). The veteran voice (Dudley) can actually play as well, instead of acting as a uniformed assistant coach.
I won't go so far as to guarantee this group a playoff appearance. But, the New Orleans Pelicans would put an entertaining, hard working product on the floor that this city would grow to love.