Jrue-th or Dare: An Early Look into the Pelicans’ 2017 Off-Season

Published: February 20, 2017

When Anthony Davis first signed his max contract extension, all that some people wanted to talk about was the Pelicans’ franchise officially being “on the clock.” As in, the challenge to keep him in NOLA for the duration of his athletic prime and beyond, rather than just the extent of that contract, began on that day. Ever since that moment, there hasn’t been much good news for the Pels, and it looked more and more likely each day that AD’s departure was inevitable. Davis would play out a couple more years of his contract, eventually request a trade, and that would be that. Certainly, there are caveats to this line of thinking (such as the new CBA coming into play this summer that should help teams keep their superstars), but the overall thought process was depressingly sound.

Then, last night happened.

All of a sudden, the Pelicans have two top-15 NBA players, and the cost of making that happen was shockingly low. Most importantly, New Orleans was able to retain starting point guard and former 2nd best player Jrue Holiday. While anything above the 8th seed is probably out of reach (the Pelicans are 9 games behind the current 7th seed Thunder with only 25 games left to play), it would be difficult to argue that New Orleans is anything less than the best Western Conference team of those vying for the final playoff spot. If they can get there (which is far from a sure thing – Denver is currently 2 1/2 games ahead of New Orleans, and Portland is also very capable of getting hot), we’re on track for a really fun first round clash with the Warriors.

The point of the above isn’t to try to get too far ahead of ourselves; it’s more just to help us fast-forward to what many of you really came to this column to find. So, now the question becomes – what should the Pelicans do this summer?

Current Cap Position*

Note: above table excludes 10-day contracts*

After the Cousins trade, the Pelicans’ cap situation is pretty straight-forward for this off-season. The current roster is sitting at about $85 million guaranteed to 9 players. Dante Cunningham has a $3.1 million player option for 2017-18 that he will almost certainly opt out of given his play this year and added 3-point shot. The major variable is, of course, Jrue Holiday.

The Jrue Dilemma

If the Pelicans have their sights set on re-signing Jrue Holiday, their off-season is pretty easy to digest from a cap perspective. Jrue’s cap hold plus the minimum salary roster charges for each open roster spot (~$816K in 2017-18) push the Pelicans over the currently projected 2017-18 salary cap of $102 million. Their summer would quite simply be just Jrue + cap exception player(s) + minimum salaries.

While likely a topic for another column, it is my firm belief that the Pelicans’ top off-season priority should now be re-signing Jrue Holiday. Before the Cousins trade, I was very open about suggesting that trading him at the deadline for assets may be the Pelicans’ best move, rather than risking having to offer a near-max or max contract to a guy who probably isn’t good enough to be the second best player on a good playoff team. Now? He’s a fantastic “3rd banana” behind Boogie and Brow. Additionally, there is the wrinkle of the new Designated Player Exception within the new CBA, which will significantly help teams retain their top talent and therefore reduce the talent pool available in free agency. Rather than risking letting Jrue walk and then coming up empty in free agency, keeping Holiday certainly seems like New Orleans’ best bet this summer – assuming that he is also interested in hanging around, of course.

But what if they dare to go a different direction, rather than stick with the Jrueth? We can play that scenario out, too.

Without making any other changes, the Pelicans would have roughly $15 million in cap room after adding back minimum salary charges for open roster slots. One thing can already be said almost definitively – you’re not finding a player better than Jrue Holiday for that much money on the free agent market. Therefore, apart from Jrue making it clear that he wants out, the only good reason to renounce his cap hold and go in a different direction is if the Pelicans plan on clearing out some more salary on top. Below are some of the most likely ways that they could accomplish such a task.

Option #1: Waive and stretch Omer Asik. This move has been talked about for a while and would make a lot of sense, especially given the addition of Cousins. If the Pelicans were to stretch Asik this summer, they could spread his remaining salary over the next five years (double the number of years remaining plus one), meaning he would cost New Orleans about $3.55 million per season against the cap for the next seven seasons rather than $10.6 million in 2017-18, $11.3 million in 2018-19, and $3 million in 2019-20. This option, of course, would require Tom Benson to essentially pay Omer Asik to go away, so while it may be a good option from a basketball perspective, money matters. Potential 2017 savings: $6.2M ($10.59M – $3.55M – $816K)

Option #2: Trade Alexis Ajinca. This option is easier said than done, as it appears that Ajinca is viewed as a liability around the league, and therefor the Pelicans would likely have to attach an asset to him in order to trade him. Would the Pelicans’ own 2017 second round pick be enough? What about throwing in Dante Cunningham or Terrence Jones before the deadline this Thursday? Hard to say at this point. Ajinca can be a serviceable backup center, and as salaries continue to rise as the cap increases, maybe a team would bite – but that is far from a certainty. Potential 2017 savings: $4.1M ($4.96M – $816K)

Option #3: Trade E’Twaun Moore. Moore is solid value for the price, so I would only expect this option to be implemented is something big is imminent and there is no other easy way to free up space. That being said, Moore is making $8.45 million next season, so moving Moore would definitely help. Potential 2017 savings: $7.6M ($8.45M – $816K)

Long story short – could the Pelicans make max cap space this summer? Yes. Should they? No, probably not. As we have seen in recent memory, thinking that a legit unrestricted free agent superstar will choose New Orleans over all other options is wishful thinking at best, and irresponsible at worst. Adding Cousins to AD certainly makes NOLA a landing spot worth considering, but is the risk of coming up empty (or overpaying a good but not great player) worth losing Jrue? Not in my opinion.

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