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New Orleans Pelicans trade deadline approach is straightforward: Dangle 2018 first round pick for best salary cap friendly deal

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As the failed Mirotic talks revealed, DeMarcus Cousins, or possibly a more unlikely NBA star, is the team’s endgame without tacking on future salary that would bring luxury tax issues into question.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Press Conference Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans revealed with the failed Nikola Mirotic talks yesterday that they have a very specific agenda in mind, so let next season’s salary cap sheet be your guide as to how everything is probably going to play out over the next nine days before the trade deadline.

A total of nine Pelicans have taxable contracts for the 2018-19 season — seven fully guaranteed — for a gross sum of $94,327,090.

2018-19 salary
Jrue Holiday $26,131,111 (25,396,111 base salary + $735,000 likely incentives)
Anthony Davis $25,434,263
Solomon Hill $12,252,928
Omer Asik $11,286,516
E'Twaun Moore $8,808,685
Alexis Ajinca $5,285,394
Darius Miller $2,205,000
Cheick Diallo $1,544,951
Frank Jackson $1,378,242

Next season’s salary cap cap line is projected to be right around the $101 million mark and the luxury tax line at about $123 million. Note that both figures are rather small increases from this season’s $99.093 million salary cap line and $119.266 million luxury tax line.

As a player with 7-9 years of experience, Cousins will be eligible to receive 30% of the salary cap ~ $30.3 million. Although he’ll be recovering from a very serious Achilles injury, New Orleans has to operate under the assumption that it’s likely to cost them that full amount to re-sign him. Simple math shows that tacking this sum onto the list of taxable contracts for next season, while being mindful of potentially five other cap holds (Dante Cunningham, Rajon Rondo, Ian Clark, Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson), already puts the Pelicans above the luxury tax line, with five vacant roster spots still needing to be addressed!

Hence, the dilemma for the New Orleans front office in flipping Omer Asik’s guaranteed $11,286,516 salary for next season plus minimum filler to make the deal work under the current hard cap restrictions for Nikola Mirotic’s $12,500,000 is obvious.

From the Pelicans perspective, if General Manager Dell Demps is going to spend the team’s most valuable future asset — the 2018 First Round pick, they desire to eliminate much more allocated salary in 2018-19 for what is essentially a role player that would demand about 12.4% of the next salary cap. This would be possible if Mirotic would waive his veto power and agree to the trade without a guarantee of his team option second year of his contract. In other words, volunteer to be a three-month rental and possibly try to work out a new deal with New Orleans later.

Mirotic is not a star.

Regardless of his production of late, the glittering 22.2 PER, the positively salivating 42.9 3PT%, Nikola has started just three of 25 games this season and 59 games out of 243 total for his career. He has never averaged more than 25 minutes per game in any season.

Mirotic is a very fine role player — a great piece the Pelicans could certainly use on the existing roster, but beyond that, a possible hindrance to team future planning.

That being said, plenty within the small Pelicans community have intelligently deduced that agreeing to guarantee Mirotic’s second year and for the Pelicans going above the luxury line could be circumvented at any time next season because the tax wouldn’t be owed until right before the start of the 2019 Free Agency period. Another player, say Solomon Hill or, gasp, E’Twaun Moore, could be traded away for salary relief.

Personally, I hold the same opinion, but with nine days remaining, the Pelicans don’t need to act this very minute because they have placed the best offer(s) on the Bulls desk. The Utah Jazz, long rumored to be the best landing spot for Mirotic, are not even reportedly offering a first round pick in return to Chicago.

Word is there are enough teams around the league selling useful pieces, but very few buyers who are willing to attach a first round pick in a lot of deals. Thus, Demps can afford to show patience. Maybe the Bulls will also agree to take on the Alexis Ajinca contract, with a smaller future asset attached of course, for another useful piece in return with Mirotic. Or, perhaps, another team will emerge out of the woodwork, agreeing to a more beneficial proposal for all parties involved.

Landing Nikola Mirotic and losing Omer Asik’s contract is a good start to improving the New Orleans on several fronts, but the Pelicans can afford to be much greedier. The question isn’t if the team is going to make a deal before the trade deadline but rather when, and right now they’ve got time to continue looking under other rocks to score the best transaction possible.