Free Agency is normally a time of excitement for teams with a enough cap space to land a difference-maker, as the New Orleans Pelicans do. Many fans even enjoy, at least on some level, watching other teams’ moves as they reshape the NBA.
With Dell Demps at the helm, this gets taken to a higher level.
It’s not all about excitement, however. Since the start of the Benson era of ownership, this franchise has shown an increased level of savvy. Prior to Benson, Dell’s move were things like Posey and Collison for Ariza, a pick for Bayless, Pondexter for Vasquez. Little stuff.
Dell’s track record during this time was overall on the plus side, but these moves were not anything of real weight. They were well-intentioned moves that improved the roster or at least were easily recoverable, as in the case of Bayless. He has yet to really take back a worse contract than he sent out.
Since Benson bought the team, however, the moves have changed character, and there is a picture the puzzle pieces, looked at correctly, reveal.
Many new regimes want to set the tone going forward by making some kind of public splash. The Benson camp traded Ariza and Okafor for Louisiana’s own Rashard Lewis, then paid him to win a title with the Heat while getting paid only about $2.5m less than LeBron James in the process. The move for Ryan Anderson can be viewed as a no-brainer, but apparently Demps’ success was due in part to most GM’s assuming he was unavailable. Demps asked the easy question and was rewarded handsomely. Then, he dumped Jack by getting involved in a Sixers-Warriors deal, traded for a retiring player making around $5m, then entered into a winning deal for all parties that landed the Hornets Robin Lopez.
Trading productive, though not impressively so, players for someone to buy out makes good cap sense, as we see today (literally), but for new ownership to see the wisdom of going through the pain of the 2012-2013 season for the potential pleasure of this period of Free Agency instead of making a splash of some sort then and there is informative. It says that this franchise knows significant investment is required to get right (in the classic “Can’t Get Right” sense), and that ownership is providing the time and money to do just that.
- Taking the time to wrangle and manage a disgruntled and injured Eric Gordon after taking the risk of signing him to the maximum deal Phoenix could offer him, player option and trade veto power included, is informative. It says that this team is not only about developing assets, but that it is also about developing players. This team will be a place for players to come and be treated with respect and given the opportunities to display their talents in the constant job-interview that the NBA is for most players. Having a practice facility (like all the other teams) makes this easier to sell.
- Trading Warrick to Charlotte so he could get playing time and waiving Rashard Lewis at great cost both send a message to players that the Pelicans value them as workers and appreciate their need to constantly interview, which furthers the above.
- Pursuing, nearly exclusively, restricted free agents with above-average-salary contracts, is informative. It says that this team knows it is not ready to compete at the highest level, but is investing in the future, sticking with their young veteran plan . . . the Pelican model.
- Demps’ trading-to-set-up-the-trade-to-set-up-the-trade is not just an homage to Swingers, but shows a willingness to find moves that other GM’s are unwilling or unable to pursue. That he can cash in assets, unlike Chris Grant in Cleveland time after time, makes the effort worth it and reinforces the cycle.
- Demps’ willingness to search for inefficiencies in the market, like his pursuit of Ryan Anderson, reinforces both his aptitude and dedication to his job and to the players.
Taken together, these show that the that the Pelicans are fully self-aware of their status in the NBA, which is an organization with a bad reputation who may be on the rise. May. This is the first of the 12 steps, for those keeping score. (Incidentally, they are acknowledging the power of outside agents, making amends for the mistakes of the past and more, so maybe that’s not too shabby a reference.)
They know who they are. They know they can’t just plop a fair deal, much less a shrewd deal, down and expect a free agent to thank them for honoring him in such a fashion. They know they have to `overpay’, but they do it differently. They don’t vastly overpay the proven vet who is on the downside of his career whose value on the court and on the player market declines by the day (we’ll see about Iggy). They overpay young players who can turn their ship around by a lesser amount and whose deals end up being more movable than the behemoth that was Peja’s contract (a free, valuable lesson for Demps there, perhaps), for instance. Lopez is exactly this sort of contract: The often-injured Center got a contract exceeding his qualifying offer, but with team options to protect New Orleans in case it did not work out.
Going forward into this offseason, the band strikes up right where it left off, with the Pelicans pursuing a restricted free agent by the name of Tyreke Evans after netting Jrue Holiday in a Draft night trade.
The proposed Lopez for Evans deal (possibly with Vasquez or a minimum salary player) will leave the Pelicans with no Cap Room, just small exceptions and the ability to trade players. Last offseason, Dell acquired three main pieces in trade in Lewis, Ryan Anderson, and Lopez, while retaining Gordon’s services. Anderson was acquired in trade, but could have easily been a free agent signing, and Lewis was bought out, of course. This offseason has seen two major moves so far for the Pelicans, counting Jrue and this Evans play. Further significant moves will have to be via trade.
As this team assembles, and as bad contracts turn into good, it’s important, also, to remember that players have value to your team and value to other teams. The teams deployed are not always ideally constructed to win a title, of course. This is not only because there just is not enough talent on the Pelicans roster to do that, but also because the roster is being filled with players who are were undervalued at one point and whose stock is rising. They can then, hopefully, be traded at a higher value, over and over again. When the time is right to get the piece that was wanted all along, hopefully the assets are sufficient.
Looking at Lopez this way may make the proposed deal for Evans seem better. Some players are more asset than player when it comes down it. Therefore, when that asset reaches its strike price, you swap it out for another undervalue asset. Lopez is clearly at this highest value to this point in his career. With his injury history (in Phoenix, if that matters to you), his value may never be higher. The return may never be higher, so trade.
Some may think the team is overpaying for Tyreke (if they get him). Time will tell, as will the market. But, he may also be undervalued. It’s hard to tell with the cloud(s) he was under there in Sacramento. We can certainly understand how ownership issues can devastate a team and players and still bear no reflection on the market or city, but the team there has been in chaos. Lopez had the injury cloud, and Anderson had the Dwight cloud, and these depressed their value. Anderson was clearly a solid player, but not Lopez. Thank the scouts and medical staff for the help on that one.
So just bear those things in mind:
- The long-term plan
- Persistent elevation of asset value
- Financial commitment and savvy
- Culture change
Sadyly, some of basketball is not about basketball.
If they can package these assets, like Houston has done over the past couple of years with their weird teams, at least pre-Harden. They are on the brink, one way or another, with Dwight. It all comes down to free agent negotiations for them. For the Pelicans, seeing Dell’s history, it’ll likely come down to a trade. The trade will use some of the non-Davis assets collected over the time. Demps’ll pick his spot, and we won’t know who or how or why or when. He’ll pick his spot, he’ll roll the dice that he loaded as much as possible . . .
Then it’ll be about basketball.