For All the Wrong Reasons: Continuity

Published: February 16, 2016

It’s been several months since the New Orleans Pelicans 2015 offseason action, for the most part, came and went. The offseason has been met with mixed reviews over time, tending toward negative as the results come in. I do think that the offseason is correctly judged as mixed: I see it as good from some perspectives, bad from others. On the surface, then, I agree with the general assessment. However, I think that the conclusion is reached by some for the wrong reasons.

As in many arenas, the correct conclusion or consequence is simply not enough. Arriving at the right conclusion with the right explanation is infinitely more valuable when it comes to understanding the larger collection of items of interest. In this case, this is what the Pelicans are doing, and by extension, where they are “going.”

I’ve looked at a few things, but today I’ll tackle the case of Continuity.

  • I want to lay this out from the start. We were being sold from the get go on the idea of “continuity” by the Pelicans organization. Many fans, writers (including writers here), and maybe even the organization itself bought this. The fact of the matter is that this was pure drivel. I fully believe this was nothing more than a marketing ploy that the well-meaning fans and writers bought. Here is an example from the team, and here is one from the print media. These examples are not meant to point at writers who were wrong. They were not wrong, and those were well-written and well-researched pieces. They simply reflect the message the moves themselves, along with team sources, indicated. There are other on-and off-the-record examples. The point of those pieces was to provide data, not analysis. I, as I often do, remained skeptical analytically. I was neither a winner nor a loser in the “Who happened to say this first” contest that others engage in (even though they often have no idea who said what first, for example, reference this piece on the Pelicans’ timetable). I was, however, a relatively objective observer of the offseason and what has transpired since. As we approach the trade deadline, it’s time to discuss this point from a cool perspective and not with the zeal of a convert.
  • The team’s cap situation, which is largely in control of Dell Demps, was such that they were essentially committed to carrying their roster forward unless a trade could be made. I’m not sure why trades were not made, but some of it was certainly health. Some was cap restrictions. Some was a belief that their assets would increase in value as a health concerns were farther in the rearview mirror. To be clear, though, the team was preparing for trades, and trades to take on salary. One observable effect of this was in the signing of free agents using the mid-level exception. Prior to the official announcement of the cap, only Dante Cunningham was signed using that exception. His salary this season, $2,850,000, is less than the mid-level exception, but it’s also less than the taxpayer mid-level exception, $3,376,000 this season by, $526,000. This may seem like an arbitrary amount, but it’s actually just slightly larger than the minimum salary for a rookie this season, which is $525,093. Rookies who are undrafted free agents nearly always sign for the minimum, but such deals are limited to two years in length. Using cap space or the full mid-level exception, teams can sign players to 4 year deals; using the taxpayer mid-level exception, three-year deals can be signed. Now, this may seem like a stretch, even with with laser precision of the Cunningham deal’s value, but Demps has given 3 year minimum deals to Russ Smith and to Bryce Dejean-Jones, though neither was fully guaranteed for the duration. It should be noted that Cunningham’s deal is for . . . yeah, that’s right . . . three seasons, thus, consistent with the taxpayer mid-level exception. Also, Demps has maximized payouts to players, as he did with Robin Lopez in the trade to acquire him from Phoenix (where he was often injured, though healthy in New Orleans), despite repeated, untrue allegations that the team is unwilling to spend . . . spending on players is not their issue.
  • Only after the cap was official did they exceed the taxpayer mid-level exception amount with the signing of Alonzo Gee, a move that hardcapped the Pelicans for season. By using only the taxpayer mid-level exception, the team would have avoided being hardcapped and would have retained the right to go as deep into the tax as they liked. The difference between the anticipated cap and the actual cap . . . about $3m . . . increased not only the cap, but also the tax line and the apron, with the apron, which is the effective hard cap for the teams to which it applies, to $88.7m. The increase moved the team past their anticipated highest possible salary. This salary was based on a trade involving Gordon or trading out any two of their lower high-dollar players, in particular, Evans and Anderson, but Holiday also fits the bill. More details are in the article written during the moratorium. Using today’s numbers, which include some small salary from transient players, the payroll is just shy of $80m. They can bring in about $5m in additional by trading out Evans and Anderson together, assuming they’d be a tax team when they did so. That’d put their salary at about $85m compared to a projected cap of $85.6m before the official numbers were released. Gee’s salary would not be on the books, but the team may have been limited to signing only minimum salary players for the rest of the season to avoid hitting the hard cap if such a trade were to happen. It’s easy to see how tight the situation was before the increase, which gives their actions and the timing of those actions more weight in reading their intentions from the outside.
  • A team does not go through this level of effort to maintain the ability to pay the tax in order to maintain continuity. You do that in order to add some serious salary, either because you are bring in the big salary of a star or because you are bringing in the big salary of a dud that is attached to an asset of some kind. That is not to say either was going to happen or will be happening, but they were prepared for it. As it stands now, the option is still on the table on paper, but in practice, maybe not. Gordon and Anderson can still be traded and both can be effective in the proper roles. They can also bring in quite the haul while remaining well under the hard cap.
  • At any rate, all that goes to show that the cap management, despite being under tight constraints on who could be signed this summer, reflects a desire not to maintain continuity, and not do it in a spectacular way . . . as proverbial buyers.
  • The Pelicans brought back almost as close to the same roster back this season as last season. This was the basis of the continuity sales pitch. When you change the head coach, however, there’s no continuity, particularly when the coaches are as different in style and Monty Williams and Alvin Gentry. Monty got more out of his rosters than many coaches could. As a developmental guy, Monty is very good. His style, which involves conservative, mistake-free, and tight control by him, while good for developing players (even those one might assume need no development), it has a low ceiling to go with its high floor. Gentry, however, is looser, wants players to take shots that are good enough, and requires players to make the right decision on their own. This style clearly has a low floor, but it has a high ceiling when there is a critical mass of the “right” players. The fact that the team played as well under Monty as it did is almost a sign that it had a high chance of failure under Gentry simply due to the difference in style. That’s not to say that Gentry will succeed with “his guys” in place. He may very well be a disaster; to me, the jury is still out given that he’s barely had the roster he inherited with no real players of consequence that were added under his watch mostly due to the cap situation Dell Demps allowed to happen. Again, I’m not seeing continuity, at least as a good or desirable thing.
  • Injuries. I’m sick of injuries, but I’m more sick of having to discuss them, and I’m most sick of witnessing the discussions. “Injuries are not an excuse” is so often repeated in the wrong way, I just tune out when I hear it. Injuries are just as much a factor as the lack of injury. Health is a continuum, just like talent, It’s got different aspects, too. Here, I want to limit the discussion to the sole point I need here, which is: There was not continuity to continue . . . because of injuries. What exactly was supposed to be mostly continuous besides the actual printed rosters? Really, what? What exactly is anyone pointing to when they point to continuity on this team? I’ll hang up and listen.
  • Even if you boil away your least favorite people and look at the core of the team, or the pieces of the future core . . . where was the continuity? Hanging up and listening again.
  • The lemonade from this pile of lemons is the franchise getting a clear picture of what they have in their players, even with the injuries, so they know fully what they will be trading out or simply allowing to walk away. They can also see what is missing from what they think the core is, which, I’ll remind you, I believe that they believe is Davis and Holiday . . . with some big along for the ride (at least).
  • In order to build a foundation for continuity, which is very important, a few things need to happen.
  • Holiday and Davis need to maximize their time together. Period. As such, Holiday needs to start. for that reason, and that reason alone is sufficient, Holiday needs to be the starter beginning Friday against his former team.
  • Whoever you are going to bring in, try to bring them in this season. Such much of Davis’s time has been spent with necessary building of the team and franchise, but some has been squandered by luck and error. It’s time to correct that. Anderson needs to go, and likely Evans and Gordon. Evans is likely not on the go this season, but maybe a team whose priorities lie in the draft would show him the patience he deserves. Gordon’s finger injury will be not be an obstacle to getting him traded. His contract may be, but this injury may even be a help, since he’s been resting. At least, that’s what I’d tell anyone who raised a concern to me about his knee health.
  • Whoever you bring in does not need to be the biggest star (though maybe he will be up there), but he needs to fit. He needs to be the right kind of player. There are so many needs that it is hard to narrow down what players may be available, but I would guess a dynamic big or a ball-handling combo forward would do well here. Everyone wants a dynamic wing, so that’d work, too, but it may be a tall order. Dell also likes cost control. Going after a player who is under contract, particularly an extended one, or who will be a restricted free agent in next year’s free agent class may be to his liking. Dell has used cap space, but he’s done so with trades and in the buying end of the restricted free agent market, which he then converted to trades before the moratorium ended. I don’t think Dell wants to have to go into what may be the wildest free agent market in the NBA history with a good deal of cap space that is not enough to compete with, which is the current situation. They either need to clear room or fill it. Doing either may involve trading of a pick, either in or out.
  • I’ve been waiting for the trade deadline since the writing was on the wall about the last offseason. This is very nearly the last chance to take advantage of this year’s cap. Very nearly. There is one other time: At the draft. Technically, there is time before and after, but the action is usually at the draft, so I’ll just refer to that milestone. At the draft, trades can be made and completed under the current CBA. In the deal to acquire Holiday, the trade could not be completed until after the moratorium because the deal required cap space to be legal. Holiday’s wedding had nothing to do with that delay, though maybe it affected the specific timing in the new cap year. However, CBA-legal trades can be completed at the draft, and that time Dell would have a few more tools in the tool box . . . paper contracts with no burden . . . plus a definite draft pick, not just a pick of uncertain value . . . plus a pick in upcoming draft. Just like with Holiday, it is one of the rare times when you can trade consecutive picks, and Dell will be able to do it. He’s done it before, and we know he likes to zag when others are zigging. Opting out of the free agency market, which he doesn’t like, is quite the zag in the coming year. In return, he’d have cost controlled contracts, perhaps right up to the apron, though probably not, going into the new CBA era. He’d then be able to study the market during that year as the NBA and NBPA move toward their CBA opt-out option, which will throw another wrench into the works. Doing this avoids entering the tax, too, since those payments are based salaries paid in the regular season. Since this is after the season, the increase is tax-free, at least according to my understanding. If I am wrong, it requires paying the tax and all that entails.
  • I don’t believe Gentry or Demps will be fired just one season into the new coaching regime when there has been close to zero player change during that coach’s tenure. So, the above is something to consider. Of course, maybe the failure to bring players in will be Demps’ undoing, but firing him leaves a Coach in place with a GM who did not hire him, which seems a bad thing. So they fire both? Maybe. Both guys being in place this summer makes the most sense to me, however, in terms what I believe they will do at this time given what has been discussed here.

I’m very much looking forward to some discontinuity.


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