NBA Sunday: Bright Future in New Orleans

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No bird can fly with a broken wing, so one need look no further to determine why, down in New Orleans, the Pelicans failed to take flight.

Along with the Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls, the Pelicans gave us the latest example of why we play the games.

Without Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday to begin the season, things immediately went awry, as the Pelicans lost their first six games and were 5-15 by the end of the first week in December.

Coming off of a 45-37 win season, the basketball world expected the Pelicans to take a step forward. Instead, they seemingly regressed horribly and now face a summer of uncertainty.

The silver lining for the franchise, however, is that of all the teams that disappointed this past season—the Wizards, Bulls, Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks come to mind—it is the Pelicans who seem most poised to bounce back next year.

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By virtue of going 30-52 over the course of the regular season, the Pelicans will have the sixth pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, which is set to take place on June 23. Between now and then, expect to see some heavy movement among lottery prospects, but the one thing that we can rest assured of is this: New Orleans’ front office will have the opportunity to draft a difference maker.

In the latest consensus mock draft released by Basketball Insiders this past week, the panel had Jamal Murray, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn and Jakob Poeltl going to the Pelicans. The lack of a consensus is nothing new, as one of the things that make correctly predicting the draft difficult is the fact that it occurs prior to free agency. For example, oftentimes front offices will build their draft depth chart and go into the process with a pre-ordained course of action in mind.

In other words, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson will both be free agents this summer. For all we know, the Pelicans’ front office may have already decided that the price tag to retain Anderson may be too expensive. If that decision has been made already, drafting Bender or Poeltl would make much more sense whereas if the Pelicans decided that they were willing to break the bank for Anderson, Jaylen Brown or Murray would probably be the safer pick.

So that’s what makes correctly predicting the draft incredibly difficult. Not only do you have to correctly attribute the right value to a prospect, you also have to somewhat anticipate what a front office will do with its own free agents. That’s why, over the years, some have advocated for the draft to be done sometime after the free agency period has begun. That, however, is incredibly unlikely.

Of the teams that are selecting before the Pelicans, though—the Sixers, Lakers, Celtics, Suns and Timberwolves—the Pelicans are arguably a little further along in terms of their collective development and talent. And although Karl-Anthony Towns surpassed every expectation of him over the course of his rookie year, let’s not forget that many predicted that Anthony Davis would be a legitimate MVP candidate as early as this season. With what we saw over the course of the 2014-15 season, and how the Pelicans admirably competed against the Golden State Warriors in their first-round battle, better days seemed promised. However, a surprising firing of head coach Monty Williams and a total of 168 games lost due to injury from the combination of Davis, Anderson, Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Gordon and Asik helped end their season before it even began.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the Pelicans will have an opportunity to select a young prospect with the sixth pick to serve as the running mate to Davis and Holiday. The last time the Pelicans selected this highly in a draft was in 2013, and they flipped that pick to the Sixers for the promising Holiday. At just 25 years old, it’s safe to assume that the Pelicans will remain committed to the young point guard. Aside from Davis and Holiday, however, it’s probably safe to assume that nothing else is promised.

In recent years, the sixth pick has turned out some impressive prospects, with Damian Lillard (2012) being the absolute best-case scenario. Aside from him, though, Willie Cauley-Stein (2015), Marcus Smart (2014), Nerlens Noel (2013), Danilo Gallinari (2008) and Brandon Roy (2006) are some of the better selections we have seen over the past 10 years, with players drafted afterward also blossoming into everyday contributors and in some cases even All-Stars.

So make no mistake about it, this summer, the Pelicans will have a great opportunity to leverage their high draft pick into another difference maker.

They, of course, will have that same opportunity once the free agency period rolls around, as well.

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Since arriving in New Orleans in 2011 as a part of the Chris Paul trade, Eric Gordon has failed to appear in as many as 70 games in a single season. Over the past four seasons, he has looked like a shell of his former self and the decision to match the four-year, $58 million offer sheet tendered to him by the Phoenix Suns in 2012 is one that the franchise would probably like to do over.

With Gordon entering free agency this summer, even if the franchise does opt to re-sign him, it is difficult to imagine him earning anywhere near the $15 million he received this past season.

Ryan Anderson, now 28 years old, is one of the prototypical “stretch-four” big men in the league, and as we continue to see teams shooting three-pointers (especially with the recent success of the Cleveland Cavaliers), his value should not be understated. Anthony will likely command a salary in the neighborhood of $15 million, and even if the Pelicans do opt to give it to him, they may still find themselves with significant cap space to add a few pieces around Davis, Holiday and their sixth pick.

As it currently stands, the cap is projected to fall somewhere in the $92-$95 million range. The Pelicans have about $64 million committed as of this moment. The $64 million figure is a “best-case scenario” for the franchise, meaning that Bird rights for Gordon and Anderson would have to be rescinded to get to that cap figure. Anderson’s cap hold, however, is just $12.75 million, meaning that the Pelicans could retain his Bird rights with a cap figure of $76.75 million. The sixth pick will have a first-year salary of $2.8 million, meaning that with both Anderson and the sixth pick accounted for, the Pelicans are very likely to enter July 1 with a cap figure of less than $80 million. In other words, it is quite plausible that general manager Dell Demps will enter the summer with somewhere in the realm of $12-$15 million with which to go shopping.

Things could be a lot worse.

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Without a doubt, sneakers need to be laced up and the ball needs to be thrown into the air. The games must be played and they must be played on hardwood—not on paper.

After a disappointing 2015-16 season for the Pelicans, in all likelihood, they will fare much better once the games are played next season.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans will take flight again.