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NBA AM: The Pelicans’ Quest to Build a Contender

The New Orleans Pelicans have the league’s next superstar. Can they put the pieces around him to contend?

Nate Duncan

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The Pelicans’ Quest to Build a Contender

With the ascension of Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans are suddenly at the forefront of the NBA discussion. By box score statistics, Davis has been playing about as well as any player possibly can over the 12 games to start the season. He has a 35.9 PER, 62 true shooting percentage, and is blocking 7.4 percent of opponents’ two-pointers. The Pels outscore opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor, and get murdered to the tune of -14.0 points/100 when he sits, per NBA.com. All of those numbers are almost certain to regress, if only because no player in NBA history has ever eclipsed a 32 PER over a full season, and the 10 seasons over 31 all belong to LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Regardless, the Pelicans may already have the best player in the NBA on their hands, one who might be the favorite for MVP without accounting for team performance.

But it is that team performance that must worry Pelicans fans. Despite Davis’ otherworldly and likely unsustainable heroics, the Pels are only 7-6, good for 10th place in the brutal Western Conference. While they have done well with Omer Asik out of the lineup during their recent road trip, Eric Gordon is now out indefinitely with a torn labrum. Missing even one starter can be fatal for the Pels, as only Davis, Asik, Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson have any kind of track record as productive NBA players on this roster. At fourth in offense and 15th in defense through 12 games per Nylon Calculus, New Orleans has the overall statistical resume of a lower-rung playoff team. Yet even if the Pels can sneak into the playoffs as a lower seed, I don’t think anyone sees this core as a future championship contender. Holiday, Evans and Gordon add up to basically an average perimeter starting group despite raking in eight figures a year each in annual value over their contracts. They are all old enough that we should not expect massive improvements at this point. Evans is (rightly) starting at the three, but that is because there is not an NBA-quality small forward on the roster. He is not an adequate long-term solution at the position if the Pelicans are to improve defensively.

The Pels could potentially look to upgrade at coach from Monty Williams, although there is no guarantee that is a panacea. His rotations have been questioned at times,* and he needs to find a way to make a team with Asik and Davis outstanding defensively. But Williams is well-liked by his players and by all accounts an extremely high-character coach, so moving on from him may not be something the team is willing to contemplate unless they really crater.

*For example, with only three decent perimeter players on the roster, one should be on the floor at all times. And if the three good big guys are healthy, there’s little reason to play anyone else up front.

Regardless of the coach, it is hard to imagine that this team has the talent on the perimeter to truly be a championship contender. So this team needs a personnel upgrade. How can they do it? Here is a projection of the Pels’ current salary situation. Note that Gordon is almost certain to exercise his 2015-16 player option for $15.5 million.

Pels Current

The main offseason priority will be re-signing Omer Asik. The Turkish center is one of the league’s best rim-protectors, and re-signing him will be imperative if the Pels hope to compete in the near-term. They can exceed the cap to re-sign him using Bird rights,* but if they do so it will likely be the end of any major additions. Unfortunately, if he leaves they will have only about $10 million in cap room. A contract starting at $10 million likely will not be enough in this market to sign a replacement player of Asik’s quality, especially if the Pels want him to commit past 2016 when the cap is set to explode to as much as $90 million. He would likely require a four- or five-year commitment starting at around $12 million per season with the maximum 7.5 percent annual raises.

Moreover, re-signing Asik will keep the Pelicans over the cap, allowing use of the $5.5 million mid-level exception (MLE) and $2.1 million bi-annual exception (BAE). If they have to replace Asik, they will have only the $2.8 million Room Exception and minimum contracts with which to work.

*No doubt the Pels would love to reach an extension agreement with Asik now, but that is impossible because only contracts of four or more years can be extended—and those only after the third anniversary of the signing of the contract. Asik is finishing a three-year, $25 million deal signed as an offer sheet with the Rockets in the summer of 2012, so he will have to become a free agent.

Re-signing Asik will also be an organizational priority because they surrendered a protected first-round pick to the Rockets to acquire him. That pick is top-three and top 20-30 protected, so it will almost certainly be conveyed this year unless the Pels really turn it on to finish with over 50 wins. That means 2015 will likely mark the third consecutive year New Orleans has not used its first-round pick.* The lack of picks in recent years is a big reason the Pels have such little depth. More importantly, it is the reason they have little hope of attaining the necessary improvement through internal development. Aside from Davis, they really have no young players who could realistically become a key part of a Pelicans contender.**

* To refresh, they traded their 2013 pick (number six overall—Nerlens Noel) and their 2014 pick (number 10 overall—Elfrid Payton) to Philadelphia for Holiday.

**Some might note that Austin Rivers has been better this year, but he had about as bad a first two years as an NBA player can have. That led to the decline of his fourth-year option, so he will be a free agent at the end of the year. If by chance he plays well enough to look like part of the future, the Pels will be limited to offering him a contract for what he would have made in his fourth year, about $3.1 million. Due to his performance and the fact he will likely leave if he improves significantly, he cannot be projected as a rotation piece going forward.

Even worse, while re-signing Asik would allow the Pels to retain their exceptions, acquiring a quality starter is rather difficult with those at this point. Unfortunately, as the cap grows those exceptions do not grow with it, as those were negotiated under previous CBAs. The type of player one can attract with those exceptions is much worse than a few years ago, when the cap was stagnant and fewer teams had cap room with which to trump the exceptions. What’s more, Asik’s cap hold (essentially a placeholder for the salary he is projected to sign for) is large enough that the Pels cannot add any further talent before re-signing him.

So 2015-16 will likely see the Pelicans with the same cast, plus another wing rotation player or two acquired with their exceptions. It is hard to imagine that squad moving beyond a ceiling of lower-run playoff team next year unless the West gets significantly worse or Holiday or Evans unexpectedly ascends to All-Star status.

So the Pels would have to target the summer of 2016, when Gordon comes off the books and the cap could be up to $90 million. The problem is that Davis’ five-year designated player max extension, which would be agreed to in the summer of 2015, will kick in by then. Ordinarily a player with four years of experience is limited to the “25 percent” max.* But Davis will very likely benefit from the Derrick Rose rule, which allows a max player to receive up to 30 percent of the cap if he 1) is voted MVP, 2) is voted in as an All-Star starter twice, or 3) makes two All-NBA teams in his first four years. Teams sometimes try to obtain a discount on this 30 percent max, but with a player as good as Davis the Pels would likely be foolish to seek any such concession.

*It is known as the “25 percent max” from previous CBAs, but it is now about 23.5 percent of the cap. The “30 percent max” is actually about 28.3 percent of the cap.

Davis’ 2016-17 salary is therefore projected at a cool $25.4 million if the cap is $90 million. Throw in re-signing Ryan Anderson (who will have a $12.7 million cap hold), the players signed for the MLE and BAE in the summer of 2015, and the 2016 first-rounder, and the Pels likely will not have cap space for a difference-maker even in the halcyon summer of 2016. They would project at only around $5 million in space.

Pels Re-sign Asik

What’s worse, New Orleans would need to replace Gordon, who while overpaid is still a competent two guard when healthy. It is difficult to imagine the Pels coming out of that summer with a potential championship contender as Davis approaches his prime.

With staying the course unlikely to yield a contender, the Pels will have to get creative. One option might be doubling down on the future asset expenditures in the summer of 2015. Once the 2015 pick is conveyed to Houston, New Orleans can try trading its 2016 pick for the privilege of offloading Gordon’s contract a year early. That maneuver would leave it with around $12 million in cap space even after re-signing Asik.

Trade Gordon

They might focus on a 3-and-D wing like Danny Green, another quality backup wing and a reasonable backup point guard with the $2.8 million Room Exception. That still is not necessarily a championship contender, but with the right coaching one could construct a scenario in which that team becomes a dominant defense and still scores effectively enough to get into the mix with a few breaks. Of course, giving up a first-rounder four straight years is extremely concerning, but New Orleans’ management may decide more high-risk strategies are needed since they are already pot-committed.

Another potential strategy is even more fraught with disaster: New Orleans could wait to sign Davis until the summer of 2016 rather than giving him a maximum extension immediately, while swearing up and down to Davis and his representation that he would be taken care of with a five-year max once their free agency moves were complete. The benefit would be having his $14.1 million cap hold on the books instead of his $25.4 million salary. If they avoided using the MLE and BAE in the summer of 2015 for longer than one-year deals, the Pels could garner up to $23.7 million in cap space in the summer of 2016 by waiting to re-sign Davis until after they acquire free agents.

Davis Cap Hold

The risks would be astronomical though, because Davis would be a restricted free agent. If he were alienated, he could sign a three-year, third-year player option Chandler Parsons-style offer sheet and potentially leave New Orleans after the 2018 season once they matched. Potentially losing him three years too early to facilitate free agent signings would be quite the gambit, and one that would probably require an unrealistic amount of trust between the parties.

These scenarios do not represent the entire universe of alternatives.  And it is difficult to project any NBA scenario two years out.  But they do illustrate the type of gymnastics that will likely be required to add star talent around Davis. At one point New Orleans could have played it conservatively, sought to build around Davis in the draft, then added the missing pieces in free agency before the draft picks got expensive. Instead, they obtained those more expensive pieces in trades, used their free agent room in the process and lost the draft picks in the trades. Now, they have solid but expensive veteran talent, but no cheap depth and no apparent potential for acquiring a second star to pair with Davis in the foreseeable future. While we marvel at Davis’ incredible skills, we must also face the reality that assembling a contender around him could prove difficult indeed.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next step in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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