The Pelicans’ Roster Under Gentry – What to Expect Next

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Published: June 8, 2015

First, Alvin Gentry. Soon after, Darren Erman & Robert Pack. The core of an excellent new Pelicans coaching staff is now in place, and with that being the case, the natural next question is how the upcoming free agency period will be affected by these changes. Below is a player-by-player look at what the Gentry hire could mean for the Pelicans this summer while keeping in mind the key takeaways from my salary cap situation column that I published last month.

Eric Gordon

No, Eric Gordon is not a free agent, but it felt appropriate to start things off addressing his player option for next season. Jarron Collins, current Warriors player development coach and former player under Gentry in Phoenix, said that Gentry could “draw up a play to get a corpse an open shot.” That sentence should be just about all Eric Gordon needs to hear for him to exercise his 2015-16 player option for $15.5 million. With the salary cap set to increase by over $20 million in the summer of 2016, Gordon should be salivating at the chance to play out a contract year within Gentry’s high octane offensive system. The odds of Gordon opting out were low before, but now they are pretty close to zero.

Verdict: Gordon Opts In

Omer Asik

Easily the most interesting topic heading into this summer is how Asik will fit into Gentry’s plans moving forward, or if he even will at all. Though it may be easy to say that Asik does not make a ton of sense in an up-tempo style of basketball, simply looking at Gentry’s current team in the NBA finals shows that writing Asik off is an incorrect reaction. While Asik isn’t quite on Andrew Bogut’s level at either end of the court, he can certainly fill a similar need within this Pelicans roster, especially with Gentry and Erman designing his role. Based on the inherent salary cap restraints in replacing Asik, it easily makes more sense to retain him instead of search for help elsewhere.

Verdict: Asik re-signed

Alexis Ajinca

Of the Pelicans’ key free agents, Ajinca is probably the guy who is the worst fit under Gentry. Despite his 7’2″ size, he doesn’t defend particularly well, and though he has a fairly reliable mid-range jumper, he isn’t terribly mobile and may struggle in a fast-paced offense. That being said, as a fourth big, Ajinca would be great for almost any NBA team. Based on his production last season, though, he may command a higher salary as a free agent than the Pelicans are willing to offer. Assuming Asik is retained (or if he is not, a similar player such as Koufos is brought in to replace him), Ajinca will likely realize that he can earn more minutes elsewhere, and therefore he may opt to play elsewhere next season.

Verdict: Ajinca renounced

Norris Cole

For a team aiming to make a deep playoff run, Norris Cole will never be a major rotation player. However, as a point guard who is a solid athlete, likes to run and is above average defensively, he is a fit under Gentry for the right price. Cole has a qualifying offer of around $3 million this summer, and something around that would be reasonable.

Verdict: Cole re-signed

Dante Cunningham

While Cunningham was and still can be a valuable rotation player for the Pelicans, he played well enough last season to command a significant pay raise from his veteran’s minimum contract he signed during last season. The problem for the Pelicans is that they would likely need to use most of the MLE to keep him, and therefore the question becomes whether or not there are better options than Cunningham with that cap exception. Under Monty, there was a decent chance that Cunningham returned, but with Gentry, the odds likely go down. While retaining him is certainly still a possibility, I lean towards believing that the Pelicans will use the MLE elsewhere.

Verdict: Cunningham renounced

The Other Guys

Jeff Withey has a qualifying offer for about $1.15 million, which the Pelicans should be considered likely to extend regardless of the coach at the helm. While Withey still hasn’t shown enough to be considered a consistently reliable bench player, for that low dollar amount, he fills a short-term need simply because his size provides depth at the center position. Babbitt is another guy that the Pelicans will likely look to bring back, but if another team offers him more than the veteran’s minimum, he may walk. Jimmer may be more likely to return under Gentry as a floor spacer at the league minimum, but given how much he struggled in New Orleans last year, it remains to be seen if he would have any interest in returning.

The MLE

So far, we have Eric Gordon opting in to the last year of his contract, the Pelicans re-signing Asik and Cole, and Ajinca and Cunningham heading elsewhere. These moves would put the Pelicans over the salary cap but well below the luxury tax threshold, giving them full use of the non-taxpayer’s MLE, which is $5,464,000 for next season. The question then becomes who would be the best fit under a team led by Gentry? The clear need with this exception (assuming Asik is retained) would be at the wing, and there are a few guys who could fit. Some options (though the cost of some may exceed MLE level depending on their respective markets):

Corey Brewer (Poor 3-point shooter, but solid defender and athlete who can thrive in running offenses)
Jared Dudley
(played under Gentry in Phoenix)
Jae Crowder (restricted; likely retained by Boston, but Erman coached him this past season)
Gerald Green (elite athleticism, decent 3-point shooting, questionable decision-making)
KJ McDaniels (raw, but athlete real upside at only 22 years of age)
Dante Cunningham (if Pelicans can’t find a better fitting option, Cunningham could still be retained)

Once the NBA Finals come to a close, we’ll likely hear more from Gentry about his plans for the Pelicans. Until then, we can only guess at players who may fit his coaching style based on his past teams. At that point, a deeper dive at how the Pelicans may use this exception should be possible, though it is important to keep Michael McNamara’s column about the MLE in mind – it won’t have as much value moving forward due to it being a far lower percentage of the cap than in the past.

Summary

Though it may be a bit boring, the most likely scenario even with the coaching change is that the Pelicans’ roster looks a lot like it did this past season, and there is nothing wrong with that. We could see a different wing replace Cunningham (or added to Cunningham) and Ajinca may leave for a chance at more minutes elsewhere, but apart from that, most of the Pelicans’ current core will likely return. Obviously, a trade is not out of the question either, but speculating about trade scenarios would be pure guesses at this point. The real difference will come as a result of how Gentry and his staff utilizes the many different talents throughout the roster, and those changes are cause for serious excitement.

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