Pelicans Take No Chances with Anthony Davis

NBA free agency has moved extremely quickly so far in 2015, with many of the top players already agreeing to contract terms within the first 24 hours they are eligible, each decision leaving teams dismayed or delighted, depending on the outcome.

The biggest winners, though, came when a team re-signed a player who wasn’t even on the market. As soon as midnight struck on Wednesday, the New Orleans Pelicans agreed to terms with Anthony Davis on a maximum five-year contract that could exceed $145 million, depending on the exact salary cap figures that will be determined as the cap rises dramatically in the next two offseasons.

According to Yahoo! Sports, the fifth year of the deal will include a player option, but it effectively locks up one of the league’s best young players through 2020 and gives the Pelicans a great foundation to build around.

The extension kicks in after next season, when Davis will be eligible for the “Derrick Rose rule” since it marks his first extension following a rookie contract. The provision requires that if a player makes at least two All-NBA teams, two All-Star Games or wins league MVP while playing on their rookie deal, they’re eligible for an extra five percent of a team’s salary cap on any max contract — 30 percent instead of 25.

That’s a significant leap, and one Davis should be able to attain easily, given that he was fifth in MVP voting last season. If he takes the full max, he’ll be the first player to utilize the Rose rule under the massive new salary cap.

If all of this seems like too much for Davis, well, it’s not. Davis is perhaps the closest thing besides LeBron James to a basketball cyborg, and he’s certainly the most potentially transcendent talent to enter the league since James. The contract will start off by paying him between $29-30 million, and even that’s not enough for the combination of size and skill Davis possesses.

We simply don’t see guys like Davis, an elite shot blocker who can guard bigs as well as switch onto any perimeter player, rebound the ball, push it in transition and finish with a swish or a dish. Davis played guard until his senior year of high school, so he understands the game well and can make all the passes. Last year, he added a lethal mid-range jumper, and this offseason, new Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has said he intends on developing Davis’s corner three-pointer first and foremost.

The dude almost literally defines a perfect player, and in today’s NBA, where the power forward position has become the linchpin of teams’ strategies, you can’t pay guys like him enough. (Really, this would be true of Davis in any time period.)

Securing Davis for the long-term represents the obvious first step to contending for New Orleans in the Western Conference. As teams at the top are trying to shuffle and reload for another brutally competitive year out West, the Pelicans are trying to climb to that level after sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed last season and putting together an admirable showing against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors (even as they were swept in four games).

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New Orleans also re-upped backup center Alexis Ajinca this week, establishing at least three of the bigs in their frontcourt rotation for next season. Omer Asik is a free agent, but he struggled during his first year in the Bayou last season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Pelicans renounced his large cap hold to pursue a free agent somewhere in the range of $5-10 million.

If they re-sign Asik, it will essentially mark a decision by the front office and Dell Demps to simply run it back with the same squad under a new coach and hope to stay healthier after Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday combined to miss more than 80 games last year.

That’s an interesting roster at full strength, and how they play this season will have a huge influence on the franchise’s evaluation of this group playing together.

Virtually all of New Orleans’ roster could be in flux next summer depending on how things go in 2015-16, which should be be a nice change given how much of their cap (about $45 million) they’ve had tied up in the foursome of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans for the last few years.

After next season, both Anderson and Gordon’s contracts will come off the books, which isn’t a huge deal in terms of cap space but would simply bode well for their roster flexibility. The contracts of Holiday and Evans expire in 2017.

Without any cap holds, the Pelicans would have about $34 million to spend in 2016 and would only have Davis, Evans, Holiday and Quincy Pondexter under contract since they didn’t keep any draft choices this year. That’s a pretty promising bare-bones start. Signing Davis now gives them long-term security and doesn’t screw with their cap flexibility given the rise in the cap, so they have the ability to start planning for a future built around Davis now.

Now the Pellies just have to choose who they want to keep around. They would certainly be interested in keeping Anderson around at the right price, given that he seems like Gentry’s ideal floor-spacing big man. They might look to move Evans, who has had trouble working off the ball in New Orleans, but even his deal will look fine under the new cap. The point is, they have options, and even more crucially, a superstar talent to build around.

A player like Davis attracts better talent in free agency, even to a traditionally unpopular destination such as New Orleans. Even in this year’s free agency, we’ve increasingly seen teams that are normally on the fringes of free agent’s considerations — Phoenix, Milwaukee — actually have legitimate shots at luring free agents, given their personnel and professionalism. As everyone races to catch up with analytics, facilities and general game-savvy, players are increasingly becoming enticed by elements other than location.

Who knows? With some success this season, the Pelicans might have some serious options for how to spend their money next offseason, and there will be no shortage of players looking to soak it up. The next couple offseasons are going to be pretty crazy.

It is a long climb to the top in the NBA, especially in the Western Conference. The haggard Pelicans were able to claw into the Western Conference playoffs in a season where Dante Cunningham was one of their crucial pieces, though, thanks in large part to how good Davis already is.

Depending on how good he becomes, that climb to the top should become a lot easier than most’s thanks to Davis.

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