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NBA Trade Deadline Primer: Zion Williamson’s debut fast approaching and Pelicans need to carefully map out offseason plan

New Orleans has plenty of roster questions, each of which would preferably be answered prior to the February 6th trade deadline.

Toronto Raptors open the season against the New Orleans Pelicans with a 130-122 overtime win Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

While the 2019-20 ‘Won’t Bow Down’ campaign has been a tale of two seasons, leaving more questions than answers, the biggest elephant in the room will seemingly start offering clues very soon.

What will Zion Williamson be in the NBA and who is best suited to complement him?

The Pelicans assembled a veteran squad to both accentuate Zion’s talents and relieve him from an overwhelming amount of pressure. The plan was for he and his teammates to become acclimated to one another during his rookie season while important evaluations could be made. Zion could ball out without fear of failure, have fun and enjoy a more winning environment than customary for number one overall draft picks. Meanwhile, the front office would get a good handle on his ideal cast of supporting characters for ensuing seasons.

Swin Cash, Greivis Vasquez, Alvin Gentry and Fred Vinson have each previously referred to Zion as their “glue guy.” However, it was difficult to envision such a role after he put up 23.3 points per game and a 71.4 FG% through four preseason games. Could he grab the reins sooner than anyone imagined?

New Orleans will unfortunately not have much time to evaluate their roster fully with Zion before the February 6th trade deadline, but they do need to carefully consider any and all roster questions with or without their best player in the near future.

So, let’s dive into some questions!

Who Gets Retained?

For a team in the midst of an unusual rebuild, the Pelicans will be strained for available funds to spend this summer on free agents. However, they do have plenty of currency in assets, both on the roster and in draft capital. So, let’s add up some numbers and see where the Pelicans will find themselves this offseason.

Brandon Ingram is a slam dunk to get the max this summer, and based on Jamal Murray’s four-year extension, he will earn $29.2 million in 2020-21. However, for our immediate calculations, we’ll add Ingram’s cap hold of $21,796,456 to the books, and this is something that needs to be done for all Pelicans in the final year of their contracts.

When adding up all the cap holds ($64,235,257), which includes Derrick Favors and E’Twaun Moore, to next season’s current salaries ($83,130,988), it becomes pretty clear that New Orleans will operate as an over-the-cap team. The salary cap is projected to be right in the neighborhood of $116 million for the 2020-21 campaign. This means the Pelicans will need to rely on exceptions to add new talent outside of the trade market and draft, but that’s okay because a lot of good pieces already exist in the locker room.

2020 Draft Picks

The Pelicans have both of their own picks as well as the Cavaliers first rounder (top-10 protected) and the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards second rounders. They also could add Didi Louzada, their draft-stash and summer league standout.

In case you’re not following, that’s as many as six new players the Pelicans could bring into the fold this summer, but in all likelihood, will not.

Regardless of what path the Pelicans choose with their draft picks and Didi Louzada, expect for the Pelicans to still operate over the cap even were they to trade all of these picks.

Back to Free Agency!

The Pelicans can exercise their Bird Rights to bring back any or all of the following: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, and Kenrich Williams. (Also, Joshia Gray and Zylan Cheatham, the Pelicans current two-way contracts, will require a decision, too.) Or, they could renounce a player or more. If they were to renounce this entire group, New Orleans would open up in the neighborhood of $30 million, but that’s not happening in a million years. If they were to hang onto just Ingram, that move would ultimately severely handicap themselves as roughly $20 million in cap space isn’t enough to fill all the voids.

Not only would the Pelicans lose access to the mid-level and bi-annual exception (and be forced to settle for the room exception), they wouldn’t be able to replace the lost talent level on the open free agent market. Therefore, staying over the cap is an easy choice because there’s one big guy in particular the front office needs to bring back.

Derrick Favors

Once Ingram is handed the max, Favors should be the priority. His fundamental and relentless approach to the half court has been a revelation and he has completely transformed the identity of the Pelicans. Although, a premium has not been placed on the center position in recent free agent classes, the market is void of much spending space this summer. That should work in the favor of the Pelicans.

Derrick took a marked risk in choosing the Pelicans over other respective franchises. He is due what he deserves, not a discount based on a barren market, but there will likely be few better realistic fits. The Pelicans need the 28-year-old around for a few seasons and he’ll likely present a much better option than going the cap space route to sign Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell or Serge Ibaka.

Favors is an important difference maker. Jaxson Hayes has shown magnificent glimpses, but he is just 19 years old. He still requires several years for his body to mature and for his mind to soak up all responsibilities required of modern day centers.

Favors most recently signed a two-year, $37.6 million extension with the Jazz. That feels about right in scale (especially when considering the recent deals signed by Brook Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon). The Pelicans can extend that to a three year, $55-million dollar deal.

But is three years really the best idea? Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart will be up for their own restricted free agencies in the summer of 2021 and the Pelicans will add two more first round picks from the 2021 NBA Draft (NOP, LAL). The books could fill up fast, but yes, the front office should present Favors a good deal, perhaps even offering a front-loaded contract to keep their options a little more open once New Orleans finds itself in position to start thinking championships.

Expectation: Favors re-signs with New Orleans, in the neighborhood of a three-year, $55-million dollar deal.

E’Twaun Moore

This is the trickiest decision. Moore has been a valuable veteran capable of contributing regardless of consistent minutes and his teammates clearly like him.

But if New Orleans decides to add Didi over the summer, in addition to the growing minutes needed for NAW and future picks, it’s unlikely Moore would be able to continue in the role he’s currently serving, especially if JJ Redick remains all in.

The Pelicans could seek to entice Moore with a rich single season, but that would likely put them at or near the tax. They shouldn’t do that. Alternatively, they could backload Favors’ contract, freeing up the space to sign Moore to two years, $24 million while clogging the Pelicans’ books in 2020-21. They shouldn’t do that either.

You have no idea how hard this is for me to write, but it’s impossible to envision E’Twaun Moore on the Pelicans next season. He has long been my favorite player. I love his selflessness, his versatility, his competitiveness. Most of all, I love how quick fans are to cast him aside only for him to overcome the odds and ball out again and again and again.

But his future does not appear to be in New Orleans. David Griffin must have known that when he brought in JJ Redick and Josh Hart. The Pelicans should not keep all three.

The Pelicans will likely keep him throughout the rest of this season unless they can combine his contract with Miller’s to bring back a near max-level player. Alone, he’s not likely to fetch much more than a solid second round pick so he’s more valuable to keep in the locker room. This is especially true in light of the team’s recent stretch of wins. Let’s keep piling up the victories and Moore can continue setting a good example for the young guys on the bench.

Expectation: Moore signs close to the full mid-level exception elsewhere, likely around three years, $27 million.

Kenrich Williams

Kenny Hustle has been a valuable part of the Pelicans story this season. He has anchored the forward spot in Zion’s absence, giving Brandon Ingram the freedom to dominate on the offensive end while guarding opposing fours. Kenrich is an above-average ball mover, rebounder and amplifies the energy of those around him.

But offensively, his growth has slowed and sputtered. He hasn’t shown enough progress or skills in the scoring department. His three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff and he fails to attack the basket in any respective fashion.

Right now, I’d lean toward bringing him back on a two-year, $6 million deal, but I can see why it might become a numbers game for the Pelicans. Plus, another franchise could swoop in and offer more than New Orleans would feel comfortable spending.

Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor and Darius Miller

The Pelicans could move on from Nicolo Melli to create room for any of these players, but it seems unlikely as Trajan Langdon will likely would push for Melli given he pried him from across the ocean.

Much of the decisions on this trio of players will depend upon who the Pelicans take in the draft or bring in via any trades. A player capable of playing the 5 all but damns Okafor’s chances at returning. Miller’s contract next season is partially guaranteed so they can easily escape his owed $7 million next July if need be. And you wonder about Jackson’s value if the Pelicans sign Didi to an NBA contract and/or the team starts opting for minutes soon in favor of developing NAW.

With that being said, New Orleans continues to outwardly defend Frank and find minutes for him despite the overloaded roster at his position. In addition of needing to fill some minutes as a physically strong defender at his position, are they showcasing him, evaluating him more desperately in lieu of his contract situation or both? I can see this front office bring him back on a two-year partially guaranteed deal just as easily as going in a different direction. He’s not likely to crack the regular rotation next season, but his energy and qualities as a human being could be something this organization wants to keep around if a roster spot is available.

Darius Miller was always brought back at his current number to give the Pelicans an inflated contract which could be combined to bring back a higher salaried player. Alternatively, he could be moved prior to the deadline to a team looking to jettison some cash in order to get under the tax, but the most likely scenario is that he’ll remain on the Pelicans bench until the offseason.

So, what should they do?

Barring any unforeseen trades, here’s how I envision the roster looking come next July.

PG: Lonzo Ball - NAW - FA/2020 Draft pick

SG: Jrue Holiday - JJ Redick - Frank Jackson

SF: Brandon Ingram - Josh Hart - Kenrich Williams

PF: Zion Williamson - Nicolo Melli - FA/2020 Draft pick

C: Derrick Favors - Jaxson Hayes - FA/2020 Draft pick

The Pelicans could use any combination of flipping Frank, Kenny, Moore, Miller and/or Jah for someone who can give minutes at the 3/4, point guard or center positions. After all, the Pelicans have more than enough future seconds to entice someone. The goal would be to extract a player who can fulfill one of those team needs in future seasons.

As you can see though, once Brandon Ingram is secured, the Pelicans will probably opt to pursue locking down Derrick Favors. That means the Pelicans would remain an over-the-cap team and need to make good calls on others requiring new contracts. Thus, if they want to extract anything of value for the players on the current roster who will likely fall victim to the numbers game, now is the time.

Let’s geaux, Pels!