We’re roughly 48 hours from the start of NBA free agency and the path for the New Orleans Pelicans appears relatively straightforward. In order for the front office to make any changes to next season’s roster, a trade provides the best and most realistic pathway.
The Pelicans already have 14 guaranteed contracts for the upcoming 2022-23 season, as Tony Snell was the only player on an expiring deal from the previous campaign. Dyson Daniels, the first-round pick from last week’s draft, is all but officially inked to be the 15th.
While Karlo Matkovic, the 52nd selection of the draft, is going to be stashed in Europe for next season, whereby the Pelicans don’t have to sign him to a contract but will own his future rights (think Didi Louzada), E.J. Liddell, the fortunate 41st pick, requires an NBA contract.
Undrafted Dereon Seabron is penciled in for one of the two-way contracts for next season.
Outside of hardship exceptions, teams may carry a maximum of 15 players under contract plus two two-way contracts during a regular season.
Liddell could potentially be signed to a two-way contract. The Pelicans have a vacant one remaining, but we shouldn’t expect that outcome. Those deals are designed for fringe prospects. Liddell was projected to be selected in the first round before mysteriously falling well into the second.
Liddell’s agent, I’m sure, let David Griffin know his signing expectations at the time the Pelicans were ready to commit his client — you have to believe it involves a full contract, probably similar in scope to Herb Jones’ rookie deal.
Therefore, the Pelicans are going to have to create a vacancy on their 15-man roster this summer.
The presumed starting lineup of CJ McCollum, Jones, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas might as well be etched in cement, along with Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III and Larry Nance Jr. coming off the bench. There’s room for improvement, in my opinion, but the time to act isn’t now.
Keeping Naji Marshall and Willy Hernangomez in New Orleans makes too much sense. They’re both capable players on cheap contracts (the Pelicans sit awfully close to the luxury tax line so this detail is important!), are invaluable to the growing culture and are always ready to play significant minutes in case of injury.
Jaxson Hayes, Devonte’ Graham, Garrett Temple and Kira Lewis, on the other hand, are expendable for various reasons.
The most obvious candidate to be jettisoned is Temple. Although he was a regular member of the rotation to begin last season, his role changed a few weeks before the All-Star break. Temple hit a severe cold-shooting stretch after the new year and his defensive prowess was no longer as important to Willie Green following the emergence of several young players.
If Temple cannot be included in a trade package, however, the Pelicans could waive him. Although two years remain on his current contract, only this next season’s money is guaranteed. Eating $5.1 million is a potential avenue if there’s no other good way to create roster space, however, my instincts and sitting $3.7 million away from the luxury tax line say that David Griffin will find a trade to his liking.
Graham’s name has circulated the most in the rumor mill over the past month and Daniels seemingly makes Lewis more dispensable, but it’s easiest to envision Hayes getting moved in a few days’ time, and preferably with Temple.
Devonte’s trade value has never been lower; Kira’s isn’t great either. This front office needs to be more selective with attaching legitimate assets to get off unwanted contracts. However, Jaxson still offers plenty of promise.
Following a slow start to the season, Hayes found his stride after Christmas, averaging 11.0 points and 5.1 rebounds on excellent shooting percentages from December 26th onwards. It’s important to note also that he’s only 22 years of age.
It’s difficult to envision as consistent of a role for the 7-footer on this roster though, and he’s entering the final year of his deal. Most lottery picks go on to sign rookie extensions, but it doesn’t behoove the Pelicans to do so.
Once Williamson’s second contract kicks in, the Pelicans will owe approximately $120 million to three players the season after next. The salary cap for 2023-24 isn’t expected to be much higher than that. So optimizing the books for the rest of the roster is going to be a thing moving forward — and why it’s important to hang onto as many future assets as possible to retain some flexibility.
In addition, Hayes’ best position on the court is at power forward. That’s the spot which Zion Williamson occupies, with no shortage of options at backup ranging from Murphy to Marshall to Liddell, if the rookie acquits himself well.
With this much uncertainty surrounding Hayes’ future in New Orleans, it would be best to find him a new home now instead of waiting for the trade deadline. He and his agent are going to demand good minutes if Hayes doesn’t get extended this summer. Green’s primary responsibility is getting the Pelicans to the playoffs and making some noise. Due to the roster depth, it’s difficult to see both scenarios playing out together.
At +4000 (40-1), DraftKings lists New Orleans with the 13th best odds of winning the title next season. Oddsmakers have it right. The Pelicans squeezed into the 2022 playoffs despite Zion not seeing a single minute of action.
The future is as bright as its been in a long time because sustainable success feels well within reach. The Pelicans roster is filled with youthful quality and quantity. However, before we get to the actual games, some housekeeping is required. Free agency offers the Pelicans a chance to add E.J. Liddell to a long-term rookie contract, hopefully a three-year deal on the MLE, while removing a player or two that no longer fit(s) the equation.