The 2015-16 NBA season was particularly disappointing for these New Orleans Pelicans (30-52) since, for the first time in years, this was a team that entered the season with heightened expectations. Not just from eager fans of the team, but also from pundits seemingly and understandably in a rush to promote franchise player Anthony Davis as the league’s next great player.
Only two players, Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee, played in 70 or more games this season. Davis, as talented as he truly is, has never missed less than 14 games over his first four seasons in the league (including 21 missed this year), so the idea of adding to his workload and responsibilities was a bit optimistic in itself, but that’s precisely what the Pelicans attempted to do. Davis did appear to finally settle into his adjusted role as the season wore on, but no true progress could be made as a team with so many of the rotation pieces routinely going in and out of the lineup.
Beyond having a roster that doesn’t necessarily fit the direction and preferred style of play of Alvin Gentry and the coaching staff, all that roster fluctuation also makes it difficult to get a true assessment of the job Gentry did in his first year as head coach in New Orleans. Even though they may be limited in what they can do, this is an absolutely pivotal summer for the Pelicans in terms of at least getting things headed in the right direction. They may have Davis locked in for another five years, but you certainly don’t want him reaching his prime at the age of 25 or 26 (over the next couple years) having not played in the postseason for several consecutive seasons – not in a league where instant gratification and mounting expectations to not only succeed but to also do it immediately are becoming the norm. Here are some of the ways to potentially improve the roster as early as this summer:
Draft Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray or Kris Dunn with their lottery pick
If they were to happen to end up with the No. 6 pick, as they are currently slated by their amount of lottery balls, that could permit them to still bring in a talent like Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray or even Providence’s Kris Dunn to help bolster their backcourt. Even if you determine Jrue Holiday will be a part of the future beyond the final year of his deal, he came off the bench for a majority of his 65 games played in 2015-16 and actually looked comfortable in that role. Bringing in a guy like Murray or Dunn could not only give you a great one-two punch at the position, but also help with any wear-and-tear concerns you may have with the injury-prone Holiday. He may even increase his overall efficiency with a decreased workload.
Murray is a playmaker who can also shoot, but he’s less developed than Dunn and Hield since he’s several years younger. Dunn is a very good facilitator and defender, but struggles shooting the ball. Hield is a legitimate scoring threat who can absolutely shoot the lights out from deep. Hield shot a whopping 45.7 percent from beyond the arc on 8.7 attempts per game as a senior at Oklahoma, and had several impressive performances on the grand stage of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Replacing Eric Gordon (UFA) with a player like Hield would be great, bringing in a younger and presumably more reliable player as well as one who will be locked into a rookie deal for the next several seasons.
Allow Anthony Davis’ body to fully heal prior to bringing him back
This may seem like one of those suggestions where a resounding “DUH” is warranted, but for some reason it appears necessary in this case. When reports that Davis’ torn labrum would require season-ending surgery and would likely involve a lengthy recovery period (four-to-six months) surfaced, it was also accompanied by rumors of the 23-year-old actually playing through the pain and discomfort for the better part of three seasons, which should have raised more than a few eyebrows at the time. While injuries and playing through pain will always be a part of professional sports, it did come as somewhat of a surprise that Davis would be permitted and encouraged to play through something that would eventually require surgery for that extended of a period.
Particularly in the case of Davis, since the Pelicans have already invested an estimated $145 million into him over the next five seasons. At a certain point, the risks vs. rewards were undoubtedly calculated, but you’d think this organization would want to protect such a hefty investment a bit more carefully than that. Make no mistake, part of being considered a “franchise guy” and one of the faces of the league is that certain sacrifices are simply an expectation, but you also want to protect those players in some ways in an effort to maximize their careers.
Take a look at the forest beyond the trees when it comes to this situation if you’re the Pelicans. There’s no need to rush Davis back to the floor with the long-term goals in mind.
Bring in more talent to support Anthony Davis via free agency
Another way to “protect” Davis would be in general manager Dell Demps bringing in more talent to surround the former Olympic and NCAA Tournament champion. Here’s the tricky part about this for Demps: beyond needing to fill several holes and team needs – including additional shooting, more roster versatility and more healthy bodies – the Pelicans really don’t have that much cap space to work with. You’d imagine they are likely to simply let free agent guards Eric Gordon and Norris Cole to walk, but reserve power forward Ryan Anderson is an unknown at this stage. Given the fact that they elected to hold onto him at this year’s trade deadline, it would seem they are interested in re-signing the three-point shooting big man. While Anderson has played relatively well for the Pelicans, the basic question is whether they’d want to spend a good chunk of their space on a player who hasn’t helped yield the type of team success they are seeking? Anderson is also going to have huge offers thrown his way, so does it make sense for New Orleans to use most of their money to retain the stretch-four?
With an expected total that ranges from about $15 million to right around $22.9 million (depending on player options, their own free agents and non-guaranteed contracts), the Pelicans would find themselves toward the bottom-third of the league in terms of actual space to work with this summer. For perspective, teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers will have as much as $56.6 million and $52 million to work with, respectively.
The Pelicans are spending a ton of money on either oft-injured or simply ineffective players at multiple positions, but could find some cap relief if they are able to move the expiring contracts of Tyreke Evans ($10.2 million) or the aforementioned Holiday ($11.5 million). Their injury histories could make it difficult to find a suitor that isn’t asking them to take needless salary back in return, but each can still be very effective when healthy and it only takes a one rival GM to determine that one of them could contribute at a high level after a change of scenery.
In a league that continues to shift toward player movement and big men who can stretch and space the floor – and on a team specifically looking to play an up-tempo style of basketball moving forward, according to Coach Gentry – good luck finding someone to take the remaining four years and approximately $44 million left on center Omer Asik’s contract. It was a bit of a head-scratching deal for some when he received it and the move definitely looks questionable now that Gentry has acknowledged he wants to push the tempo next season.
This may ultimately be a case of simply having to spend wisely this summer in order to retool the roster for one more season until additional cap flexibility comes the following July. Would Demps make a run at a player like Nicolas Batum (UFA) this summer if it meant spending the bulk of his cap space on one player? At 27, and coming off one of his most productive seasons of his career, Batum is precisely the type of multi-skilled player at the small forward position who plays both ends of the court and would fit in well next to Davis. Batum also brings plenty of veteran experience (playoff and international) that this roster could certainly use.
If the Pelicans are unable to bring in a guy like Batum – who would admittedly be the best-case scenario for New Orleans – given the limited resources, they’d have to look at free agents like Kent Bazemore (UFA), Evan Fournier (RFA) or Evan Turner (UFA) for perimeter support unless they’re somehow able to become active on the trade market with their expiring deals. Chandler Parsons (Player Option) is a name that has also been mentioned in relation to the Pelicans, but would Demps really want to play with fire once again when it comes to players with well-documented injury concerns?
There’s obviously cause for concern given their recent luck when it comes to injuries, plus Parsons probably makes more sense either re-upping with the Dallas Mavericks for another run or actually returning to the Houston Rockets where he enjoyed his most success as a player. Fournier might be a bit of a pipe dream given the fact that Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan has gone on record stating he would be one of the team’s “top priorities” this summer, but of course that doesn’t always guarantee a return.
If the team does decide to part ways with Anderson or if he simply accepts a deal somewhere else (there have been rumors of interest from Detroit), one player who could make some sense on the open market is Brandon Bass Bass, who is from Baton Rouge and started his NBA career with New Orleans, is versatile enough to play power forward as a reserve or even alongside Davis in an up-tempo lineup.
In a perfect world, the front office would consider the future when making deals this offseason in order to maintain some flexibility for upcoming summers when more cap room is available, but with both Davis’ overall happiness and their own job security in mind, it also wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Demps at least attempt to swing for the fences whenever the opportunity presents itself. Certain exceptions tend to evaporate quickly once an organization reaches a particular level of expectations. With Davis heading into that massive deal next season and fans wanting to experience the success that comes with having a potential superstar on the roster, Demps and Coach Gentry are on the clock.
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