The trade deadline has come and gone, and David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, and the New Orleans Pelicans front office largely stood pat. The only move recorded was sending JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli to Dallas for James Johnson, Wesley Iwundu, and the Mavericks’ 2021 2nd round pick. Thus begins, in earnest, the Lonzo Ball restricted free agency watch. Additionally, Josh Hart will be a restricted free agent while newly acquired James Johnson joins Willy Hernangomez as pending unrestricted free agents.
Where should New Orleans go from here? First, let’s dispel some of the unfounded theories. Gayle Benson has shown a willingness to spend on this franchise. For evidence, look no further than the team’s salary this season: over $130 million was spent which left New Orleans just a hair under the luxury tax line ($132.6M). As for the purported elephant in the room, the Pelicans will have sufficient room to bring back Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart this summer without dipping into the luxury tax. To illustrate, let’s make some assumptions.
The Pelicans are positioned to select around the 14th pick this year in the draft. If they land higher in the draft, the cost goes up; choosing lower and the rookie deal becomes cheaper.
Second, New Orleans could very feasibly re-sign Lonzo Ball to a 4-year, $85.1M (or 5 year, $110.2M starting at the same number) contract. As owners of his Bird rights, that starts at $19M with 8% raises in New Orleans. To match that total amount, another team (such as the New York Knicks or Chicago Bulls) signing him to an offer sheet has to start at $19.8M per season since they can only offer 5% raises. Additionally, no one other than New Orleans can dangle a fifth year on his next contract.
Third, the Pelicans could turn around and then sign Josh Hart to a 4-year, $44.8M deal. This is a touch over the 4-year, $41.8M available for the full mid-level exception (MLE) other teams can offer unless they’re utilizing cap space for Hart.
Finally, let’s say New Orleans is ready to bring Didi Louzada over from Australia for next season. Teams can sign second-round picks to whatever amount they choose through cap room or exceptions, but the Pelicans are not operating under the cap in my scenario. They could sign Louzada via the minimum or bi-annual exception; however, the length of any contract would be limited to two years. Utilizing a portion of their own MLE to sign him, though, allows for a contract of 3+ years. The Grizzlies used a part of their MLE to sign Xavier Tillman to a 4-year, $6M contract as the 35th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft — the spot where Louzada was picked in 2019. I have used the values from Tillman’s contract exactly.
Pelicans Salary Cap Estimate for 2021-22— David Fisher (@Fish_TBW) March 28, 2021
Lonzo @ 4/$85M (or 5/$110M)
Hart @ 4/$44M (just over the MLE)
Didi @ same contract as Xavier Tillman (2020 35th pick)
Full MLE used (a portion is used to sign Didi) pic.twitter.com/bQzyoP8hFa
Here, the Pelicans have 13 players until contract with the chance to offer an additional deal of up to 4 years, $36.2M with the remainder of the MLE (or this sum could be split up among two players). Even after spending that full amount, New Orleans would sit close to $3M below the luxury tax line — practically swimming in flexibility compared to where they were last season.
Please note all of these moves can be made with Eric Bledsoe is still on the books.
Bledsoe’s contract is, essentially, an expiring contract this summer. Only a small portion of his 2022-23 salary is guaranteed. This provides the Pelicans an opportunity. Bledsoe is the most obvious salary matching piece for a big trade for another contributor. Yes, draft capital would be attached (New Orleans owns 11 first round and 13 second round picks over the next 7 seasons), but not to “get off” Bledsoe’s salary, draft capital is always necessary to make these kinds of trades work.
Who might New Orleans target in the trade market? That’s more difficult to say. The results of the remainder of the season, playoffs, and who moves up or down in the lottery will dictate which players might become available. My preference would be Marcus Smart from the Boston Celtics. He will also be a pending expiring contract this summer. The Pelicans could work out an extend-and-trade (or a wink-wink deal to re-sign) with Smart’s agent if a deal could be agreed upon with Danny Ainge (yes, a long shot given Ainge’s history).
Can the Pelicans keep this current core together after this summer? Yes. New Orleans has more than enough flexibility to retain Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart while adding more talent to the roster with the MLE. Has ownership demonstrated they are capable of spending to make it happen? Yes.
With some of the myths floating out in NBA circles dispelled, the most important part is for this Pelicans team to show over the next month and a half taking that path is the best course of action.