Two summers ago the Pelicans offered former Dayton star Brian Roberts a spot on their summer league team, hoping that he could give a little spark off the bench when rookie Austin Rivers needed a break in the glorified pickup games. Cut to a little less than two years later and he is the starting point guard on a team that spent nearly $140 million in guaranteed money on guards the past two years, as well as a 10th overall pick. And because he is starting and playing reasonably well, they are faced with an unenviable decision as we come down the stretch this season.
The new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement is, in some ways, radically different from the previous one. An issue that was brought up during the meetings by players was that certain guys were often drastically underpaid in their rookie contracts. Sometimes guys who were drafted late in the first round, or even in the second round, would drastically outperform where they were selected and were left playing for peanuts despite their productivity. Owners countered that the reverse is often true; that sometimes a guy is drafted high and underperforms early in his career.
The two sides came to a compromise that would allow players who outperformed expectations to a raise in their restricted years, while guys who underperformed would have their qualifying offer reduced. In order for a guy drafted later to be bumped up, he would have to meet what they deemed the ‘starter criteria.’ The starter criteria is met by the player getting 41 starts or logging 2000 minutes in the season before he is going to become a restricted free agent. If he meets this criteria, his qualifying offer will raise dramatically.
In Brian Roberts case, he will be eligible for a qualifying offer of $3.23 million if he meets this criteria. His qualifying offer if he doesn’t? $1.12 million. Roberts won’t be able to log the 2000 minutes needed to meet the starter criteria, but after last night’s game, he has now started 35 games for the Pelicans this season. Six more starts and he meets the criteria and the qualifying offer to Roberts practically triples.
Now, the Pelicans don’t have to offer Roberts the qualifying offer in any case. They can choose to forgo that and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent. And since he has been on the team for two years, they will have Early Bird Rights, allowing them to go over the cap to sign him. But if they really wanted to keep Roberts, it is always better to have a player restricted than unrestricted. And putting out a qualifying offer of $1.12 million is a no brainer for a guard who has been relatively productive. But $3.23 million? At that price, you have to question whether he provides that much value to a team that has not only Jrue Holiday coming back, but Pierre Jackson waiting in the wings.
For those who are unfamiliar with the process, if you extend a guy a qualifying offer and he signs it, that contract now becomes guaranteed. So, if the Pelicans extend him the offer to keep him restricted and he shops himself around but gets no buyers, he can just sign the offer and now the Pelicans are paying another guard money that can help fill a bigger need. If he signs the $1.12 million dollar QO, there is no harm done, as that is just slightly more than a minimum contract, but the $3.23 million dollar one potentially eats into some very valuable cap room.
There is something that the Pelicans can do about this, if they so choose: Simply move Roberts back to the bench. Monty has hinted in the past that he would start to play some younger guys as development becomes the primary goal. Might it be smart to allow Austin Rivers to start for the rest of the season. He also said he wants to see Tyreke at PG more often. How about putting Evans in the backcourt next to Gordon while Roberts comes off the bench?
Would this be ethical? Could the Pelicans do this, knowing it helps them with his contract this summer, and risk their relationship with Roberts and his agent? And not just those two, but how would the other players in the locker room view the team taking a potential two million dollars out of a guys’ pocket who has worked so hard to get where he is today? Would it be worth doing an underhanded thing like that in the long run?
It’s an interesting dilemma that the Pelicans have on their hands here, one they might have been able to avoid by making a switch to Austin Rivers a few weeks back. But now, we are here, less than two weeks away from Roberts crossing this threshold. And once he does, it will put the Pelicans in an awkward position as they head into the summer. Do they risk overpaying him or risk losing him for nothing? If he would have just been a reserve, going into the summer with a small QO, it would have been a win-win for the Pelicans. Either keep him for cheap or move him to an interested team who wants his services. Now, it is headed for a lose-lose proposition. Overpay or let him walk. Or maybe, just maybe, you don’t let him meet the criteria in the first place.
What would you do?