The New Orleans Pelicans are just about out of salary cap space. As of this writing they are sitting on roughly $3.4 million in room and a good deal of that is necessary to sign their own players. They can increase that amount to $5.8 million if they rescind the qualifying offer to Tim Frazier and waive both Toney Douglas and Luke Babbitt. It is doubtful the Pelicans attempt that track.
As I have stated repeatedly the Pelicans will want to sign second round pick Cheick Diallo with cap space and not an exception. Since New Orleans will use cap space to sign both Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore the only salary cap exceptions remaining are the minimum exception and the room exception. Both of these exceptions have a maximum duration of two years.
If New Orleans signed Diallo for two seasons he would become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018. The Pelicans would only have early bird rights to match potential contract offers. Early bird rights are far less powerful than full bird rights; the former allows a contract up to 104.5% of the league average salary while the latter up to a player's maximum salary. It is a far better proposition to sign Diallo with cap space for three years (getting a third really cheap year) and then having full bird rights if he blossoms into a solid player. Look no further than the massive contract offered to Tyler Johnson to see the dangers of allowing a two year pro reach free agency without full bird rights.
That bumps the Pelicans actual cap space down around $2.2 million after signing Diallo with cap room. The remainder is going to be necessary, and might not even be enough, to retain restricted free agent Tim Frazier. By offering the $1.1 million qualifying offer the Pelicans earned the right to match any offer Frazier might sign on the market. However, they did not earn his bird rights (to go over the cap) or cap space to do so.
Matching an offer sheet will require using cap space or, in the event his offer sheet is for two years and less than $6 million (if you've been paying attention to the recent signings, this is very unlikely) the room exception. The best New Orleans can offer Frazier is a four year, $14.5 million contract. Only James Ennis, who signed for two years and $6 million with the Memphis Grizzlies, has agreed to a lesser annual value this summer.
More transactions are on the way
Waiving Toney Douglas (completely unguaranteed) and Luke Babbitt ($200k guaranteed) can create some additional room to re-sign Tim Frazier. However, the Pelicans would sacrifice valuable depth in the process at the lowest of possible prices. Douglas and Babbitt combined will count for just $2.5 million against the salary cap next season. No single player has signed for that little so far.
Sure, teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, and San Antonio Spurs will find decent role players to take the minimum and chase a possible championship ring later in July. The Pelicans, however, are not a championship contender. Quality role players will not be clamoring to take the final roster spots in New Orleans. Given the terrible injury history of this franchise sacrificing cheap depth should be the last thing on the table.
The other option is trading away larger contracts. Three players stand out as possible options. Omer Asik is always at the tip of Pelican fans' tongues. No, it probably isn't happening. Yes, I understand that awful contracts to marginal big men have been handed out. No, that doesn't mean other teams are clamoring to trade for Omer Asik. Maybe at the trade deadline if Asik plays well. Maybe next summer. Maybe the new CBA will allow the Pelicans to amnesty Asik. But, the probability of Dell Demps trading away Omer Asik this summer is extraordinarily low. Microscopic.
That leaves two options. Alexis Ajinca, despite a down season, is probably appealing to a number of teams as a reserve center. He is guaranteed just $15 million over the next three seasons; both Ian Mahinmi and Timofey Mozgov will make $15 million next season alone. Ajinca did not do well in Alvin Gentry's uptempo scheme but he could be a solid reserve center for any team who wants to slow things down. All this makes Ajinca potentially valuable as a trade chip.
Tyreke Evans, however, is the most likely to go. Destinations are dwindling as teams solidify their backcourts. Two factors limit the Pelicans from trading Evans. First, a team has to want Tyreke Evans on their roster. In the space-and-pace era handing the keys of the offense to an isolation-centric point guard is not in vogue. (This is also why New Orleans is attempting to trade Evans in the first place.) Second, Tyreke Evans must pass a physical or the team accepting him in the trade must waive it. After three knee surgeries in the last 16 months it is very doubtful a team would do so.
Targets with created cap space
Trading away just Evans (with no salary coming back) could open up enough room to go after Terrence Jones and retain Tim Frazier. Jones has not been in high demand thus far in free agency and could be a solid fit beside Anthony Davis. Right now the big rotation around AD is Omer Asik (bleh), Alexis Ajinca (doesn't fit), Dante Cunningham, Luke Babbitt, and Cheick Diallo. That's not good. Sure, Solomon Hill should log some minutes as a small ball four next to AD but that's still putting a lot of hope into Omer Asik regaining his long lost form from his days starting in Houston.
Trading away both Evans and Ajinca might open up the space to sign Jared Sullinger. I wrote extensively about Sullinger the day after the draft and everything still stands. After the Celtics gained Al Horford it is almost a certainty that Boston will not match a solid offer to Sully as a restricted free agent. New Orleans is interested in players who can pass and few big men are as adept as Jared Sullinger.
General point on 15-16 #Pelicans: May not have fancy stat to prove it, but IMO this was poor passing team.Need more willingness to move ball— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) July 4, 2016
Last week ESPN's Kevin Pelton ranked the top 25 free agents this summer. Sullinger came in 8th, ahead of Chandler Parsons (4/$94M from Memphis), Dwight Howard (3/$70.5M from Atlanta), and DeMar DeRozan (5/$145M from Toronto) among many, many others.
At age 23 (he turned 24 in March), Sullinger started 73 games for a team that won 48 games and played better with him on the court. He's a terrific defensive rebounder who provides a modicum of floor spacing and is a good passer for a big man. As a result, he ranked 33rd in the league in RPM.
There's reason for concern, certainly. Sullinger's weight could prove an increasing issue as he ages, and since he struggles to defend on the perimeter or protect the rim, he couldn't stay on the court in the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks. That last impression will be tough for Sullinger to shake this summer.
Nonetheless, a team could do worse than try to pry Sullinger away from the Celtics with an offer in the $10-15 million range per year.
If Boston desired Tyreke Evans as a secondary ball handler working out a sign-and-trade could be done easily. In fact, adding in the relatively cheap contract of Alexis Ajinca could be seen as a plus to Boston who still lacks anything resembling a rim protector. Turning Sullinger's modest $5.7 million cap hold into Tyreke Evans and Alexis Ajinca could improve Boston's standing in the eastern conference. (Finding the necessary roster spots is a different matter entirely.)
Alternatively, the Pelicans could create the necessary space by trading away Evans and Ajinca to different teams then use the resultant cap room to sign Sullinger or Jones. Depending on the offer necessary to sign either big man this method could also make retaining Tim Frazier less difficult.
Dell Demps might be packing it in this summer. Signing Tim Frazier and getting a player (Damien Inglis or Nick Minnerath please) off the summer league may be all that's left on his to-do list. If he wants to do more, it's time to make some trades.