The Offseasons Loom

By:
Published: October 17, 2018

“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.”

— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome

Summary

This is not a season preview. This is the plan. This is the game that is being played of which all the other games are just the dice, the cards, the pieces moving around the board.

The prize: Anthony Davis . . . for a couple more years.

For the first time, there is a clear air of quiet confidence emanating from the franchise. I believe this is because there is a specific plan or framework they have committed to, and while not without uncertainty, the calm after leaping from a great height is very different from the anxiety about the jump itself, particularly when it is dispelled so quickly.

Then, you just wait. You let the falling happen and prepare to hit . . . what looks like water . . . but, what lies beneath? You wait for the splash or the pain or the cool or see what is hidden by the distractions on the surface, the reflections of a too loud and too bright world.

You can direct your limbs so things go as planned, but you can also direct your eyes. You can look away or forward, or close them and stare at nothing. You can accept the unknown or just refuse to know. You prepare to do your best, to transition on your terms, or you clam up. Perhaps you make a mistake or misjudge, but you are falling nevertheless, and you go faster and faster as the impact draws near.

And you hope that you did what was necessary for “this” to work.

The Pelicans have set themselves, essentially, on a two-season plan. All the moves and deals are lining up around this time frame. It can all go south before that, of course, but the team is showing some strength by betting on a two-season plan.

Eyes open.

Of course, the success of it all comes down to Davis and getting him to extend his time in NOLA (as I said back in 2013), but here is everything that goes into that plan, including just why it is as I claim it is.

Introduction

The New Orleans Pelicans had a hell of a run this past season, with the up-up-down-down-B-A-select-start sort of feel that left us all, and I think the Pelicans themselves, wondering just what it was that cracked the code.

You can bet your ass 29 other teams are wondering, too, rounding out the total to 30.

This team is . . . uncomfortable . . . for everyone. This team can land anywhere from the pinnacle to the pit (hey, Ghost!) with all the factors in play from this offseason and next. So, I’m going to touch on ALL of it. ALL of it. Anything less does a disservice to the work that has been done for years to make this happen.

I’ll leave it to others . . . and maybe me, too . . . to work out the details afterwards. There is just too much going on not to have the table set correctly . . . which means by me.

The Lens

Look. I’m not the only one to say it, and I probably wasn’t the first, but I’m going to keep beating certain drums (pah rumpahpumpum). One of them is that Davis is the lens through which every single thing about this franchise must be judged, at least in part.

Period.

Without exception.

Thinking about bringing in or sending out a player . . . How does he affect Davis? How does Davis affect him?

Same deal with a coach . . . same response.

How about which hot sauce on the table in the snack room . . . Better put crushed red pepper in the trade space since Davis likes pizza. How about that Parmesan while we got pizza toppings on the rack here?

DeMarcus Cousins bobblehead in the drive through at the Smoothie King across from the facility . . . Good reminder for Davis or do they need a Davis bobblehead in its place? Drop by, hook them up, and get yourself a Green Tea Tango with fresh mango (I tried the Chocolate Lean One on Mr. Lauscha’s recommendation, and that is good, too . . . I also like the Muscle Punch and the Power Punch Plus). Oh, and does Davis want one?

It doesn’t matter what’s real or what should happen or what is optimal according to some stupid spreadsheet (hey, nerds). That stuff is not beyond consideration and it’s not immaterial. It just doesn’t matter as much until it is run through the Davis filter. It’s a classic problem (and my Kant and Heidegger people in the house, this one is for you) that the world that we understand is different from the world that is, especially when there is thinking and “will” involved. You don’t understand the whole situation unless you understand those “objective” facts, how the thinkers are thinking, and that everyone may be misunderstanding all of it.

Davis, here, is the purpose, the objective of all of it. So, if you don’t agree with this, save yourself some time and find some pandering writer who is going to chase the reader market, not dictate to it. Let them tell you “just win” while the Warriors are worried about keeping Durant.

If you think I’m talking about you: I am.

“Shots fired.”

Davis

All that said about Davis, I still have not talked much about him. I really have not talked much about Davis in this article in particular or in articles in general. This is not because he is not important. It’s just that others usually cover him enough that my efforts are best spent elsewhere (“go where they ain’t”). For this piece, however, I’m going to talk about the position re-defining player.

Yeah, I said position re-defining. Before Davis played his first real game, we ran a series here about various comparisons for him. I chose Tim Duncan, and I stand by it. Duncan did a great deal to re-define the position, and I think Davis is, to some extent, doing the same.

Which position? Let’s call it Power Forward and be done with it, but it’s that position he plays in today’s NBA, not that he’s always in that one role.

I’m not the only one who thinks so, as Gentry himself stated relatively recently.

Davis is a generational talent with rare skills that allow him to help shape what a power forward is in today’s wing-and-perimeter-focused NBA. He’s not “evolving past” Duncan. He’s playing in an environment with different pressures. Davis is just pushing back because he both can and is being encouraged to do just that. He’s playing in an NBA that changed during Duncan’s time, in part due to Duncan, and continued to do so. Davis’ ball-handling and threes are part of the new wrinkles, his shooting-from-everywhere and garbage man skills are partly from the older schools though he’s blurring some lines. As his strength increases, he may continue to add more of that old school game in, too, especially as he finds defenses increasingly weaker (by comparison) there than on the perimeter where they can attack the ball better than him. Duncan was iron, and he could play just about anywhere on the floor, allowing the role players to play to their strengths. He was the star; he could do the hard work. Davis can handle and move the ball a little better, plays with more aggression. (For the Hegelians: thesis-antithesis-synthesis.)

As I said, Davis is the lens. He is the essence, the purpose, the means, the end, the foundation, the morning star. Any other view is simply inadmissible. He is the kind of player you can build a title team around and you would be insane not to do so (as opposed to having him “fit in”). Without Davis, you pivot. Hard.

He is absolutely worth all the effort.

Davis is entering his seventh NBA season, and after this season, things start to get interesting. As I wrote in 2013, once we saw some hard NBA evidence that Davis was going to be something like what we all thought, his presence puts the team on the clock. Since then, the Designated Veteran Extensions and Designated Veteran Contracts are making it even more interesting.

Davis has 2 years plus a player option year left on his current contract. That 2+1 becomes a 1+1 after this season, and it’s right when he can sign a Designated Veteran Extension. He’ll have the 7 years experience and meet all the criteria. He can decline the player option, leaving just his $27,093,018 2019-2020 contract in place for that season and that season alone. He can then sign an extension that leaves that salary in place and adds five more years at a much larger salary. At that point, he will be ineligible for trade for a season, and his status will slightly restrict his ability to join teams with certain other player with Designated Veteran Contracts or Extensions. He will not be eligible for a no-trade clause at that time, by the way, which hopefully means nothing, but it’s something to note. The final year of this extension can be an option year.

The bit about the “not eligible for trade for one year” is important.

So, at the end of this season, if not before, “the discussion” can start to start. If it does not go well, you can either trade the guy or wait a year. If you trade him, sayonara to Davis and this third reign over New Orleans Basketball stardom (Pete and Chris being the first two). If he sticks through contract to its completion, he ends the season as either an unrestricted free agent or he picks up a player option worth far less than he could get on the free market in all likelihood (excepting an injury none of use should want to think about). So, the likelihood in the is case is that he is an unrestricted free agent. That leaves sign-and-trade (with Base Year Compensation complications), he walks, or he signs the Designated Veteran Contract. Max extensions can be written so that the value of the value of the Contract and the Extension route are equal. By waiting, Davis would make that following season, rather than the one “old contract year,” a trade restricted year (no trades allowed, period, per the CBA), but he could also get a no-trade clause i the contract by waiting. I do not see this clause being super valuable to a guy on a long contract, but long contracts become short contracts, so he might play the long game. Waiting for this reason alone leaves open the possibility for a horrible injury, so there is risk there. See: Cousins. I know Davis did see Cousins.

Why go through all this? Well, no off-season is an island, but these particularly not so, ergo we need to consider everything, as I said, through the Davis lens. In this case, it means getting him to ink another extension or equivalent contract, as I noted so many years ago.

The incentives line up, given the performance this season, to prove said performance was not a fluke, maybe improve a bit, integrate new pieces if possible, further shine up NOLA as a destination for some players, get Davis to sign that extension in the 2019 off-season, giving them effectively two full seasons to build a contender once you factor in that year of trade restriction. Note, this effectively lines up with many contracts on the roster and in the front office. So, they can sell Davis on the flexibility they will have over, say, a team like Cleveland, in their day, when they had to arm up against the Warriors, in their day. We’ve seen what Houston has done this offseason. The Lakers exist. In two seasons, there’s no telling if the Warriors’ end up at some Schwarzchild tax bill that crushes them or if some other juggernaut emerges. There’s also the opportunity to clean house in the front office there to make the next couple years more palatable before the remaining years on Davis’ contract gets too short to make the situation tenable.

Worst case, you try, it doesn’t work, and you have a team set up to dismantle neatly by Demps or his successor.

So, either way, the franchise is ready, and the franchise will go on.

The line is drawn.

All of this presumes a few things, such as a top talent not just deciding to come here this offseason and fixing it all despite the best laid plans of mice and men, that Davis’ thinking is not bent by other factors not considered here. For example, if he just wants to, for example, play in Chicago or play with Player X, then there’s no substitute for that. There is simply nothing to be done about that. It’s irrational, and that’s fine. If just wants to live by his favorite magazine stand in Milwaukee, they’ll roll out the green carpet.

Things are coming together for Davis here in New Orleans, however. There has been a good run for smaller markets holding onto stars, but that’s reversed a little recently. How much of all that was coincidence versus how much is market driven is to-be-determined, but I tend to think it is more coincidence or a kind of secondary effect.

I land on the Pelicans needing to take a steady hand here over the next couple seasons, staying on their toes for “the move” if a player of stature wants to come here, shining things up reaaal nice to encourage that, and trying to hold the gains while showing off their assets: Davis, Holiday, stats, a player-friendly environment including media that is effectively an arm of the team’s PR either because they literally are, figuratively are, they are clinging to access and are not positioned to risk it, knowing they dry up without it, or they simply lack the ability to mount effective challenges to the party line down on Airline. (To their credit, my few questions are not always met with joy, but they keep letting me in . . . thank you, and it is a job well done.)

So, if this season goes well, I expect Davis to sign that extension, burn through that one year of trade restriction, and then let the games begin. He may not have a ton of leverage at that point by conventional wisdom, but waiting too long can lock the player in . . . see: Minnesota. There’s a sweet spot, and you can bet that after that second year, the leverage is with Davis and will shift to his favor maximally before that deal even runs through half its remaining years. So, he’ll always have more leverage than it seems to the casual eye because time will be on his side. Other teams targeting him and crafting plans to do so are effectively contribute to his leverage, too. Signing the extension buys some time, but it’s very much holding the Pelicans accountable in short order while locking in a pay day, and he’d get to decide half-way through that plan.

Also, if he’s chasing a title, there are only so many places he can go this offseason to do that. Sure, teams will do anything to get him, but you have to have a team there to actually compete. It can happen, but it’s not a given that something acceptable will appear this offseason that would beat the appeal of grabbing the cash and waiting out the trade restriction while the NBA powers du jour crack a little more, creating a window for Davis to enter the breach at a more favorable time, with New Orleans or without.

Timing is everything. You can counter with location, location, location, but I think that only matters at the right time.

If the season does not go well and the two-season plan is obviously a bust, we’ll see, but this “best player” rhetoric is very much putting everyone, including the Pelicans on notice that Davis is the one telling the world just what he’ll be doing.

This is a long-expected party.

The Plan

Great. So what?

Given the options and incentives impinging upon Davis, we have this reasonable bet on a two-year plan. What is it?

We’ve seen stars expectedly stay, unexpectedly stay, expectedly go, unexpectedly go. “Win, baby, win” is not the answer, and that’s obvious to anyone who pays attention. So, you probably have not read that much (whooosh, right across the bow). If you reflect on recent player movement, you will see this not to be . . . the whole truth.

Here’s what I think is important:

  • Not regressing from last season
  • Stable team foundation
  • Roster flexibility, including a chance to land another major player
  • NBA Award Recognition for Davis and another player
  • Reasonable progress on a major endorsement
  • Stable Leadership

What follows is fair stab at showing that, all things considered, the Pelicans should be fine taking that bet.

Bear in mind, there is no causal, deterministic way to force the desired outcome. It’s a complicated world, and you get through it by taking calculated risks. All you can do is do your best, try to better that best, and take the right bets. The rest is in the dice and Davis’ free will.

Anthony Davis is a man that deserves some say in his life. It’s best if all parties want him to be here, and he deserves to be in a situation he wants to be in.

Endorsements

Endorsements are a good place to start. This is not a consideration for many players, but it has to be for Davis. Endorsements have the potential to outweigh NBA salary for some players, but that pie is being more and more cut up as it expands, and other players are getting pieces while Davis is not. There’s this idea that big men just do not get significant endorsements, but this was false and continues to be.

It’s not clear that Davis would leave New Orleans due to a lack of endorsement money. After all, the big deals are not necessarily market dependent. The power of the top-tier athlete is to transcend typical market boundaries just enter the culture. Davis is not a classic spokesman and may not be an ideal candidate for many companies for reasons that are their own, but if he ties that failure to playing in New Orleans, that is one reason to leave. It might be enough alone, it might not.

If he were to land a major deal (or more), that is not something that cements in the city either. It is just one less discriminator on the board.

There was much overreaction to his changing his agent to Rich Paul and Klutch Sports. Some jumped to the conclusion that this was, on some level, him looking to leave or at least inviting those conversations, intentionally or not. There are a few reasons to change agents. These include personality conflicts, the agent deciding to move on, wanting to change team, negotiating a deal, connecting with other players, and non-NBA matters. Of all these, the most likely is exactly the last one, and, specifically, endorsements. On it’s face, Davis does not need an agent to handle his contract or connect with players, and teams will do what it takes to get him to his satisfaction, and any agent can handle that. We have no reason to suspect any issues with the agent and will not speculate on that without some reason.

So, as I stated at the time, I read this change of agents as positive for New Orleans, because now it is more likely he gets the endorsement he wants, removing that discriminator in his decision-making.

Ownership

The much discussed change in ownership, from the franchise perspective, was more of a change for the people than for the franchise. People’s legal association with shares in trust changed upon the untimely death of Tom Benson, but the real running of the franchise and larger empire was handled by others before just as it is now.

You heard me say for a while that Loomis acted as the owner in many in-franchise situations (Lauscha in other matters), and now you see that played out. I think you’ll see Lauscha, Loomis, and Bensel playing a major role in the NEXT succession, too, as it stands now. Think about it, and there’s always a next succession . . . or the team is not here . . . so it’s a valid analytical topic.

Though nothing will change, including their continued stance on the tax, which is “we’ll pay it,” in a major way, there will be some minor changes. Loomis will have more on his shoulders in terms of the responsibility of various decisions stopping with him, not with Mr. Benson, so there is more weight even if the duty is mostly the same. This will affect his time, as will more owner-like duties, like representing the franchises in various capacities, especially as time goes on. With hope springing for both franchises, it’s a good time to shore things up, let the organization re-equilibrate. Long-term plans have to be reconsidered, with the nearer-term plans shifting accordingly. There is a good bit to consider. They want stability. If they need to pay to get it, they will.

I look for some changing roles, and with those, some additional lower level roles added. They may not be highly advertised, but look for the staff to grow and shift some. Danny Ferry, for instance, seems to be out representing the franchise some, not just advising in the strict sense, and seemingly has not really being out there looking for other work. I’m not sure if Associate General Manager is a thing, but maybe it is a nameless thing.

Demps

Dell Demps got an extension. His commitment from the Pelicans is likely going to be no shorter than his commitment to Gentry until Davis is locked in. It would not make a ton of sense to have Demps as a lame duck GM during the coming two seasons, even less with a coach the next GM did not hire. So, just believe that if you do not believe me.

He’s been able to grow his staff over the years, even after some have moved on to other teams. There are many little consulting roles going on, and I expect that continue and continue to grow.

Full disclosure: I’m not nor have I ever been a consultant for the team. I’m not even sure I would even accept such a role, and they are uneasy enough about me as it is. I’m not sure they’d want some active writer they do not have a thumb on (and can not put a thumb on) walking around with not only their secret sauce, but the actual recipe for it. I mean, Dell, you can try me, but I’d rather just come in from time to time to give an independent assessment than get bogged down in all that. That said, I bet I could help you. I’ll do it, free of charge. That said, it’s clear that some of what gets typed up by me ends up in front of certain eyes at certain times and is considered as it should: good, fair thoughts from someone who truly wants the best for New Orleans (not talking the city limits here), and, in this case, by way of this particular piece of city.

At any rate, Dell has really grown as a GM. He’s often talked about as equal to his past deals, and this is just lazy on the part of whoever utters that. We have enough information on all fronts to see trends. He has stayed true to his Young Vets philosophy at its core, blended that with the team needs (or, Davis’ needs). Thus, he’s stayed true to himself. If you can do that while pleasing your bosses, you are “winning.”

He’s really done a great job in embracing game theory and economic principles, likely intentionally (if the latter, let’s grab a bite). He’s looked for players that had some sort of knock on them, and found value there. He’s worked the restricted free agent market (e.g. Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson), gone after guys a year early and locked them up, then held them or flipped them for a better fit at the time (e.g. Diallo, Jackson). He’s launched and revived careers, foreign, domestic, or expatriated (e.g. Smith, Belinelli, Babbitt, Miller).

He’s gone from being not-great at negotiating from a position of weakness early on (which is to be expected) to employing correct, consistent negotiating techniques, such as lowering the deal for Cousins after the first was refused . . . after such a refusal, Sacramento signaling to him that the Pelicans had the best offer, so he could counter and might still be the best offer while still inviting them to demand the original one or between if it was close. His negotiations with Chicago regarding Mirotic were widely misreported, largely because that is what the Pelicans wanted; Dell was just negotiating finer points, while Chicago was trying to use the press to create leverage where there was none.

He’s built relationships around the NBA, with agents, with the broader community, and in the franchise. He and his family embrace the city on top of it, so this is not a stepping stone job, at least at this point. He’s committed to this era of basketball in New Orleans, at least in that the incentives are aligned.

Dell is well-positioned to demand patience from those around him, to make tough calls, and to play the information game. This position is what he’s using to make this wager on the two-season plan. Not everyone gets to take these risks.

As I said before, the leaks about Cousins while true to some extent, and there and heightened to serve the purpose of protecting the franchise should they lose Cousins. The media is a tool he has learned to use, and they just allow it. I tell them when they are being hooked (e.g. Mirotic flap), but their life is firmly attached to the rolodex, and they exist in a state of dependence or desperation. He’s figured that out and wields the power the franchise encourages and fostered using the sibling franchise.

Bravo.

And as the media keeps turning over along with GM’s around the NBA, Dell is steadily becoming not just a veteran General Manager, but a brand unto himself, an individuated figure to be studied, appreciated, admired, and interacted with as opposed to just another guy with a desk, a phone, and a blue ink pen.

Gentry and Staff

Alvin Gentry and his staff had their options picked up, then they got extensions. There’s a bit of a raise there, but the main feature is tacking on more time consistent with the 2-year time frame I laid out.

Gentry in and of himself is a fine coach. He’s not one of the icons, nor is he the poor talent many fans and writers painted him to be for so long. He’s in the vast middle ground of “fine.” It’s hard to improve from “fine” in an overall sense, but you can improve the fit. With Gentry, however, it may be hard to do that since he seems to fit pretty well. He and Demps certainly do not see things with the same eye, but they are not so far apart to create a cesspool. Rather, there is a healthy tension that keeps them from converging on bad ideas because they mutually love them. Both see the value in a decent pace, in talented guards, in players with character and intelligence. Both are happy to rely on input from others.

Gentry is pretty much on the “hands off” end of the in-game-control spectrum as far as coaches go. He does his work behind closed doors. He does fine managing rotations and minutes. Some will quibble, but someone is always going to quibble. The overall amount seems about typical, so I do not give it special weight.

He is pretty good with player personalities, which is a good fit on this team and where it is likely going. I like to imagine that Rondo told Gentry, “Hey, Coach, you know I’m about to get tossed out of this game, right?” and Gentry replies, “Yeah just keep it to this game and get over it, ok?” when Rondo went after Isaiah Thomas during a matchup against the Lakers. I have no idea if this happened, and there have been zero reports of it. However, the fact that I can see it fitting is the point. I like that. (I like that about Rondo, too, actually.)

Gentry is personable and passionate, too. He definitely scored points with me when he went off about officiating after a loss to the Rockets. There was commotion prior.to the media availability. Gentry was so effective in his criticism, with the passion and the specifics and the contrasts, I like to think he called up the NBA and said, “Turn on the TV, because I’m about to get fined.” Again, this is just my fancy, but it illustrates how I think of Gentry and what I like about him. I said before, and I’ll say it again: the team needs more of Coach Gentry out in the world. He’s an underused asset as a personality. I got flak for saying they hid him, but they did, even if it was at his wish. Just keep trying to find the right formula and the right opportunities.

I’ve asked him a few questions, and he was pretty frank (if caught off guard by the question). I’m particularly thinking of when I asked him if he was happy with the rebounding (around Christmas). He said, “Yes,” and coachspeak-ed it a bit, but indicated they could improve. He knew it was an issue and addressed it periodically. I know he knows that’s an area that needed and needs attention, just like I know he values defense more than is commonly held to be the case.

He’s compartmentalized and hand-off approach is a choice made by Demps. It is a good fit with players that make the right decisions and are accountable. The Pelicans did not start off that way, but they potentially made strides recently.

Moreover, going after teams that are very efficient with their shooting is difficult at least in part because the pool of available elite shooters is smaller and smaller as time goes on. To counter, you need to go after possession efficiency. You generate shooting with choices for good shots, good passing to set up not-great shooters, rebounding to give you more attempts, your opponent fewer, defensive effort, managing both lines, and more. Versatile, teachable, team-focused players are key here, and few coaches if any can micro-manage all this. A hands-off in-game coach who will put a staff in place who do not mind teaching the fundamentals, emphasizing the same points to the stars as to the greenest role player, is one way to try to build a team that can play and have a shot at going after the modern, guard, wing, and shooting-focused NBA.

He has a stable staff that is talented and is allowed to really express themselves. They can explore and tailor and, frankly, learn. His patience and trust allow him to attract and keep top staff. Finch has gotten some love because of the bigs on the team and how they move the ball, but Erman was and will be the real key (he’s also the lone Associate Head Coach). This team needs to realize that its soul is its defense. They simply can’t compete any other way. Defense has to be the identity, the calling card, the brand. Defense, power, relentlessness need to shape the opponents’ game plans and break their resolve when it cracks. That’s Erman. He broke Portland (and it was hilarious). It needs to happen more and more the same way. Dudes need to be watching for Jrue and Davis to trap them by the pantry and slap the cookie out of their mouth when they walk to kitchen for a late night snack for about a month after the post-season ends.

Holiday

Jrue Holiday signed a large deal last off-season that had people’s eyebrows raised in skepticism to put it mildly. By the Playoffs, it was their hands that were raised in jubilation to put it mildly. By this off-season, people are in love with Holiday and just hope it continues.

Holiday is in no real danger of being traded. He seems happy and to have found his role on the team. He also seems to have found his mojo. Demps has been a stalwart defender of the guard, and I get it. I was on the Holiday train from the trade to get him. His misunderstood injury soured him in the minds of some, but he should have proven his value as a rare jack of all trades with no overbearing ego. He is a star that can fit in any constellation. I think Dell always felt Jrue was part of the core, which is why he went after him, which is different from picking up free agents, restricted or not, when they happen to be available.

His contract comes with a series of incentives, both likely and unlikely, that cause his deal to loom larger when the hard cap is triggered, as it was last season. These incentives likely only affect tax payments otherwise, as the Pelicans are poised to be a capped team for the next few years.

Concern arose last season about his fit with Cousins. I think this concern was overblown. Cousins had trouble integrating in all line-ups, but this abated over time, as should be expected. The real issue was that Rondo and Cousins had trouble playing together. Rondo helped make Jrue great, and this caused the Holiday-Cousins pairing to appear worse than it was.

Inefficiency arises when stars try to play together until they get it sorted out, but when the do . . . watch out. I don’t see how keeping Cousins would have affected Holiday or how Holiday would have limited Cousins on this team. As I said, I think Holiday will fit well with any stars, and I think he’s one of several guys who can work with two bigs or either one of them alone.

This team needs time, and new Holiday is in a way a new player. It will take time for him to fit in, but not that long. I think “it clicked” for him. His performance over 82 games may not match your brightest memory of his highest highlight, but I think his overall level of play will be up from last season, and I do not think it will sink back down on a consistent basis.

Another benefit of Holiday is that as a versatile player in all aspects of the game, he help each role player on the team, especially in the backcourt. His all around game adds some entropy for the defense to react to after they try to deal with the Davis, if they go that route, since he is a triple threat: drive, pass, or shoot. If they try to stop him, Davis is there to clean up contested shots if Holiday does not find the role player of the moment to bail him out in either situation. Those down-roster options are a strength of this team perennially, and with the top of the roster starting to truly shine, they will only twinkle more brightly, little stars for a moment reflecting the light of the large ones.

Lastly, while all players are susceptible to injury, lazy fans and writers rely on outdated impressions rather than real data when assessing these matters. His chronic issue is resolved, as was the personal issue I will not detail. There is no reason to think he is even as injury-prone as the typical player, but we should not actually expect better than that just out of conservatism. I’m thinking we are fine pinning the Davis hopes pretty strongly to Holiday’s ability and availability.

Regarding the two-season plan: Holiday’s deal has three seasons on it, so if things go sour, he can return value in trade as the team rebuilds if they choose to part with the guard.

Cousins

Though he’s gone, DeMarcus Cousins is the big off-season topic for many people. Prior to his Achilles injury, he was a top talent in the NBA with a big personality. The injury occurred as some signs were emerging that his star was rising. All of this just before he enters his first unrestricted free agency period and while the Pelicans are entering into a critical two-year period in their attempts to keep Anthony Davis in town. It all culminated with his departure to the Warriors and with the Pelicans having to embrace their remaining options, which maybe is for the best, maybe not.

There are a number of factors that go into this.

First, concern over the injury is justifiable. Leaving aside inexpert writers and their medical-sounding opinions, the number of legitimate comparison cases to Cousins is right around zero. The cases of this are rare enough, but it happening to a player of this age, this rough size, and without suffering another (seemingly unrelated) injury just is not there. Medical science is constantly changing, as are rehabilitation techniques and protocols.

Cousins’ intelligence and size factor into his game significantly, but being able to push off that foot is of undeniable importance. Whatever we see this year, if it goes well, it will likely not start off the way it ends, and next season will likely be even better for Cousins. If it does not, it will not change that much, but we will not be able to judge that, again, for some time. This season, then, unless there are actual medical issues at play, is essentially nothing more than something that will provide a warm-and-fuzzy feeling about the end state. I would not project peak performance based on this coming season, just if there may be more improvement to come or not.

Second and related, the Pelicans would have needed to win some games while his salary is sitting on the bench. They did so last season, but stretching that over 82 games against re-tooled teams may be tough, especially when every game may matter significantly in terms of post-season placement. Needing to spackle over the holes this season may, in fact, make a material difference in how they perform next season (and next off-season).

Third and continuing, the winning last season was relentlessly reported as a partially a function of chemistry. The team was paying well with Cousins finally, not just mid-pack, then lost a few when he went down, then went on a tear. After the streak ended, they still had a good record, won tough games, and swept the Trail Blazers in the Playoffs, managed to get a good win over the Warriors. If the best performances of the season were without Cousins, it is certainly reasonable to ask if the team is better without him. Add to this the consistent reports of Cousins’ personality conflicts, and it becomes a more valid question.

This contract was a big deal. Not only is it a high value contract potentially, it could affect his future deals or act as a major insurance policy for Cousins. Athletes do not get many changes at the paydays Cousins seemed to have in his future when he joined the NBA, but he’s consistently missed out on top money due to a combination of bad management and bad luck and, perhaps, in part, the personality conflicts.

Cousins is a deeply charitable person, seems fiercely loyal, and appears to be distrustful of those with agendas. He’s carried teams in Sacramento, got the blame for the teams not performing well enough to make the playoffs, then did not get a full commitment or the mega-start treatment in Sacramento. Players consistently echo that he is a good, misunderstood person.

I do not blame him a lick for not trusting the media, either. That becomes a vicious cycle. His own team will cut off recording or broadcasting before he comes out because they do not trust what he might say (their words said out loud, I heard them clearly). I asked him a few questions, and he eyed me hard and sort of gave me an “unravel the question” sort of answer. I mentioned his rebounding seemed to be up the past few games, then asked if it was intentional or a point of emphasis or just the way it played out. He said he did not notice he was doing more. He gives such honest answers when he lets himself, it belies his character, which is good, of course. This is not exactly optimal when you are trying to control the message, though.

We had been exposed to leaks from inside the organization about feelings regarding Cousins. We were told, on multiple fronts, that the players and staff were ok with Cousins leaving. We were also told the players only admit this to the staff but that it was pervasive. They did not say it to each other, so the claim went. We were also supposed to dismiss Davis wearing his jersey at All-Star and their personal interactions. We were supposed to believe what the players told the franchise but not each other, what they tell their opponents in negotiations, not their union peers.

Well, I am sure anyone is fine with just about anyone else leaving . . . under the right circumstances. I think we were dealing with narrow, nuanced comments being casually repeated until the nuance was eroded. I think it was intentional as part of the broader negotiation between the Pelicans and Cousins, between the team and fans. The Pelicans entered as the favorites to sign the big man, but they needed to protect themselves if he went. One aspect of this was making it appear, true or not, that’s fine either way. Cousins’ camp had been trying to drum up the market, or the appearance of one,

This brings us to the real transaction, which was somewhat debated in the media after-the-fact. Let’s start with the consequences from the perspective of offering an extension or short free agent deal, the kind of thinking that drives the offer to make . . . clearly, what’s in this thinking did not happen, and that is part of why the situation went the way did . . . along with the two-season plan. If Cousins walks, it is likely for a better deal, not to ring chase in his condition, not just to escape this team or be some in some particular locale. If he goes as a free agent, this, to me, is likely irrecoverable for the Pelicans. They need to add talent, and that takes salary. There are only so many exceptions and trade pieces to work with. You need salary to flip, time to make that happen, repeated used of exceptions to grow your books. Cousins walking sets that back likely to the point there the two-year plan is toast. The salary dropping does not instantly create room. Room is a function of the cap and all your contracts and some other things. That Cousins money only affects Cousins in terms of that kind of money. The total salary picture also pushes them not only to the neighborhood of the tax but the hard cap, if they trigger it. A significant Cousins deal puts the team in the position to use only the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception ($5,337,000) and not the large Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception ($8,641,000). They also would not use the Bi-Annual Exception or be able to accept sign-and-trades. At any rate, the effect of how much is makes is not too critical, and moves can be made, likely, to get under the tax line.

If there was a sign-and-trade, the Pelicans may have gotten something back and would likely generate a trade exception. These are difficult to use for various reasons, but it’s not nothing. Also, if you generate one with a plan to use it, things go more smoothly on that front. This is easiest with a room team, but those are drying up. Base Year Compensation makes it harder to match these sorts of deals if they are for big money with a big increase in salary. If the deal is not that large, there is no reason for the Pelicans not to outbid, so we are only talking about those cases.

If they got Cousins, there were two bad things that can happen. If the deal was long with high salary, this is bad if he does not play up to the contract value. The lesser-considered bad thing is if the deal was too short for too low a salary and he got good quickly. He’d walk out grinning and laughing.

Even if the Pelicans wanted to move forward without Cousins, the best move was to sign him to a contract tied to the market, then try to further shine up his health and personality concerns. Once the value is increased . . . and maybe you find a different kind of magic with the new Cousins in the mix . . . you trade him then. This way you can help maintain your salary war chest and your options long-term, not just right now on the difference between a TMLE player and a NMLE player.

So how much should he have gotten? Well, that depended on the market in part, on his last deal in part.

So, moving on with how it played out in real life . . . with Dallas out of the picture and the Lakers reportedly in the picture, the market for Cousins had experienced a net-contraction. The Lakers got LeBron, so them going for Cousins at all is, of course, up to Mayor-Elect James at that point, but this was just made up, and we all know it. I could not see them offering more than ~$25m total on a one year deal if they make it that far down their list. Pelinka may also see the Pelicans as future direct competition and wants to put a thumb on the salary scale at no real cost to him, score points with Cousins, players, fans just in case. Their timetable is too short even without James. If they landed just Kawhi, I feel the same, just less emphatically.

With max money off the table the natural nails in the market go from ~$18m (prior salary . . . so injury does no harm, no foul in raw salary terms), ~$22m from the sign-and-trade-market (roughly, and it’s complicated), ~$25m from the free agency market, set by non-bird-focused deals, and ~$30m (max) to just the first three of those. I’d pegged the market at ~$25m since that nail is close to the midpoint, pretty reasonable. Now I see it perhaps down a peg, more like ~$22m. Then, if LA goes away (or never comes), then it’s down to $18m. This can all be boosted up a notch or two with incentives. Deal length, options can affect it, too. As mentioned above and by me elsewhere: if you wait for the market, you are waiting on its timeline, not yours.

That’s the analysis going into the offseason. So, what happened? 2 years at $20m annually was offered and declined (nice analysis). When the market did not materialize, the unlikely thing happened: Cousins went ring chasing and he was accepted by the Warriors for the TMLE, or about $5m. Why? Well, that has a good deal to do with pride. We can see that market was not huge for him, but that he had some offers, including some sign-and-trades, but they weren’t to his liking. So, he took the $5m deal with the ring and time off, pissed off all the teams that didn’t offer him a deal he wanted, and has the chance to try to earn a max deal next year that would bring his two-season salary total back up to $40m (nice analysis, if you wanted to keep him). This was, of course, the risk in offering too low a deal. The risk in offering to high a deal is regression and lack of flexibility. These were the horns of the dilemma.

Well, I predicted disaster if that happened. As it turns out, maybe things lined up where the Pelicans, thankfully, have fighting chance.

Rondo

Before we get into that, one more piece not on the roster. Rondo’s importance to the roster this season was overblown, but, make no mistake, his departure was a blow. He left for an amount it was simply impractical for the Pelicans to match since it was above the NMLE (they would have had to dismantle the roster to create cap room even if they wanted to pay him anywhere near that much, and that certainly was not the plan). Rondo impressed many with his IQ and the quality of his leadership (this is not to say his is an optimal leader, but people lead in different ways, and Rondo’s brand of leadership is not something that is easily found in the NBA). Some of his contributions are residual, such as the leadership and “veteran” lessons he provided to the team. Others were just role-oriented. By freeing up Jrue a little, Jrue got better. This would be true for players that were not Rondo doing the freeing. That said, his passing ability certainly was a help, and, I think, an inspiration. He provided a stark example, and perhaps one that no one else could, of just how what this team could do with good ball movement across all 94 feet, not just for a couple plays in the half-court.

Part of the loss on Rondo was just that his departure was on the heels of losing Cousins. The personal blow to his teammates, as this was not expected, can not be ignored, but there is also the idea that resurfaces that any good player, given the chance, will leave. I do not see this as truly damaging in their context, largely because he left for a surprising amount of money. The Lakers are being led by a man who came from a team whose basketball IQ was not up to snuff. So, he sought Rondo, who had shown himself “worthy.” Leaving for a pile of money when one is not available in your current location (there was an inquiry on that front) is perfectly understandable.

The door is open for Rondo to return for the minimum.

Randle

In the offseason, I was saying this comes down to Mr. MLE. I had no idea how true this would turn out to be. Losing Cousins meant the loss of a great deal, but it also meant salary just coming off the books. Life over the cap is one where it takes time to build up enough salary to have a competitive roster. Losing that salary would represent a concurrent loss of talent (rare and difficult to acquire) and the loss of salary (requires time to build up).

Then, suddenly, Julius Randle was available. The Lakers, largely tied to the decision to go after Rondo, made Randle available, and he decided New Orleans was the place he ought to be, so he loaded up the truck and moved to the Big Easy. Randle, for whatever reason, did not fit the plan in Los Angeles, but this lack of fit is not a knock on him. Rather, Randle is nearly a perfect fit in New Orleans. He’s got fire, hustle, rebounding, effective play on both sides of the ball, play making, the right attitude to play with Davis, and an ever-impressing character.

Randle signed for the full NMLE ($8,641,000), and he has a player option for next season. This provides him a little insurance. The Pelicans will only have his Non-Bird Rights, so his next deal can only start at $10,369,200, which is not THAT much money. $8,641,000 got him this season. The cap is not rising 20%, so it stands to reason that this might retain him. Players like him are less-and-less in demand, but it only takes one offer to put the Pelicans in a position to have to become a cap team to retain him. If the Pelicans can navigate this coming off-season with Randle, his Early Bird Rights will almost certainly be enough to retain him thereafter.

if Randle performs the way many of us hope he will and think he can, he could very well price himself out of the Pelicans’ reach, but hoping he underperforms is not acceptable. So, they have to make sure this team is the place for him. Again, patience. Give the guys their wins, build their stats, get them some recognition, make the team experience a commodity that is hard to replace. They can not and will not just rely on “Davis.” That kind of attitude will drive Davis away. His game is one that will complement Davis’, and they can run the two-man game just like Davis and Boogie were starting to do. He also provides that guy that can take on physical centers when Davis does not want to.

They must make New Orleans a place players want to be. Period. Like Oklahoma City. The media love affair with the Thunder has been wrong-headed from the start, as many of them have just missed that fundamental point: It’s a team players want to play for DESPITE the limitations it has (every market has some issues, by the way). The stupid “market” thing is lazy and tired, as is “history.” It’s about a reputation among the players of a certain stature. Davis needs players and agents telling him at enough of a rate, that New Orleans in a fine place to be, and the telling needs to be both in words and in deeds.

Randle is the best MLE acquisition by this franchise. The minimum acquisition, as I’ve tracked for a while and mentioned before, continuously improve in quality, reclamation and rehabilitation players are finding success in the NBA. I do not know if it will happen, but the massive effort geared toward this is there and producing something that can not simply be ignored.

Mirotic

Mirotic is one of the Pelicans above-NMLE non-stars (Moore and Hill are the others), and he is the most valuable of the three, making $12,500,000 in this last year of his deal. He was the big acquired after Cousins’ injury last season, but he likely would have been acquired anyway . . . see: current roster. Mirotic is a moderate usage guy who does some little things, is versatile, plays some defense, and fits the mold of what the Pelicans want to do. He’s a key piece of the “Do It Big” thing that is apparently being retained for another season.

Mirotic has the best outside shooting game of the three bigs, thus providing the most “modern” looking offense when he is with Davis, less with Randle, and the least when he is on the bench. He does more than just shoot threes (along with the rest of the NBA, nerds). He’s a smart guy with decent rebounding (particularly defensive rebounding), defends without fouling, finds himself in the right places. He does not generate a ton of assists, but he’s involved in more plays than this statistic would indicate.

The Pelicans have his Bird Rights, so he’d be easy to retain from a mechanism perspective, and I imagine the will is there unless there is a cause to trade him.

Payton

Elfrid Payton is a bit of a linchpin here. Clearly, there are players with much more absolute importance to the team than Elfrid Payton. Payton, however, is in the position of potentially being the player whose performance, for a variety of reasons, will drive the team’s performance from anywhere between borderline Playoff team to top-4 seed, thereby potentially avoiding the worst of the first-round matchups.

Payton is a New Orleans area native (Jefferson Parish, actually) who played his college ball in Lafayette, Louisiana. His first four years were spent in Orlando with a short stint in Phoenix after a late-season trade in 2018. He signed for a portion of the Bi-Annual Exception (so the Pelicans are without it next season for $3,000,000. His Non-Bird Rights will allow him to be signed to a $3,600,000 deal next year, or they can use a portion of their MLE.

Payton is point guard, and he’s a fair passer, but he’s not a great outside shooter. This causes the nerds to turn on him. He, however, drives quite well, can dish on the move, and rebounds well. In college, he was noted defensively, but in the pros, this has not been the case.

Asking that Payton “replace” Rondo in any way is just lazy and stupid. Payton, when actualized, will likely be a better fit than Rondo because of his more rounded game. As a point guard, his main benefit comes with the role, which is freeing up Jrue as much as he needs to be freed up. He’s also played a good bit of minutes with Davis, which is a sign of how important he will be on this team, as I alluded to above. The driving guards that can dish, as I noted many times, is key.

The defense will be fulcrum on which the team’s season tilts, and Payton’s defensive prowess is the tip of that fulcrum. He’s been largely schemed away from the tip of the opponents’ offensive spear in preseason, whether that be by their design, the Pelicans’, or mutual consent. So, the jury is out on Payton, but really that in itself is information, since he is not out there sharpening himself at their expense. The team has been good about developing guys and protecting them in the process. So, I’m going to be watching this closely. The defense can be good if Payton is passable on defense. If Payton really turns it on come January, February, March, the defense can be special: total smothercation. They get to that level, you are not going to be able to buy a pair of tap shoes in any NBA city as the writers start shuffle-ball-step-ing in an effort to avoid recanting their naive preseason outlooks.

Hill

Solomon Hill is now the player that is gets the most Pelicans fan’s ire. For the casual fan, he does not score much. For the slightly more adept fan, it’s the contract he was given. For the self-styled expert, it’s some drivel usually that covers up the combination of those two.

Hill is by no means the prototype of a wing in the modern NBA. Rather, he’s a guy that we are told does many little things that are not really measured by stats, and that’s why the value is lost. There’s some truth to that, but the mistake of a handful of nerds does not cause Hill’s deficiencies to disappear. Even among high-minute-low-usage players, he sticks out as not-too-productive, even just looking at his first season with the Pelicans, as he was injured last season.

Now, coming off an injury, he is in his third season for a four season contract making approximately $12.5m per season and having to fit into a team that is very different from that his first season here.

However, I think this is not the real determining factor. Hill is here to be a low usage guy and play defense. He’s fine at the one. He’s a fine enough fifth offensive threat, too, but the defense has to be better than we’ve seen. It has to be better than it was when he came back last season, and he needs to be more consistent than he was before that. The pressure is on for Hill for a few reasons, and his contract is a legitimate one. He’s got a generous contract, and his next one will not be nearly so large if he does not deliver in his own way. The market for those guys is not great, but his salary, tied to pick and another player, is a great salary dump. If he lands somewhere that he can’t show his value, if it’s large, then he’ll be leaving a ton of money on the table and the ride will be, in a real sense, over. Meanwhile, as noted, there is some pressure to move him regardless to bring in a higher dollar player. So, he needs to show it, and he needs to show it defensively. He needs to be tough, smart, dependable, and he needs to be doing what he can on the toughest wing assignment each night.

He needs to through in some garbage man stuff, like rebounding in there. I have watched him drill threes in practice, many in a row. He needs to more than fill his role as fifth threat, and I mean that sincerely.

I’m pulling for the guy, but this is the situation.

Moore

Moore is an interesting case. He’s probably the most overall-tradeable player on the roster. He contributes fine on both ends, though his defense has taken a step back having to guard more, larger wings last season. He came on to the team with a reputation for defense and people questioned if he could bring enough offense. Now it’s flipped. The truth is between, and he’s an all-around fine player. His contract has two seasons left, declining from $8,808,685 to $8,664,928. Not bad.

Given this and that the team is certainly going to be looking to upgrade, especially if some of their down-roster player take some strides, he’s the most likely gone pecan. The question will be, at the time, what can you get for Hill, parts, first compared to Moore, first, parts, compared to Moore, Hill, parts, and maybe a pick package. (Can you tell that I’ve kissed the first goodbye?).

He’s starting this season, and I can see why, and it’s potentially a negotiation point in trades, but I’d prefer to see him contributing more on the second unit. That can perhaps happen some. I’d like to see him get some stats there for a couple of reasons.

Clark

Clark tested the market and did not find a greener pasture than in New Orleans, so he came back at the minimum. Last season, he was up and down, but he finished on an up. He’s slated to be that “next guard” in the “co-lead guard” approach the team takes, with Jrue and Payton being the first two. He’s got some defense in his game, and he is fine taking a secondary role on offense. If he can pick up where he left off, he and the team will benefit surprisingly from his performance.

The Pelicans will have his Early Bird Rights after this season. This will allow him to sign for a much larger deal next season if that was called for. Also, they could use him in a sign-and-trade as it was possible to do with Crawford this past offseason (though nothing came of it).

Remember, we need to look at the coming offseason.

Miller

Miller is another guy who will finish the season with Early Bird Rights after this season (his prior time with the team does not matter in this calculation), allowing similar moves as with Clark. He had the highest TS% on the team (61.7, edging Davis by 0.05), among players with at least 800 minutes on the season. This is, of course, due to this threes (over 70% of his shots, made at over 40%). However, he’s also very good from the line (58 of 67 on the season), but he’s just not good at getting there (58 of 67 on the season).

Miller was a guy I certainly had data-driven reservations about. He was just a reluctant shooter, and when Babbitt came in and let it fly, Miller was given the chance to fly away, too. He did, and he came back more confident. It didn’t take him long, because he had an attention-getting game in early November, and after that he started to displace Clark as the nerds’ darling player. While he suffered from the loss of Boogie, he also started doing more with his game. Adding a little more of a step or a drive to his arsenal will take him to another level, and the Pelicans will thank the stars they have his Early Bird Rights.

Okafor

I have some excitement about this pickup. We need decent insurance among the bigs, and Okafor could be a very good insurance policy. He’s battled a knee issue and some off-court issues, then was traded and essentially discarded. He’s gone from the third pick in the draft to an Exhibit 10 contract in three seasons in which he played 53, 50, and 28 games.

If he can play some in garbage time, play a little in the “nicked up” games, and give the guys a little rest when they need it late in the third, early fourth, I’m beyond pleased.

If he does more than that, that’s great. He could be a nice piece to keep around or a nice sweetener to deal. The Pelicans will have his Non-Bird Rights next season, which could come in handy, but no if he plays well in all likelihood.

Jackson

Frank Jackson is, as McNamara told us all, being sold to us as the rookie this a season (which he is in some meaningful ways). He’s got a $1,378,242 this season with a $1,618,520 salary next season (partially guaranteed at $506,143 if waived this season). He’ll be a restricted free agent after that, and the Pelicans will have his Full Bird Rights.

Jackson’s career is off to a late start due to injuries, surgery, recovery, and patience. The team has taken a slow approach with Frank, and by all accounts it has paid off. We will see how he looks this season, but he looks to start the season outside the 10-man rotation I think they go with early. So, I expect the patience to continue as long as health is with the team. Like Okafor, I expect him to creep in in garbage time, to give breathers at times, and as insurance. That will be his chance to shine in front of fans.

What needs to be remembered is that he can get good time in front of coaches and players in practice. Decisions to give him time directly or indirectly as a necessary consequence of a move could be influenced by practice as much or more than the games fans see.

The consistent tag applied to Frank: Aggression.

You have my attention.

Johnson

Wes Johnson is a new addition to the Pelicans and did not make it to New Orleans for practice before travel to Houston. Johnson was acquired in a straight up trade for Alexis Ajinca. Both players were on the last season on their contracts, Johnson making about $6m per season compared to about $5m for Ajinca. Ajinca has been injured for some time but had returned to some activity after surgeries. The Clippers had to trim their roster, and part of their move was to shift their salary downward in the trade, then waive that smaller amount to save some money. Meanwhile, the Pelicans add some salary, which is good, and got a contract for a player that can is cleared for on-court action. They’ll also have his Bird Rights at the end of this season. He can be immediately traded without aggregation, must wait two months to be aggregated.

Johnson is swing that is known for defense over offense and is low usage? Sound familiar? This isn’t just a depth move or a nudge-the-cap move; it’s a direct application of pressure to Hill. Hill will have the first move, since he’s with the team now and has been. But if he falters, Johnson is the kind of player that could slip into his place. While slightly less beefy, he fits in with the other perimeter players in terms of a size profile, so switching would be as effective or more as other lineups without Hill.

Diallo

Diallo is on the last year of his deal, making $1,544,951, and the Pelicans have his Bird Rights. The problem is, he’s 2 seasons into this development, and hasn’t cracked the rotation meaningfully. Granted, he is likely on the wrong team to just bubble up the depth chart, but his minutes are not causing people to clamor for him. The most likely value of Diallo is in practice, garbage time, and in trade. At some point, you trade you potential upside project and get another one, as it’s best for both parties.

Tim Frazier

Tim Frazier is back. The point guard who was traded for a second round pick is a waiver claim off a summer contract. His contract is for the minimum and is non-guaranteed. The point guard played well with Davis in the past but was a casualty of some cap maneuvering. He’s smaller the rest of the guards, so I do not expect him to be a major piece to the offense, but I can see how he would be more valuable to this team than Troy Williams, whose non-guaranteed contract was waived to create a roster spot for Frazier, now that Johnson is with the team. Frazier is a fair defender for his size and is, frankly, fun.

The team will have Frazier’s Non-Bird rights if he sticks with the team.

Kenrich Williams

Kenrich Williams is rookie on a non-guaranteed minimum contract that guarantees for this season in January. He also turns 24 this season. He’ll also be 24 this season, but the swingman got a late start to his 2 year college career for a couple of reasons, including a knee injury. He’s not an obvious scorer, but the scouting report on him is that he is defensive-minded, unselfish, and willing to do the little things as a glue guy. In a system that needs low usage guys, he could be a good end-of-bench guy, especially if that helps his knees rest and become “knowns.”

Bluiett

The Pelicans lone two-way player at this time, Trevon Bluiett is more offensive-minded. He’s a confident player and can score and pass at an NBA level. He needs to work on his defense, and he may need to bulk up a little to play on this team, given their type. He’ll be a fun one to track if he gets some time with the team during some busy stretches.

Trade Exceptions, Cash, Draft Rights, Picks

All of the Pelicans picks are intact, though there is a pick-swap option with Chicago on New Orleans’ 2021, which is not a meaningful impediment.

No cash has been traded, so they have the maximum of $5,243,000 to work with each way.

They have the draft rights to Tony Carr (playing in Europe) from this season and to Latavious Williams, a Mississippi native who went from high school to the D-League (skipping college), to Europe, where he was playing as recently as last season but seems without a team. These are used as “trade mechanisms” more than as actual rights.

As for players that have signed an NBA contract, the Pelicans have Non-Bird Rights on Motiejunas and the Early Bird Rights to Jordan Crawford.

Some trade exceptions remain on the books for most of the season: $1,471,382 and $1,429,818 expire on 2/1/19, and another for $2,300,000 expires a week later on 2/8/19. These can not be combined, but they can actually be used to acquire a contract whose value this season is worth $100,000 more than the value of each exception. They can be used to claim waived player if there is a roster spot for that player. To be clear, they can be partially consumed.

The Pelicans have no roster spots, but they have non-guaranteed contracts that result in less of a financial impact when those players are waived. Tim Frazier, Jahlil Okafor, and Kenrich Williams fully guarantee on January 10, 2019. Okafor and Kenrich Williams have a $50,000 partial guarantee. Nearly all of the players (not Davis, Hill Holiday, Moore, Randle (Player Option)) have either no salary or partially guaranteed salary next season, which can be assets.

The Pelicans have no meaningful exceptions to use to sign free agents later this season. They can sign minimum contract players. They also have a single two-way slot available. They can trade for players and have the capacity and willingness to add salary.

The Tax

This is a topic that I am just sick of. First, the team will pay the tax, just like they would have last season, and the season before that, etc. This is a fact. The case has to be right, and the bar is not that high. Paying the tax is not solely a financial decision. Rather, it comes with mechanistic constraints from the CBA itself. Permission to spend is curbed even if willingness is not on top of all the financial implications. Many teams that can pay the tax choose not to for these reason (see the Clippers and the cost cutting moves, or the Warriors). Other teams learn the hard way that sometimes you just pay it (see the Thunder).

However, paying the tax will actually be difficult for the Pelicans. Because of the volume of incentives they have relative to the Apron, which sets the hard cap, the Pelicans will be hard pressed to even have a chance to pay the tax unless their players’ incentives really kick in and they spend close to the maximum allowed by the hard cap.

to be clear, the Pelicans have the hard cap this season due to their use of the NMLE and Bi-Annual Exception (either one would do it).

Looking forward, which is the point. They can start next season in the tax or move into it, and they’d be willing to pay it. They could also find cost-cutting moves to drop below it before the end of the regular season. For this to happen, they would need to sign and acquire players by avoiding the bi-annual exception (done, since they used it this season) and any amount of the MLE above the TMLE amount. They would also need to avoid acquiring a player in a sign-and-trade next season. Conversely, if their salary position is to high to start the season, those options would be off the table.

So, an eye on how this year affects next year’s tax outlook is worthwhile.

Reputation

The Pelicans’ reputation around the NBA is a factor in roster flexibility because that reputation influences the players that are live options for coming to New Orleans. The franchise’s reputation is sometimes considered to be an off-limits topic, but I think that is because people mistakenly think the reputation is poor. I disagree. I think it’s neutral to good, depending on the aspects of the franchise in focus at the moment.

In the time Davis has been here, the team has advanced its reputation considerably. There are still lazy takes and typical disparagement from those who have to resort to such things because there are not legitimate criticisms they are qualified to make, but in the circles that matter, the Pelicans have certainly found themselves coming up in the world. They have been among the NBA’s higher spenders. While not being taxpayers, they have often been well above the median. Trading away picks and the like has an effect like this. They have invested, often above the original budgets, in improvements to the facilities and the Arena.

In the player market, and I mention this periodically, the quality of their best minimum contracts has improved significantly. From players that did not make it in the NBA, up to Morrow, up to Lance Stephenson. Time will tell on the current crop, but they have more of a prospect kind of feel, except perhaps Okafor.

This has been reflected in the quality of their higher-dollar free agents, with the case in point being Randle, who, again, may be the best MLE-type signing in the franchise’s history. Cousins was certainly entertaining signing here prior to the injury, and he’s a high quality player.

Mr. Trade

The major way this team is going to improve is via trade. The best case is that some legit NBA superstar points to NOLA and semi-sings, “I’m walking to New Orleans.” Next best, he just says it or something like, “Kennahbrah.” Behind that would be the normal trade request to NOLA. The most likely case, as least in the coming year or so, is that Dell trades for someone who is open to NOLA but is not already eyeing the city that hard.

The team will likely not being able to hold their gains by becoming a cap team and signing a new free agent unless that star is something special, so it has to be a trade. For that trade, you need assets, and they have to be varied to open up the market as much as possible.

Before the offseason, I thought Mr. MLE was the big decision to make to set this up. That got derailed since Randle ended up just filling the Boogie void (“replace” is not quite right here, just as Payton does not “replace” Rondo). So, now Mr. Trade, who was always going to be the most important piece of the Davis-support puzzle, is just that much more important now since the situation is a little more tenuous. Though, compared to the world where Boogie is under contract, the team has more “bookspace” to work with (I do not want to send the wrong message with “room”).

So, what does this player “look” like? The player traded for has a big contract, and maybe he’s overpaid. He’s probably on a team that has cap issues or “success problems” and looking to make a change. The team is looking to win differently, not lose. The player is likely a perimeter player, and likely a guard or swing because of the market, but could be a small forward. He’ll be capable of bringing the ball up and initiating some, so, a point guard or point man or lead guard or whatever. Again, it could be a small forward, but a more defensive-minded one. This is not to say the player needs to be a lock-down defender, but they have to fit the identity of the team, and they have to be willing to be low usage as least when with Davis out there. Davis needs the points and stats to get the “legacy points.” The salary next season, whether agreed to or not, would likely be on to put New Orleans into the tax. This is a point that actually makes it easier to trade for the player, since it would be a fair negotiating point in NOLA’s favor (it could not hurt, certainly). After all, part of what sets value is the perceived value that can be extracted. Downward pressure on that, therefore, can be a factor.

Season Outlook

I mentioned that there needs to be no real regression from last season. The League is a bit of a different place than last year, even moreso than in many years, but the comparison will be made.

The Pelicans won 48 games last season, and I think their fair range is right around there, say, 45-50 wins. Forced to pick a number, I’d say 45, but I think that’s a safe number. That can be considered a regression, but I think they will be more comfortably in the Playoffs, even if their seeding is not drastically different. So, in that sense, if they can be more clearly a Playoff team for longer, I think that matters more than the numerology.

Moreover, I think they need to make the second round and have a decent showing. No beatdown, even if they are swept.

If they can pull that off, that should handle this part of the equation.

Awards

Awards are not something I care about, because I have issues with the processes, but that does not matter. What matters is what Davis cares about. He’s gotten his share of awards, but he’s also felt he’s missed out on some. It affected his pocketbook with the Rookie Extension he signed, actually. I also saw with my own eyes how upset he was that he did not make the All-Star game in New Orleans until he was named as replacement. It matters to him, so it matters.

He’s worked his way into MVP conversations now, plus he may find his way onto any All-NBA team, and he might be a Defensive Player of the Year and get the scoring title. The style of play is geared toward this, and it’s no accident. Feature Davis, and a bunch of good stuff happens. The nerds get upset with the minutes, but voters like Raw Stats. So . . . there it is.

Jrue is now in the conversation for awards and has won some, Randle or Mirotic could be sixth men, and if this defense is good, there could be some All-NBA Team picks from elsewhere on the roster.

All in all, this part of the plan, like the rest of it, is set about as good as it can be to make this plan worth staking it all on.

Resources

Cap info from Basketball Insiders and other sources, stats from Basketball Reference, experience from all over, Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ, the CBA itself, and some friends.

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