The New Orleans Pelicans traded for DeMarcus Cousins, and many minds were lost.
As detailed in the post here once the trade was confirmed to us,
It’s a new team, led by Davis, Cousins, and Holiday, in that order. Everything else is fodder.
The Cousins acquisition was seismic, and with that comes a reconsideration of the roster, the plan, the trajectory, and more. Includied in that is the way value is assessed on this team.
When Cousins’ trade-mate Omri Casspi was injured, the question arose as to whether he would be released or not. Mason looked into this and concluded that they should not release him. However, they released him to sign Reggie Williams to a 10-day contract, something else Mason is not to big on.
Out of the Rotation Mostly: Ajinca, Asik, Diallo
Main Roster: Cousins, Cunningham, Davis, Frazier, Hill, Holiday, Moore (out at least Saturday), Motiejunas
10-days: Jack, Thompson, Williams
Why Add a Body?
Once Cassipi was injured, he went from the Main Roster to Injured, leaving the team with very little wing depth, and all of that on 10-day contracts. This became a 10-man squad. If you consider using Diallo on the wing, that’s 11, but I’m not sure he’s up for it defensively, so I’m not counting that. The clear wings are far from ideal.
So, how does signing a 10-day contract help you? Didn’t I just discount the help of the 10-day guys?
Yes, I did. However, I’m big on options, so having more options on the perimeter to put the guys in the best position to succeed gives the team the best chance of success.
Pushing guys on the main roster to the limit minutes-wise is not actually-wise with 3-games-in-4-nights, though I do expect some heavy minutes. You have to carry some insurance against overtime and against injury or other triggers for missed games (see: Moore). Additionally, with Oklahoma City coming up, you have to get the most guys on the perimeter you can to help limit Westbrook to a pedestrian triple-double.
Why Waive Casspi?
To add a player when your roster is full, you have to create a roster spot. Since players can not be traded until the end of the season and the Pelicans are not injured enough for a hardship exception, waiving a player is the only way to create a roster spot. Leaving off players that seem to be not beyond consideration for waiving:
10-days: They just added 10-days to create depth, so waiving one of them is counter-productive.
Pondexter: Quincy is not expiring, so waiving him has costs beyond this year that are irrecoverable.
Asik, Ajinca: See Pondexter, but with more money.
Diallo: He’s one they want to keep.
Motiejunas: This is the best other candidate. You have front court depth, so continue the trade. He’s also on a minimum contract. Waiving Motiejunas, however, would require playing Asik or Ajinca more, and they are not good candidates at power forward, which he can do. Or, more Diallo, and this may seem a decent option, but with a push for the playoffs, they may not want to replace a player with a worse one without cause. Also, Motiejunas is generating the most assists among big men, which is something Gentry has wanted more of. His defense is decent, and his usage is low (underrated plus). They have to jump-start of the offense while keeping the defense intact, and Motiejunas can help with that, especially since he can work well with Davis and Cousins.
Casspi: Casspi was going to miss more time (4-6 weeks) than he was going to play (1-3 weeks). His net contribution this season is not comparable with the reasonable available alternatives this season, so the reason not to cut him lies beyond this season. So, his value is beyond this season. The only value that is available by keeping him is his Bird Rights. This will allow the team, which will have 10 players under contract going into the season if the sign Holiday and Cunningham walks, to sign him to any legal contract they like without using MLE money. Casspi will not demand more than the MLE, so the actual range of options is not the issue. The issue is limiting the use of the MLE. This is a valid concern . . . if they want Casspi. In the trade in which he was acquired, the Pelicans may have decided they wanted some more help at the 3 than Galloway could offer, so they got him. That does not mean that they were interested in Casspi beyond this season, however. In fact, he’s not a great defender, and recently was about like Galloway. Both could hit 3’s well.
Assessing the Move
A complete assessment of costs and benefits is rare. I won’t be exhaustive here, but I will be trying to bring up the salient and most relevant points and do a proper comparison.
First, in terms of current value, collections of 10-day players and rest-of-season contracts will give more value this season than Casspi. For next season and going forward, it really depends on some assumptions about next season. I’ll discuss more below, but it’s safe to say that if they did not value him going forward, or that they would not exhaust the MLE, then there is no real future cost.
Second, once someone is being waived, the right person needs to be waived. As mentioned above, it’s kind of down to Casspi and Motiejunas. Motiejunas gives good value over his replacement, and it’s possible his Non-Bird rights or the minimum will be enough to sign him. I doubt it, but it’s possible.
Third, once you waive the person, did it happen at the right time. Waiving him could be done sooner or later. If sooner, you give more time with the guys you end up with, more bodies to use in each game. If you wait, you maximize the chances of keeping him or finding the right 10-day guy. With Moore out for the Saturday game, it may tip the scales to sooner if needed tipping at all.
Fourth, once you waive the guy, did you sign the right player? Reggie Williams was with the team before, though that experience may need discounting if there is a big shift from the Cousins addition. He’s a credible threat from deep, defends well enough for this team, is a decent passer, and has some vet experience. I was honestly less than neutral about the move when I first heard about it, but looking more at his numbers and the way this team is playing, I’m ok with the selection of Evans for his second 10-day (his next contract this season in NOLA has to be for the rest of the season).
I don’t think everyone will agree with what I laid out, and even if some agree on the facts, they may go another way. That’s fine. I’m explaining what I think the team sees, not what I think is ideal. For instance, I’d rather the team choose a guy other than Reggie Williams not because of his talent level, but because there is no real chance of him developing into a project, like BDJ (RIP, man). I still understand their position and will evaluate them on the standards it seems they set for themselves.
The major criticism of the waiving of Casspi this time (as opposed to when he came in the Asik trade to help Houston churn their roster, where he was given his release because he wanted it due to the role he would have, not because the Pelicans did not value him) is that the team again the team not valuing him. This time, however, it’s more about Bird Rights. Bird Rights require a cap hold to be maintained when a team is under the cap, but this is immaterial when a team is over the cap. So, if the team is going to be over the cap, there is no hard done by holding his Bird Rights. This leaves the question above as to whether he would fit with the team, and I would say that while he would, he would not be a hard to replace piece; this season, his contributions are similar to Galloway, whom the Pelicans just signed this past offseason for a modest sum. Also, Galloway was traded to Sacramento as part of getting Casspi, which reinforces the claim.
As it stands now, the Pelicans are projected to be over the cap, and the clear ways they have to change their salary structure can give them some cap space, but not a ton more. So, it raises the question as to whether becoming a cap team is worth it given the costs . . . typically assumed to be taking in dead money from stretching players. The other side of the coin is that cap space is more useful, dollar for dollar, than exceptions in terms of making broad transformations to your roster. The exception to this is the Traded Player Exception, but that is available to cap teams to allow them to go over the cap, so, no worries there.
With Cousins coming in a roster transformation may be desirable. Cousins joins Davis and Holiday in the core of the team. Also, with his addition, Asik becomes expendable. Hill and Moore seem to have commitments, but the rest of the roster could see some turnover. As McNamara pointed out on In the NO the other day, With the cap jumping up, the core having record low cap hit (Jrue will just have a cap hold), with players opting out and contracts being moved . . . perhaps with the immediately-available-for-trade 2018 first round draft pick and those after, subject to normal restrictions . . . cap space can be created. Moreover, their moves so far . . . trading Galloway, who had an option for next season, ridding themselves of Casspi’s cap hold, ridding themselves of Jones’ cap hold . . . all indicate that the cap space route might be in play.
If this is the way they want to go, and if they have a route to get there, then waiving Casspi is not short-sighted, it’s got no cost to future plans, since it’s a sunk cost. It’s just a matter of when, not if . . . it’s a matter of how they use the spot this season, not how Casspi ever performs. The one wrinkle in this is that holding on to this Bird Rights facilitates a sign-and-trade, which is a way to not keep him and turn his hold into value. However, these are hard to do, especially when he will likely fit into common exceptions. Also, if it’s clear the team has no interest in Casspi, the return would not be good. By releasing Casspi, he might land on a contender as a late addition, which is also better for him.
Checking this against other readily observable facts, it could be that Casspi was waived, sacrificing his Bird Rights, rather bringing Asik and Ajinca into regular rotation, which is what waiving Motiejunas would do, in order to minimize injury to them because they are the outgoing contracts, and they would require a first, for sure, to move collectively while receiving value. I’m basing this on the recent market for bigs, where decent bigs on rookie contracts, basically, couldn’t net firsts. Both guys have played a few hundred minutes, and their stats and performance this season is in line with what you’d expect. I’m not saying we’ll never see them, but it makes to minimize risk to them. This would also, if accurate, provide a reason why they are not churning through prospects with one of their roster spots. It also makes sense that they have enough acclimating to do these days without acclimating a virtual rookie to the NBA.
One can dispute that plan, if they go that route, but that’s not the same thing as calling them short-sighted. If anything, they have the long-run in mind, but are doing whatever they can within those constraints to win some games. Remember, DeMarcus Cousins has never been to the playoffs unless he bought a ticket. Acting like winners matters, playoffs or not.
Now, if they do stay over the cap, being short-sighted is back on the table, but it’s still not clear that this is the case.
More on those scenarios soon.