The New Orleans Pelicans‘ ability to rally and reshape themselves after DeMarcus Cousins‘ Achilles tear helped them score their first playoff-series victory of the Pelicans era—and, more importantly, of Anthony Davis’ career.
But it also cast a fascinating cloud of uncertainty over their offseason, which started after Tuesday’s series-ending 113-104 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena.
If they could sweep the Portland Trail Blazers and take a semifinal tilt from the champs without Cousins, what does (or should) that mean for his impending free agency?
He’s the second-most talented player on the roster, but perhaps his absence created more favorable on-court conditions for Davis. Plus, Achilles tears present tricky recoveries for any player, let alone one carrying 270 pounds on a 6’11” frame.
This was always going to be the Summer of Boogie in the Big Easy, but the narrative has changed. What seemed like a no-brainer decision to route several Brink’s trucks his way has now given way to conversations about offering him a much cheaper and shorter contract than anticipated.
“The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported. “I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp.”
The Cousins conundrum is by far the biggest obstacle New Orleans needs to clear this summer. But there are also other free agents to re-sign or replace, a late-draft dart to throw in June and tricky roster-building puzzles to solve so this 48-win season becomes a springboard to something greater and not the peak of the Pelicans’ powers.
Setting the Stage
New Orleans already has at least $92.8 million on next season’s books. Considering the NBA projects a $101 million salary cap and $123 million luxury tax, the Pelicans have virtually no wiggle room even before they start spending.
That’s an issue considering all the spending New Orleans must do over the coming months.
Cousins isn’t signed. Neither is Rajon Rondo, their starting point guard and fourth-most utilized player in the postseason. Same goes for Ian Clark, who paced Pelicans reserves in playoff minutes, and Jordan Crawford. Darius Miller, who led the club with 147 triples, has a non-guaranteed salary. Cheick Diallo, Emeka Okafor and DeAndre Liggins have partial or non-guarantees.
New Orleans only has seven players under contract for 2018-19. And one is Alexis Ajinca, who missed the entire season after having knee surgery and was a part-time player the year prior.
The draft offers little hope for help. The Pelicans parted with their first-round pick in the February trade for Nikola Mirotic, leaving only their second-rounder (51st) in their control. Every once in a while those late fliers stick, but don’t hold your breath—two of the last five players taken 51st have yet to play an NBA game, and the other three have eight career appearances between them.
Priority No. 1: Delicate Dance with Boogie
As foreign as New Orleans’ twin towers model felt in this age of pace and space, both bigs had enough perimeter skills to make it work. The Pelicans could still spread the floor, only they could do it without sacrificing size.
The results weren’t dominant, but they were encouraging—aplus-4.2 net rating, which would have rankedsixth overall. When New Orleans put proper shooting around them, it made you wonder if this was the bulldozing duo capable of overwhelming trendy small-ball units.
That said, the Pelicans going to that same small-ball look with Mirotic as a stretch 4 provided even better production. The pace picked up, three-pointers splashed and Davis either overpowered or outran his counterparts at center. The Davis-Mirotic combo yielded a plus-10.7 mark, which no one matched this season.
“The team just looks like it fits,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr remarked, per ESPN’s Nick Friedell. “The puzzle fits together beautifully, and I think it suits Alvin [Gentry’s] eyes. This is his kind of team, and they’re playing extremely well.”
If that’s enough to make you think New Orleans would be better off without Boogie, you’re not alone.
“Maxing out a big man who clogs the floor for Davis—one coming off an Achilles tear who also has a history of locker-room negativity and unreliable effort/conditioning—would be a disaster,” Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wrote. “There’s really no scenario in which keeping Cousins makes sense.”
But it’s not that simple.
Shedding Cousins wouldn’t open up enough wiggle room to find a high-level replacement. Keeping him, though, would open the possibilities of staggering his minutes with those going to Davis and Mirotic, potentially giving the Pelicans a shapeshifting frontcourt for any situation.
The bigger argument for re-signing Cousins, though, might trump the rest—Davis is for it.
“I’m going to keep selling the dream here,” Davis said, perMarc Stein of the New York Times. “I’ll be very involved—I want him here.”
If there’s a risk that cutting Cousins could alienate Davis—who can enter free agency in 2020—that sounds more catastrophic than possibly overpaying Cousins. New Orleans shouldn’t hand him a blank check, but the NBA’s ninth-best scorer and third-best rebounder remains worthy of a significant investment.
Priority No. 2: The Rondo Riddle
It only took a one-year, $3.3 million commitment to lure him to Louisiana. He outperformed the pact—8.2 assists against 2.3 turnovers in the regular season, double-digit point and assist averages in the playoffs—but his market remains murky.
He turned 32 in February. He never developed a consistent outside shot. His numbers wavered over the course of the campaign, before #PlayoffRondo again dazzled under the bright lights, particularly during the first-round sweep.
But he also taught a young team how to win.
“Everything that he does is a winning mentality, a championship mentality and a lot of people haven’t seen that,” Jrue Holiday said, per ESPN’s Nick Friedell.
And Gentry afforded Rondo the freedom he needs to thrive.
“If you’re gonna have him on your team, you’ve got to believe in him enough to understand he’s gonna put guys in the right situation,” Gentry said, per The Ringer’s Danny Chau.
How do the Pelicans properly price all of that? And is there a reasonable figure that keeps Rondo around but leaves enough flexibility to address the void of two-way wings?
There’s probably a number that works for New Orleans, but the franchise must decide on it and be willing to walk away if it can’t be met.
The Pelicans’ constant pursuit of immediate upgrades has decimated their draft cache. They’ve only made one first-round pick in the past four drafts and won’t add to that number this year without orchestrating a trade.
As it stands, New Orleans holds only the 51st selection—a Hail Mary heave with a minuscule connection percentage.
Still, it’s a sliver of a chance to add the type of young, cost-controlled talent this roster needs. Ideally, it would scratch an itch for outside shooting and/or wing upgrades, but any prospect that develops into a rotation member would work.
Jevon Carter (West Virginia) is a relentless defender who might deliver serviceable contributions in playmaking and outside shooting. Justin Jackson (Maryland) has an intriguing 7’3″ wingspan stretching out of his 6’7″ frame, although a shoulder injury sabotaged his three ball (25 percent, down from 43.8 as a freshman). Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech) flashed some three-and-D potential.
If the Pelicans would consider a three-point specialist—they were 18th in makes this season and might need to replace Clark—Jalen Hudson (Florida) could be an option.
“[Hudson] excels as a floor-spacer, running off screens and pulling up off the dribble comfortably,”Jeremy Woo wrote forSports Illustrated. “He’s a good-not-great athlete and is likely to be limited as a playmaker and defender in the NBA, but his smooth stroke gives him a chance to make an impact.”
New Orleans will do the bulk of its free-agency shopping in-house.
Crawford, Liggins and Okafor are all replaceable. Clark could be viewed the same way if he finds the pay raise everyone thought he’d get last summer.
So, there will be openings—but also limited funds with which to fill them.
If the Pelicans put the midlevel exception in play, that might get them in the Danny Green/Trevor Ariza range of three-and-D wings. Or perhaps it delivers a sparky reserve like Will Barton to lead the second team.
If that’s too steep a price to pay—they’ve never footed a luxury-tax bill—they’ll be stuck sifting through the bargain bin.
As Bleacher Report’sDan Favale forecasted in February, that road could lead them to Gerald Green:
“The Pelicans don’t have this player on their roster—unless Solomon Hill turned into a lights-out shooter while recovering from a torn hamstring. DeAndre Liggins doesn’t have the jumper. E’Twaun Moore doesn’t have the size. Darius Miller too often gets railroaded at the defensive end.
“Green isn’t a panacea. But he would, as of now, rank as New Orleans’ most dynamic wing.”
When the budget is this tight, it might make the likes of Nick Young, James Ennis or Corey Brewer seem attractive. Or maybe New Orleans squints hard enough to see Michael Carter-Williams as worthy of a low-cost gamble for backcourt depth. Or perhaps Gentry remembers Marreese Speights‘ ”Mo Buckets” days during their shared season in Golden State.
These options aren’t sexy. They might not even be good. But when you go dumpster diving, the haul often resembles the price.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.
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