Offseason In Review: New Orleans Pelicans

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

The Pelicans are a franchise on the rise thanks to the continued development of their centerpiece player, Anthony Davis. Davis showed remarkable improvement in every facet of his game last season, though his strides weren’t able to prevent New Orleans from notching its third straight losing campaign. The sky is the limit for the 21-year-old big man out of Kentucky, and he is posting MVP-like numbers thus far this season. Davis draws mention in debates about the best player in the league, and in a few short seasons he may be the first player who comes up in those conversations. But the Pelicans’ overall growth as a team the next couple of seasons will be limited by a number of questionable contracts that occupy their balance sheet.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio SpursOne of the Pelicans’ biggest weaknesses as a team is their outside shooting, and the wing is where two of their more questionable contracts happen to reside in the deals the team gave to Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. Neither player has come close to justifying his salary cap number, and it will be extremely difficult for New Orleans to take the next step forward until one or both can be removed from its balance sheet. Gordon’s making nearly $14.899MM this season with a player option for more than $15.514MM next year, while the deal for Evans runs through 2016/17 with salaries that range upward from this season’s more than $9.904MM.

The Phoenix front office is thanking its lucky stars that the Pelicans matched the offer sheet the Suns had inked Gordon to back in 2012. At the time it seemed like a wise move, since the then-23-year-old guard certainly appeared to be a star on the rise. But injuries and unhappiness with his surroundings have rendered him a shell of the player who averaged 22.3 points per game back in 2010/11. It is highly likely that New Orleans will be stuck with Gordon for one more season since he’ll almost certainly exercise his player option.

Barring a trade, Evans will also be occupying a healthy chunk of the team’s cap space for two more seasons beyond this one. The four-year, $44MM offer sheet that New Orleans had inked Evans to before working out a sign-and-trade deal with the Kings was ill-advised, seeing as how Evans’ scoring averages had dropped every season since his Rookie Of The Year campaign back in 2009/10. Evans hasn’t lived up to his contract, but there’s an easy argument to be made that he has provided exactly the production that should have been expected given his track record.

The Pelicans reportedly made Gordon and Evans available in trade talk this past summer, though there were some conflicting reports about whether that was the case with Evans. New Orleans won’t be able to surround Davis with the players needed to maximize his talent and to help the franchise break through in the challenging Western Conference while Gordon and Evans occupy roughly $26MM of cap space. Evans can still be a useful piece despite being overpaid, but Gordon’s deal is an albatross. Either of these two wings will be tough to deal thanks to their contracts, and the Pelicans would likely have to package draft picks and assets alongside either player in order to make a trade palatable to the other team, which presents long-term roster building issues of its own.

New Orleans’ most noteworthy offseason move was the deal that netted them Omer Asik from Houston, one that forced the Pelicans to overcome several obstacles to complete. It was a risky deal on the Pelicans’ part because they sent away a protected first-rounder for 2015, and Asik can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. I like the addition of Asik for basketball reasons since he’ll add rebounding and defense to a team that needed both, but with the Pelicans more than likely to convey that pick to the Rockets next spring, it puts added pressure on New Orleans’ front office to re-sign Asik. He’ll likely command an average annual salary in the $12MM to $14MM range, given his status as an elite defensive force, though that’s just my estimate. It would take up a hefty chunk of cap space, and coupled with player-friendly deals for Evans, Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday, and with Davis eligible to sign an extension next summer, the Pelicans would soon find themselves severely limited in flexibility moving forward. Plus, Asik proved disruptive regarding his playing time last year with the Rockets, and the Pelicans will have to keep that in mind when they think about re-signing him to a long-term deal.

Pelicans GM Dell Demps didn’t have the cap flexibility this offseason to pursue any big-name free agents, but he did manage to add a number of useful pieces on team-friendly deals. I like that New Orleans took low-risk gambles on Jimmer Fredette, Darius Miller, and John Salmons. None of those players are true game-changers, but all can be valuable bench contributors and offer strong work ethics, and in the case of Fredette and Miller, upside. I also like the team picking up the undrafted Patric Young, who was in the running at times to become an early second-round pick. He’s a long-term project who could end up paying dividends in a season or two.

The Pelicans were without a first-round pick in this year’s draft thanks to the trade with Philadelphia that netted them Holiday. In the second round, Demps did well to snag Louisville point guard Russ Smith, who has the ability to become a valuable reserve for this team, and whose intangibles make him worth having around. Smith should be able to develop enough to replace former No. 10 overall pick Austin Rivers, who can depart as a free agent next summer, since the team declined his fourth-year option. Rivers never lived up to his high draft position, and he could benefit from a change of scenery.

New Orleans needs to be active and creative in the trade market this year to try and clear some much-needed cap room they can use to surround Davis with more productive talent. The Pelicans are a team on the rise, though the strength of the Western Conference will probably force them to miss the playoffs once more this spring. The Pelicans need to give Davis a reason to want to re-sign for the long-term, as well as maximize the contention window that his incredible skills will provide them. If Demps is unable to remove one or more of the questionable deals on the team’s books, it will be a few seasons before he’ll be able to alter the roster significantly. The franchise and its fans had better hope that Davis will not have soured on the team’s losing ways before then and decide to take his skills elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post. Chuck Myron contributed to this post.

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