Why Dell Demps Should Pick Up Austin Rivers’ Option

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Published: October 24, 2014

Today, the New Orleans Pelicans picked up Anthony Davis’s option for the 2015-16 season. No surprise there. But according to John Reid of the Times-Picuyane, they will decline the 2015-16 option on Austin Rivers. The Pelicans have until October 31st to make this decision officially, and if they do pick up his contract, Rivers will be guaranteed 3.1 million dollars in 2015-16. They would also have the right to make him a restricted free agent in 2016-17 by giving him a 4.2 million dollar tender before he hits free agency. Meanwhile, if they decline his option in the next few days, he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July of 2015, and could just up and leave New Orleans three years after he was drafted here 10th overall.

So why would Demps risk letting a 22 year old lottery pick go before he reaches his prime? The argument for not picking up the option centers around flexibility. Not only could it give the Pelicans an extra $3 million in cap room next summer, but it also could make Rivers more valuable on the trade market this year – as he would be an expiring contract. If the Pelicans want to go out and get a SF at the deadline, and the team they are trading with doesn’t want to take back any long-term salary, then Rivers can help facilitate a trade. They can put him with (just an example) Withey and Salmons, and take back nearly $8 million in salary.

That scenario makes more sense to me. Declining the contract to have another $3.1 million in free agency next season does not. First of all, it’s not really $3.1 million. You need to have a cap hold for open spots, so you are actually creating about $2.6 million in cap room. Next, we have to look at the salary cap, which is projected to be $66.5 million next season. Now, with the new TV deal, there is a small chance that the players and owners can agree to smooth out the big bump, and raise the cap more than that next year. But that doesn’t appear likely. If the cap is $66.5 million, and Eric Gordon opts in (again, likely if the cap isn’t smoothed) and the Pelicans retain Asik’s cap hold, then the Pelicans will be right up against the salary cap if they decline Rivers, and slightly over if they pick up the option. In either case, they will have the MLE. But in only one case, will they be guaranteed Rivers for $3.1 million AND have a chance to match any offers the following summer.

The only way that declining Rivers option next summer, therefore, is if the cap is smoothed and/or Eric Gordon opts out of his final year. Again, neither appears very likely right now. The most likely outcome is that the cap is $66.5 million next summer and Eric Gordon opts in. Then, the Pelicans re-sign Omer Asik, and they are over the cap. The most likely scenario is that the Pelicans make their next big free agent move in 2016, when Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson come off the books and the cap takes a pretty significant jump up. So why not make the Rivers decision then?

Declining his option could put Dell Demps in a difficult position next summer. Let’s say Austin plays well and he is a 23 year old combo guard who has improved greatly two years in a row. Now, Dell wants to sign him and Austin wants to stay, but he isn’t just going to take a one year deal. Dell has to decide: Do I let him walk or do I eat into my 2016 cap room by giving him a multi-year deal? Neither scenario is ideal if it plays out like that. What you would love in that scenario is for Austin to take a one-year deal, so you can put it off until the following summer. Or basically, exactly what would happen if Dell picked up his option this week.

Look, this decision is probably not going to make or break the Pelicans future championship hopes, but the flexibility that not picking up Austin’s option does not outweigh the problem that would be created this summer if Austin takes another leap forward and hits unrestricted free agency. Nobody ever said being a General Manager was easy, and this is admittedly a close call, but the best thing for the franchise would be for Dell to value Rivers over a tiny bit of flexibility that might not even really exist when its all said and done.

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