The day before the draft, the Rockets and Pelicans agreed to a trade that would send Omer Asik and cash to New Orleans for a protected first-round pick. The trade couldn’t be finalized until after the July moratorium, like so many predraft deals. But what made this deal puzzling was that it couldn’t, in the form in which it had been reported, have become official after the moratorium, either. It wasn’t until after two other trades happened, an extra team became involved, and five other players were wrapped into the swap that Asik would finally become a member of the Pelicans.
The original deal would have required the Pelicans, who are without a trade exception, to absorb Asik into cap room they couldn’t clear. At the time of the original Asik agreement, the Pelicans stood at $54,088,513 in guaranteed salary for 2014/15. That meant that even if the team renounced all of its cap holds and waived all of its non-guaranteed contracts, it would have salaries totaling $8,976,487 less than the $63.065MM cap. That would seemingly be enough to take on Asik’s $8,374,646 cap hit, but the $54,088,513 in guaranteed salaries for the Pelicans were only committed to seven players. That meant the league would place five roster charges, each of them equal to the $507,336 rookie minimum salary, onto the team’s cap figure, so in essence, the team would have 12 slots accounted for. That meant the greatest amount of room the Pelicans could open beneath the cap would be $6,439,807, which wouldn’t be enough for Asik. That number was further reduced to $6,339,807 when the team kept Jeff Withey past July 5th, the date upon which his contract became partially guaranteed for $100K.
That left the team reportedly looking for ways to unload either Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers or Alexis Ajinca to create more room. Moving just one of Rivers or Ajinca wouldn’t have been quite enough to get the job done, but just about every Pelicans player short of Anthony Davis has found himself in trade rumors over the past few months, even as GM Dell Demps has expressed an eagerness to keep the core of his team together. There were plenty of directions in which Demps could go, but all of them involved the cooperation of at least one other team, which is never a given.
Still, there was a path for Demps to pursue that involved taking on more salary, rather than ridding his team of it. The Pelicans swung a deal with the Cavs last week to acquire Alonzo Gee‘s non-guaranteed contract and two days later, they made another trade with the Hornets to obtain the non-guaranteed contract of Scotty Hopson. Both were trades in which the other teams gave up no salary in return, maneuvers that required the Pelicans to dip under the cap. New Orleans had renounced its rights to Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith and James Southerland the same day that it traded for Gee, erasing the cap holds for that trio of free agents, and allowing the team to go beneath the cap. The Pelicans renounced their rights to Brian Roberts the same day that the Hornets agreed to a deal with him, which was also the same day they traded with Charlotte to obtain Hopson.
The role the Hornets played can’t be understated. Charlotte had an agreement with the Cavs to acquire Gee that Cleveland had to break so it could send Gee to New Orleans. Cleveland instead sent Hopson to the Hornets, who later conveyed Hopson to the Pelicans. Charlotte ended up with two chunks of cash for its trouble. Whether the Hornets were privy to the plans the Pelicans had all along may never be known, but it’s worth wondering whether the Pelicans agreed to stop pursuing a deal with Roberts, letting him go to the Hornets, in exchange for Charlotte’s cooperation. That’s just my speculation, of course.
In any case, the Pelicans had acquired Gee and Hopson, and they could package them with Melvin Ely, whom New Orleans signed to a non-guaranteed deal late last season just for this very sort of purpose. They’d have enough salary to fit the salary-matching requirements necessary to acquire Asik in a trade that would put New Orleans back over the cap. The Pelicans and Rockets could move forward with a trade that saw Asik going to the Pelicans and Hopson, Gee and Ely on their way to Houston, which would probably waive all three and pocket the savings.
Houston nonetheless added another layer onto the trade. The Rockets had designs on adding a third superstar to their team, which provided the motivation for trading Asik as well as Jeremy Lin in salary-clearing moves. The Rockets had already agreed to deal both Asik, to the Pelicans, and Lin, to the Lakers, when Chris Bosh, the team’s last best hope for a major free agent signing, committed to the Heat. The Rockets turned to Trevor Ariza as a fallback. Yet for Houston to pay Ariza the $8MM+ salary they’d agreed upon, the Rockets would have to dip under the cap and renounce the valuable $8,374,646 trade exception they could create from the Lin trade, not to mention the $5.305MM mid-level and $2.077MM biannual exceptions. Unless, that is, they could work out a sign-and-trade with the Wizards.
The Wizards stood to gain from a sign-and-trade, since they could create a $8,579,089 trade exception equal to the first-year salary in Ariza’s new contract. They also had leverage to ask for more than the standard protected second-round pick or draft-and-stash player in return, given Houston’s motivation to stay above the cap. It’s not clear whether the Wizards insisted that they receive a non-guaranteed salary in return, but the Rockets possessed no non-guaranteed contract quite as large as Ely’s, which is worth $1,316,809. The larger the non-guaranteed salary, the more valuable a cap asset it becomes. The Wizards wouldn’t have been able to accept the even larger non-guaranteed contracts of Hopson or Gee in the three-team trade that Washington, Houston and New Orleans wound up putting together, since neither is technically a minimum-salary contract, like Ely’s is. Minimum salary contracts aren’t counted as incoming salary in trades for salary-matching purposes, so that made the Wizards’ acquisition of Ely in return for Ariza possible.
So, the Hornets, Pelicans and Wizards worked out a mutually beneficial three-teamer. The Wizards wound up with Ely and the ability to create a lucrative trade exception. The Rockets secured Ariza, Gee, Hopson and a protected 2015 first-round choice from New Orleans, along with the ability to keep their Lin trade exception as well as their mid-level and biannual exceptions. The Pelicans finally reeled in Asik, along with $1.5MM in cash. Omri Casspi, included in the deal to make the salary-matching work, has a chance to hit free agency with New Orleans likely to waive him, and it’s conceivable he winds up with more than the non-guaranteed minimum salary he’d been ticketed for.
The volume of trade rumors around the NBA rarely matches the number of swaps that actually take place, in no small part because of the difficulty involved with getting teams with competing agendas to come to agreements. Demps and his staff convinced the Cavs, Hornets, Rockets and Wizards, all in the span of three weeks, to acquiesce, all while keeping sight of a plan that was most beneficial to his team. The core of the Pelicans remains intact, with Asik added on top of it. We’ll find out if such a mix amounts to playoff contention in the ever-challenging Western Conference next year, but New Orleans has already accomplished one of its many goals toward that end.
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