Oh, New Orleans will certainly be in the news; however, expect most of the talk to be centered around two of their own unrestricted free agents, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo. If both of these players are re-signed, General Manager Dell Demps will have incredibly precious little space to spend on new faces. If the duo leaves...he’ll be in nearly the same position.
The reason for this is simple: barring any trades, the Pelicans will be limited to the use of exceptions allotted by the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement in signing new players as the team will be operating without free cap space.
The dream scenario comprises of Cousins signing for significantly less than his potential maximum of $30.3 million while Rondo accepting a modest pay raise on his $3.3 million earned last season. That would afford Demps to run it back without needing to go into the luxury tax — something he acknowledged New Orleans will only do if “there’s a player that puts us in a position to compete for a championship.” Since the Pelicans posted a record of 27-21 before Cousins was lost to the Achilles rupture and DeMarcus will require being treated with kid’s gloves this upcoming season, bringing back last year’s core at some cost above the tax line doesn’t appear to meet this threshold.
The worst alternative, one that should rile up fans everywhere, involves watching Cousins leave in free agency and Rondo signing for an amount that uses most, if not all, of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception. New Orleans would be left with just the Bi-Annual (worth about $3.35 million) exception and a $3.85 million trade exception as their best sources of adding talent. Those are some awfully lean figures, and it would result in the Pelicans needing to scrape around the bottom of the barrel after opponents have grabbed all the key free agents.
While a starting lineup of Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis won 20 of their final 28 games and swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, realize that active roster was paper thin. Although Solomon Hill should be back to full strength, it’s unlikely Ian Clark will return. Can Darius Miller take another sorely needed step forward? What happens if Holiday or Davis are out for a lengthy absence? Can New Orleans finally rely on developing players, like Cheick Diallo and Frank Jackson — the Pelicans rookie last season who failed to appear in a single minute of exhibition or regular season basketball?
So many questions, so little promising free agent avenues. That’s why it starts with bringing back Cousins and Rondo on smart contracts. Even if they’re not part of the long-term plan, they’re re-signings can be utilized in bringing back talent via other routes. For instance, Cousins next deal could include a sign-and-trade to replenish the roster in his wake. Or, if #DoItBig remains the desired concept, remove an anchor contract or two (like that of Alexis Ajinca or Hill) by attaching a future asset(s) in return for enough space under the apron to gain use of all exceptions and maybe chase a Rudy Gay, Rodney Hood or Mario Hezonja with the full MLE.
When Dell Demps has spoken of perfect scenarios over the last few months, he wasn’t blowing smoke. New Orleans is going to need for a lot of things to work out in their favor for the organization to enjoy a successful free agency.