NBA AM: Pivotal Offseason For Demps, Pelicans

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For Pelicans, Playoffs Would Show Progress

One of the toughest things for an NBA front office executive to recover from is the departure of an elite talent. This is exactly the position New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps was placed in before the 2011-12 season when the team dealt All-Star guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Demps and company were put in a rough spot.

All indications were pointing to Paul taking his talents elsewhere as soon as the opportunity presented itself in free agency. In exchange for Paul, the Pelicans managed to secure Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and a 2012 first-round draft pick (which became Austin Rivers at No. 10 overall).

Fast forward four seasons and only Gordon remains in the Pelicans organization. But as a saving grace, New Orleans won the 2012 draft lottery, after a 21-45 finish without Paul, and was able to draft a legitimate franchise player in Anthony Davis.

As we round out the 2014-15 campaign, the Pelicans (42-35) are currently in the Western Conference’s eighth seed – a half game ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder (42-36).

While Demps has done a marvelous job getting the Pelicans back into land of relevancy, the upcoming summer will be huge in plotting the Pelicans’ future course as Davis continues to develop into superstardom.

The worst place in the league for a franchise to occupy is the middle of the pack. The Pelicans aren’t title contenders at the moment and the team is far from a high lottery bunch, so the middle of the standings is truthfully their current position.

From a salary standpoint, the team has just $40 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for next season. On the surface, this shows some flexibility. However, Gordon has a player option worth $15 million that could inflate that figure and eat up cap space should the guard opt-in as expected. The team also has (restricted) free agent choices to make with the recently acquired Norris Cole and reserve big man Jeff Withey.

Perhaps the biggest unrestricted free agent decision to make for the team will be determining starting center Omer Asik’s future. The fifth-year veteran has a career per 36 minute average of 13.4 rebounds per contest and will be a coveted target for a few teams around the league this summer. New Orleans parted ways with this year’s first-round pick to land Asik last summer so losing him for nothing would be disappointing.

Another decision Demps must make is whether the supporting cast, at the top of the lineup, is the right mix around Davis moving forward.

Gordon ($15 million), Tyreke Evans ($11.2 million), Jrue Holiday ($9.9 million) and Ryan Anderson ($8.5 million) each are enjoying huge salaries, but if the Pelicans can’t make noise in the playoffs, the front office will have to re-evaluate the team’s true ceiling with the core group currently in the fold.

There have also been rumors that Demps and head coach Monty Williams may be on the hot seat, which could make this offseason even more pivotal for the organization.

The Pelicans are at a crossroads and can go either direction at the fork in the road.

There is case to be made that New Orleans should try to flip assets and start a mini-transition process to strengthen the infrastructure around Davis, although that may be easier said than done given New Orleans’ lack of trade chips and picks.

The best bet for the Pelicans may be to stay the course with the current group, as injuries have clearly hindered some of the unit’s cohesion. With an entire season at full strength and internal development from their core pieces, perhaps the Pelicans will be able to climb out of the middle of the pack.

Upcoming Free Agents to Watch

Zach Lowe of Grantland recently penned a piece looking at some of the potential free agent bargains around the league. While the elite talent will dominate the headlines this summer, a general manager earns their chops by finding those hidden gems and subsequently working them into their respective team’s framework.

Lowe did a great job in outlining guys who could thrive in the right situation, so we decided to take a look at a few more guys headed to free agency, who could step into a franchise and contribute immediately.

Brandon Bass, Boston Celtics

Despite rebuilding around youth, the Boston Celtics are surprisingly in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, currently holding the eighth and final spot.

Bass has started roughly half of his 77 appearances this season and his play since the All-Star break has been a spark. In 26 appearances, post All-Star break, Bass is averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 rebounds on 55 percent shooting.

With the Celtics loading up on young players and possessing a plethora of draft picks, Bass may be an odd man out come free agency. But the veteran could be a strong addition for a contender looking to add an experienced presence in their frontcourt rotation.

Iman Shumpert, Cleveland Cavaliers

Shumpert remains one of the better young perimeter defenders in the league.

Offensively, Shumpert will likely never develop into a prolific shooter or become a consistent double-digit scoring threat, but in the right system he could definitely flirt with All-Defensive team honors during his prime years.

This summer, he will be a restricted free agent. If a team is willing to make a large enough offer, it could be possible to pry him away from the Cavaliers.

Rodney Stuckey, Indiana Pacers

Stuckey never quite lived up to expectations in Detroit even though he was, for the most part, very productive. Last summer, Stuckey signed a one-year deal for the minimum to join a Pacers unit reeling due to the loss of All-Star forward Paul George.

The Pacers are still in the playoff picture and Stuckey has quietly put together arguably his most efficient season since entering the league.

Stuckey will be seeking a multi-year deal this summer and could potentially thrive in a sixth man role for a team with playoff aspirations.

Kosta Koufos, Memphis Grizzlies

Koufos is one of those guys who puts on his hard hat every night and doesn’t generate much press. Most of that is because Koufos is behind All-Star center Marc Gasol on the depth chart. The remainder of the reasoning is because Koufos’ game is workmanlike in nature.

However, there’s a reason why multiple teams placed calls into Memphis’ front office before the trade deadline inquiring about the availability of Koufos. Seven-footers who rebound at a high rate, protect the rim and play within themselves are few and far between.

There have been reports that Koufos would like to step out of Gasol’s shadow and become a starter, so he could be a free agent to watch this summer.

Mo Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Williams, a former All-Star, is a bit past his prime and for the past three seasons has been viewed as more of a role player or spot starter.

However, since arriving to Charlotte in a midseason trade, Williams is making a last-ditch effort to prove he still is worthy of being considered a starting-caliber floor general.

With averages of 18.2 points and 6.3 assists since the All-Star break, Williams has been one of the main reasons Charlotte remained relevant in the playoff picture as starting guard Kemba Walker was out of the lineup injured.