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Ian Clark proving critical to New Orleans Pelicans success, but he may not return next season

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2018-19 salary cap sheet clouds Clark’s future in New Orleans.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

“That guy needs more playing time.”

Joel Meyers seemed to speak for all of New Orleans Pelicans nation in an early season October victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Think back to when the bench was struggling to produce any offense, especially during the time when the team was without Rajon Rondo and Solomon Hill. With both players sidelined with core muscle and hamstring injuries respectively, Jrue Holiday was thrust back into his point guard role he had spent an entire summer transitioning away from, and E’Twaun Moore was forced out of his comfortable role as a utility scorer off the bench.

The Pelicans amended their bench struggles by reaching a deal with veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, utilizing the NBA’s injury exception rule on October 21st. Once again, Clark’s quest to earn every dollar he had missed out on in the last free agency market was halted.

“It’s about being a professional, being ready when your number’s called and not taking anything too personally,” Clark said of getting sporadic minutes. “It’s definitely a skill to be able to go five or six games and not play, but then be inserted into a game and be able to play well. Obviously every guy that comes in this league was that (main) guy (on his team) at some point. It’s important when you come in to the NBA that you humble yourself, because there are guys who are better than you, or guys with the same talent level. It’s about being able to work on your craft and getting better as a player.”

Ian Clark is no stranger to humility. Coming out of Belmont, Clark went undrafted in 2013, and his professional career started with bouncing from squad to squad. First added by Miami, Clark participated in summer league for both the Heat and then the Warriors, where he subsequently earned Most Valuable Summer League Player.

Utah, though, proceeded to sign him to a two-year deal before assigning him to the Bakersfield Jam, and then the Idaho Stampede. He appeared in only 333 minutes for the Jazz over two seasons and was waived in March of 2015. Although he was promptly picked up by the Nuggets, he only played 33 minutes for Denver. However, his following stop finally proved fruitful.

“A coach’s dream. One of my all time favorites.” – Steve Kerr

After playing nine minutes per game for the 73-win Warriors, and then increasing his role to 15 minutes per game for the Champion Warriors, Clark became a prominent role player for the best team in the league but was ready poised for a bigger role.

“Being able to show what I can do in the minutes I get, I want to be able to expand on that this year,” said Clark, who averaged 14.8 minutes last season for the 67-15 Warriors. “I want to show that I can do that in extended minutes and be consistent at it, and help my team win, whether that’s on the defensive or offensive end. I want to show that it wasn’t just because of that team (that I played well).”

Many teams targeted Clark as an offseason midlevel candidate, but instead, he found himself riding the bench for the New Orleans on a one-year deal, at the veterans’ minimum of $1.6 million.

From October 28th- January 12th, Ian Clark averaged but 12 minutes per game, breaking the 20 minute threshold only three times over that 35-game span. In November, Clark shot 27% from the floor, 20% from three, in only 11.6 minutes per game, and his future with the Pelicans, and in the NBA was anything but guaranteed.

“Being able to show what I can do in the minutes I get, I want to be able to expand on that this year,” Clark told the Pelicans’ team website. “I want to show that I can do that in extended minutes and be consistent at it, and help my team win, whether that’s on the defensive or offensive end.”

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

But with that devastating injury to Demarcus Cousins came opportunity for the 27-year-old Clark. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday put up monster numbers, but the shooters the Pelicans’ bench had relied upon so heavily, E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller, had struggled mightily in the New Year.

Moore enjoyed a sensational December with 16.1 ppg on 60% shooting and 57.8% from three, and Miller’s breakout month came in November, where he provided 10 points per game, 54.2% shooting, and 56% from three. But in January, both saw their numbers sharply decline. Further, the Pelicans traded Clark’s main competition in Nelson, along with Tony Allen and Omer Asik for Nikola Mirotic.

The door opened once again, and Clark stepped up to the plate. In fact, he has steadily improved his shooting each month, and is currently enjoying his greatest success to date. Here in March, Clark is scoring 12.3 points per game on 52% shooting in 26 minutes. In the previous six games alone, Clark has catapulted to 14 points per game on 61% shooting, 46% from three, two rebounds, two assists, one steal and a +2.5 plus/minus.

Not just one to contribute offensively, he has been an active defender, often finding himself matched up against elite scorers like Chris Paul or James Harden in crunch time.

”Also being able to defend multiple positions is important,” said Clark last September. “Obviously there are bigger wings in the league, so being able to make sure I can defend different matchups is something that can help the team.”

So why are the Pelicans already decided on his future? Don’t blame the coaching staff, blame the 2018-19 cap sheets.

Unless they don’t dump Ajinca, and or part with Moore, Hill, or Mirotic via trade, the Pelicans will inevitably be forced to pay the luxury tax in the 2018-19 season. With Jrue Holiday’s incentive laden contract ($26.1 mil), Moore ($8.8 mil), Jackson ($1.4 mil), Hill ($12.2 mil), Miller (2.2 mil), AD ($25.4 mil), Mirotic (12.5 mil), Ajinca ($5.3 mil), Diallo ($1.5 mil), and Boogie ($30 mil?), the Pelicans would be responsible for around $123.1 million in contracts — that’s predicted to be right at the tax line for next season. Oh, and this isn’t even factoring the unguaranteed contracts of Okafor or Liggins, or Rajon Rondo’s cap hold.

Should the Pelicans be willing to pay the tax, they would need to sign Ian Clark by utilizing next season’s midlevel exception, as they would not have full Bird Rights having signed him to his current one-year veteran minimum. Operating as an “over the cap” team, the Pelicans cannot sign any player without utilizing one of the available midlevel exceptions.

Paying the tax is no guarantee, as the Pelicans have never done so before, and more than likely, the players need to prove they are worth keeping by perhaps a nice playoff showing as a unit.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

How much is a sixth man really worth in the NBA today? Some would say look at the best, Lou Williams, who was given just three-years, $21 million. Maybe Jamal Crawford? Two years, $8 million. Clark probably isn’t deserving of these sums, but one has to imagine he’s doing himself a favor right now and showing teams that he’s definitely worth more than another minimum.

But remember this: should the Pelicans choose to enter the tax, they have a dearth of needs beyond a versatile backcourt scorer off the bench. After all, they had one last year, who started off on a ten-day contract (Crawford), and more than that, Clark is only filling E’Twaun Moore’s role, who was thrust into the starting lineup only due to the injury suffered by Solomon Hill. In addition, the Pelicans’ also have to make a decision as to the future of Rajon Rondo. How much of a salary demand will he command following what will likely be considered a bounce back year?

Regardless of Rondo’s future, the Pelicans’ have minimal flexibility and a great deal of needs to be met at every position. Should the Pelicans opt for the tax, should they pass up opportunities to pay Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Mario Hezonja, Marcus Smart, Will Barton, Rodney Hood or Julius Randle?

By all appearances, the Pelicans need Ian Clark to perform at a sixth man of the year type level to carry them into the playoffs, and potentially onward from there. But even should he, the Pelicans likely won’t be able to keep him going forward unless General Manager Dell Demps decides Clark is paramount to future success and the GM is able to work some magic to manipulate another salary cap sheet once more.