We’re still over six weeks away from opening night in the NBA, but the New Orleans Pelicans season already stands at an important crossroads.
In less than 48 hours time, teams will no longer be able to stretch contracts and waive players for purposes of reducing salary from 2017-18 cap sheets. This August 31st deadline is of the upmost importance to the Pelicans because they are $1,473,576 away from the hard cap — a line they cannot pass for any reason until next summer, have a major hole at small forward to plug in lieu of Solomon Hill’s hamstring injury and face the real risk of losing Dante Cunningham to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
New Orleans is trying to re-sign F Dante Cunningham, but Minnesota is proving to be one suitor tough to beat on him, sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 29, 2017
By most measures, Cunningham is a replacement level player. His PER, RPM and various other statistics do not jump off the page. And his sudden proficiency from three-point range may be unsustainable, considering the 2016-17 season was the first time he displayed it to be a real weapon in his 8-year career.
Despite all of these good arguments, the Pelicans need to re-sign Dante Cunningham, and it appears that it may cost more than a 1-year veteran minimum — the only contract New Orleans can currently offer while keeping the rest of the roster intact. Sure, the Timberwolves are pursuing him at the same cost, but it’s probably on the Pelicans to show him more love.
Cunningham declined a player option of $3.1 million this past April in hopes of scoring a richer, multiyear deal, but the market quickly dried up. The Pelicans signing of Ian Clark for the minimum is a good example of the bubble bursting on free agent spending, and thus why Cunningham remains on the outside looking in, yet he probably hates the idea of taking a pay cut to come back to his former team after a solid season.
Taking a chance on the market is obviously on him and his agent, but at the same time, New Orleans can no longer afford to play hard ball. The 2017-18 starting lineup just lost Hill, their starting small forward, and head coach Alvin Gentry is far from confident a replacement currently sits on the roster.
Scanning the remaining free agent crop is a bit depressing; however, there is one notable player who started 81 games under Gentry over the past two seasons. A familiar face who Gentry named the starter at small forward before the start of the 2015-16 campaign because Quincy Pondexter wasn’t ready. A guy who offers positional versatility and some 3-and-D unlike one trick ponies in Tony Allen, Anthony Morrow or Shabazz Muhammad. And the best news is that this forward has spent more time at the three than four (56% vs. 43%) during his New Orleans tenure and is a more efficient offensive factor than the guy he’s replacing.
Of course I’m referring to Cunningham, and if New Orleans was to re-sign him, he’d slide right into a very familiar spot alongside Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. As any coach will say, continuity at this level is important, especially if winning is key.
Moreover, Gentry is adamant the Pelicans add a player who can guard the bigger threes in the league, and in case you need a refresher, Cunningham has previously proven up to the task. Back on December 4, 2015, his performance was so memorable against LeBron James that ESPN singled out his defensive prowess from the game.
Based on our video tracking, James was 3-of-17 for seven points when guarded by Cunningham on Friday, including 0-of-2 in overtime. James was 10-of-12 for 30 points when guarded by any other Pelican. Cunningham forced James outside. James’ average shot distance was 12 feet with Cunningham and six feet against other defenders.
James did his best to make Cunningham switch off of him. When that happened and a different defender rotated to James, James was 4-of-5 for eight points.
In James' incredible fourth quarter and during the overtime period, James was only 1-of-8 against Cunningham, with all eight shots contested.
A rare occurrence? Yeah, undoubtedly somewhat — no sure-fire stopper exists for the best player in the league — but it’s worth mentioning that Cunningham fared well against James head-to-head in the Pelicans/Cavaliers battles after this epic achievement.
In those following three games, LeBron converted 10 of 22 field goals against Dante, but two of those makes were incredibly difficult midrange fadeaways, and a third, a 24-foot three-pointer off a double screen. Giving up just five makes at the rim in three games against the freight train-sized James is a hell of an accomplishment, especially when I watched the rest of the Pelicans squad give up a hell of a lot more easy baskets to one of the best scorers in the league. And as the linked ESPN article above stated, James has more difficultly scoring against Cunningham-type of defenders, hence all the ball screens, not so when matched up against smaller players like Buddy Hield or E’Twaun Moore.
As easily as I’ve built a case for Cunningham, it’s impossible to do the same for Omer Asik. His importance to the roster deteriorated as quickly as his health following a trip to Mexico during the 2017 All-Star break. Asik is a relic of a past generation, but with $24,882,021 guaranteed salary remaining, he’s destined to be a constant reminder of failure and a grave obstacle to a stronger roster.
In a world where New Orleans overcomes the majority of their injury woes, Asik should never receive playing time again. DeMarcus Cousins is the future, but if not, the league is forcing teams down the small ball path anyway. Trading away this amount of dead weight would come at a steep cost measured in future assets. Considering the Pelicans have committed themselves to their current core, those assets are going to be vital in improving the talent on the roster, not creating cap space.
Asik’s $10,595,505 salary this season is particularly cumbersome because it stands in the way of a Cunningham re-signing and possible speculation on another free agent, say Gerald Green. Utilizing the stretch provision on Asik’s guaranteed total would reduce his cap burden to $3,554,574 for this upcoming season. The Pelicans would be on the hook for this amount on the next six salary cap sheets as well, but at least the front office would have close to $8 million more to spend yet avoid both the luxury tax line and hard cap. For instance, Dell Demps could re-sign Cunningham via his bird rights to a multiyear deal starting at around $4 million next season and then still be left with plenty of space to use the remaining $2,190,385 of the non-taxpayers MLE, the full $3,290,000 bi-annual exception or exchange one of the two trade exceptions (Buddy Hield and Tim Frazier) for another body.
Other teams around the league have used the stretch provision to their benefit. The Trail Blazers have gone this route with Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao, and many assume they’ll do the same with Andrew Nicholson in the next day and a half. They’re a fringe playoff team who has squeaked into the postseason the last two years, and if the Pelicans don’t absolutely maximize their roster, Portland could make it three times to New Orleans zero.
Before Solomon Hill’s injury, waiting to trade or stretch Asik another season might have been the prudent move, but that’s highly doubtful today. One small slip, one chance not taken could spell the end of the DeMarcus Cousins era in New Orleans. Through conversations to the media, proof of strict offseason regiments to improve conditioning on social media and a lot of voluntary team workouts, Boogie, The Brow and the rest of the personnel have done their parts to prepare for the 2017-18 season. Now it’s the front office’s turn to step up to the plate and give Alvin Gentry the best chance for success in a stacked Western Conference, in what many are coining the most important season in Pelicans franchise history.