With two plus months lost due to the league’s suspension, David Griffin and Trajan Langdon have had plenty of time to review this season and assess the path moving forward.
While the New Orleans Pelicans await meaningful games that will prompt further development of their own core and give the staff additional time to diagnose ‘fit,’ ultimately the front office has seen enough to know what needs to be done during the next offseason.
“We’ve got a situation where we’re growing a very young, dynamic team, and time to some degree is on our side, so what we really need to do is keep the young group together as much as possible,” Griffin said in a media teleconference earlier this week.
I spoke with salary cap expert Eric Pincus two months ago, who helped break down the numbers involved in a possible Jrue Holiday summer extension. Through our discussion, he confessed the impossible nature of predicting precisely where the salary cap will fall.
Regardless of where, the Pelicans will certainly overextend beyond it. There is no feasible path towards cap space beyond letting some of their young stars walk or trading Jrue Holiday to a team with space to spare in 2020-21 (Atlanta, New York, Memphis, Detroit, Charlotte, Cleveland).
“From a salary cap standpoint, because many of our key players are on rookie scale, we’re less dependent upon the cap going down than teams that are built around veterans and free agents on an ongoing basis,” Griffin said.
This puts the Pelicans in an enviable position. They have the vehicles to improve without needing to make a summer time splash. However, they do have several very critical decisions to make. While they can re-sign all of their own free agents and exceed the salary cap to do so, it may not make sense to tie up money long term in each of them. Also, therein lies the question of how much is owner Gayle Benson willing to spend given the uncertainty surrounding the league’s future? Just because the Pelicans can spend ‘say, $120-130 million without incurring penalties doesn’t necessarily mean that they should.
(Again, we don’t have any way to measure where the luxury tax will land or if one will even be implemented given this unfathomable circumstance.)
Under Benson, however, the team hasn’t shirked from spending and will likely do what it takes to build or yet sustain the positive foundation around Zion Williamson and company.
“Obviously, we have some very important people to sign and to re-sign, but we have vehicles to do that. We’re not looking to go grab a bunch of free agents that are going to make a whole bunch of money from out of our market, right?” Griffin continued.
The team will have the mid-level ($9-ish million) and bi-annual ($3.5-ish million) exceptions at their disposal should they look to sign free agents but that and minimum deals are they only avenues of doing so.
With that said, let’s break down Pelicans free agents in order of importance this summer and assess the probability they ink new deals.
2020 Free Agents and Extension Eligible Veterans
This should be the simplest decision Griffin and Langdon face this summer. Ingram’s All-Star performance, age and fit within this nucleus assures that he will sign a maximum level contract akin to the one signed by Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray and Pascal Siakam last offseason. Expect him to earn near $28-30 million annually over the next four to five years.
Zion Williamson is destined for greatness, Brandon Ingram is likely not far off that track, and Lonzo Ball was really starting to come into his own before the NBA suspension, but they all share a common bond: New Orleans Pelicans still need Jrue Holiday. https://t.co/GcUqWD6Yzk pic.twitter.com/6h2lPnKyTh— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) May 6, 2020
This will undoubtedly be the Pelicans trickiest decision this summer. Holiday seems content in New Orleans with this newfound core. As its leader and one of the most impactful players in the NBA, it would be in the club’s best interests to attempt to re-sign him. However, should Holiday seek the four year, $141 million he is eligible to receive, the Pelicans may balk and instead consider dealing him to a contender. If Holiday and his agent (Jason Glushon) can find common ground with the Pelicans, an extension would benefit both parties long term.
If you think for a second Holiday will offer his hometown squad a discount, make sure you review the four year, $110 million deal Glushon inexplicably earned Al Horford last summer. You can read all of the details about his possible extension in an article I wrote here.
Bringing Favors back is critical.
The Pelicans starting five was best in the NBA with a net rating of +26.3 among groups who played 180 minutes or more. Without Favors in the lineup, the Pelicans flummoxed to a 6-22 record and fielded one of the worst five defenses in the NBA. With Favors, the Pels have ranked in the top ten on both sides of the ball since December 18th, winning 22 of 36 games.
Besides, the means to replace him will be scarce. The Pelicans can let him walk and use their mid-level exception to replace him if his price tag becomes too high. But it will take a monstrous offer from one of the few teams with space to pry him away.
Atlanta won’t consider him given Clint Capela’s arrival. New York could be a contender if they seek to move Mitchell Robinson to the bench once again. Cleveland should have Andre Drummond. Charlotte and Memphis may be set with Cody Zeller and Jonas Valanciunas. Detroit may be the most dangerous contender for his services given Drummond’s departure.
But would Favors be interested in joining a rebuild?
Bringing Favors back around $10-15 million annually over the next two to three seasons makes too much sense for both parties.
Other targets at mid-level: Marc Gasol, Bismack Biyombo, Nerlens Noel, Paul Millsap, Tristan Thompson, Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Aron Baynes, Willie Cauley-Stein
The rise of Lonzo Ball through five key Pelicans games: After some lows, he now stands before stardom’s door.— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) May 20, 2020
Since announcing “I’m just getting my legs back,” Zo’s gone on a 32-game rampage:
41.3 3PT% https://t.co/t7TEwuoETE pic.twitter.com/yUjH8s6iBi
We’ve discussed at length on The Bird Calls Podcast why Lonzo Ball will not sign with the Pelicans long term this summer despite becoming extension eligible. While Ball impressed over the past 30 games and may realize his potential as a potential top-10 point guard, he hasn’t yet proven enough to earn the same max Ingram will earn.
But given his potential and his impressive play, he shouldn’t give the Pelicans a discount either. If the Pelicans are able to lock him up long term this summer, it would be a major win for the franchise.
Expect Ball to play out the remaining year of his rookie scale deal and re-enter the bargaining table with the Pelicans next offseason.
Josh Hart since adding Zion (13 games):— The Bird Calls (@TheBirdCallsNO) February 24, 2020
-8.2 rebounds TRB (second on team, FIRST in DRB)
-58.9 eFG, 61.1 TS and 39.7 from three
-First in NBA in TRB% among guards
-21st among guards in real plus-minus (season) pic.twitter.com/UlUvg5zcFx
Josh Hart has proven himself a valuable piece of the Pelicans rotation. One of the league’s best rebounders at his position, Hart is also a tenacious defender having finished third in defensive real plus-minus in 2018-19. He’s shown himself capable of attacking closeouts and hitting three-point shots but hasn’t flashed enough offensive consistency to earn a big payday.
Expect the Pelicans to sit with Hart and his representatives this summer. If they can hammer out something near to four years, $48 million, the Pelicans could score a long term bargain with Hart. My expectation is that like Ball, Hart will seek to earn a richer reward in 2020-21.
Great give and go here from E'Twaun Moore and Jrue Holiday. pic.twitter.com/nR0g3WdQrZ— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) November 22, 2019
The Pelicans value E’Twaun Moore’s shot-making, versatility and veteran experience inside their locker room. When needing an injection off the bench, Moore is ready to deliver despite receiving inconsistent minutes for sometimes weeks at a time.
However, the Pelicans do not have endless resources even with signing their own free agents. Ingram (once re-signed), Holiday, Zion, Ball, Hart, NAW, Melli and Hayes brings the total in the range of $90-$100 million. In addition, the Pelicans are poised to add a late lottery selection in addition to six more roster spots needing to be filled.
If the Pelicans re-sign Favors, they likely won’t have more than a few million to throw Moore’s way. If they don’t, they’ll probably use that space to add a big who should demand most of the mid-level exception.
With most every team in the NBA able to utilize their room or mid-level exception, the possibility that Moore earns a richer payday elsewhere is certainly possible. The choice could be his. Re-sign in New Orleans at a bargain or take his talents elsewhere. Given the uncertainty surrounding the salary cap, signing a one-year deal and hitting free agency in 2021 could be the play.
Frank Jackson, Kenrich Williams, Jahlil Okafor
Frank Jackson and Kenrich Williams will enter restricted free agency this summer, giving the Pelicans the ability to match any offer extended by another team. Jahlil Okafor will be unrestricted so he’ll have the freedom to sign anywhere he wants.
It seems unlikely that an overwhelming offer will be extended to any of the three. Each gave inconsistent performances in 2020-21 while showing some flashes of becoming useful rotation players going forward given further development.
Kenrich Williams may have earned a look from other teams given his size and ability as a rebounder and defender, but lingering back issues that sidelined him for the second half of the season could scare suitors away.
We know Griffin is high on Jackson, given his explosiveness, attitude and ability to defend opponent’s explosive backcourt scorers. (Remember when he did a great job on Derrick Rose?)
Does “he an incredible teammate, tireless worker and on-ball defender” help with the analysis?— David Griffin (@dg_riff) October 14, 2019
I expect the Pelicans to extend short-term, low cost offers to both Jackson and Williams. Okafor could be given the opportunity to compete in training camp once more. Whether any of these three are on the opening day roster is not a sure thing. While the Pelicans should want to explore further development, they also have four picks in 2020 that could take precedence.
Also, let’s not forget about last year’s 35th overall pick to consider...
Will the Pelicans bring their 35th selection from the 2020 draft back from the NBL and add him to the active roster once the 2020-21 season kicks off? If so, they’ll need to utilize a portion of their mid-level exception to do so. A three-year, $4.5 million deal or somewhere near those numbers would probably be an appropriate landing spot.
Mid-level and Bi-annual Exceptions
It’s not a given that the Pelicans spend the majority of either of these exceptions. The salary cap should return to a more palatable level in 2021-22, a time where the bi-annual exception may prove of better use.
I would anticipate the Pelicans only utilizing the mid-level if Favors walks. If not, they could target a flexible 4 or 5 to compete with Nicolo Melli for minutes behind Zion and Favors.
Four Picks in 2020 Draft
Depending on how the regular season plays out, the Pelicans should land near to the back of the lottery in the first round in addition to potentially adding three second round picks (NOP, WAS, MIL).
The Pelicans first round pick will in all probability be a part of the regular season roster and should earn near the same annual income Tyler Herro earned in 2019-20 (2019 13th overall pick).
However, there are rare examples where players like Chuma Okeke redshirt their first season. If the Pelicans target a high upside player with a season-ending injury, this could be the route. They could also select a draft-and-stash prospect like Louzada, but in all probability, we should see their 2020 first round selection sitting somewhere on the bench next season.
I’m expecting the Pelicans will not keep all of their second round selections. They could deal some to move up, trade into future drafts that will be far richer with talent then 2020 is said to be, stash them abroad, sell them or add them to the two-way contracts currently occupied by Zylan Cheatham and Josh Gray.
Thanks for reading!
Be sure to check out our podcast below and add your thoughts to the comments section below that.
Let’s geaux, Pels!