The New Orleans Pelicans had an undeniably successful season. They battled through injuries and adversity, watched their superstar blossom into one of the three best players in the league and took the next step in their organization’s development by qualifying for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. By nearly every account, they exceeded everyone’s expectations.
But I do say “by nearly every account” very deliberately because the Pelicans’ front office clearly didn’t see their season in the same light, and Monty Williams bore the brunt of their disdain. He barely had enough time to reserve his offseason flight to Tahiti before he was handed his pink slip. Apparently making the playoffs in a year that nobody thought you had even a remote chance to do so isn’t enough to ensure job security anymore.
The future is undoubtedly bright in New Orleans, though. With one of the best players in the game on their roster, it is clearly the best open coaching vacancy, and they will literally have their pick among available candidates.
Their salary cap situation is definitely not as pretty as it may seem on the surface. While it is true they only $56 million on the books right now for next season, that is definitely temporary as it is almost foregone conclusion that Anthony Davis receives a true max-contract offer this summer.
Because Davis was an All-Star Game starter and because he will be first-team All-NBA, he will be eligible to receive 30 percent of whatever the salary cap ends up being. That will likely put him near the $25 million mark in terms of his cap figure for next season. Regardless of the number, it is a no-brainer for them to extend him to a long-term deal.
That said, they may not have all that much money to work with to bring in some complimentary pieces to surround Davis with, but we’ll dive into that in a little bit.
The Pelicans boasted one of the league’s most efficient offenses this past season, finishing eighth overall in efficiency with a 108.2 rating. Their effective field goal percentage (50%) put them 11th overall and their three-point percentage (36.8%) was the fourth best in the league.
They also shared and protected the ball better than most of the league, 22.1 assists per game (10th) and 13.3 turnovers per game (7th). I think it’s fair to say most of their weaknesses rested on the other end of the court.
Heading into this season, the Pelicans knew they had some issues to address on defense, and thought they went a long ways towards doing so by adding Omer Asik to their roster. Although he admittedly helped improve a defense that was ranked 27th overall last season — they improved to 22nd this season — he was clearly not the answer, as evidenced by his complete disappearance in their first-round playoff series.
Although Asik added a low-post defensive presence, and an additional rebounding presence, the Pelicans’ 31.9 defensive rebounds per game still put them near the bottom of the league (21st). The Pelicans also lacked much in the way of a perimeter defensive threat, and as such their 6.8 steals per game was the 25th worst in the NBA.
If the Pelicans want to make the jump to the next level, and become a legitimate contender, they clearly need to address these areas.
Where Do They Go Now?
As mentioned previously, the Pelicans may not have that much money to work with this summer. Assuming they sign Davis to a max-deal, their total salary number would sit at around $78 million.
However, this assumes that they retain their restricted free agents, Norris Cole and Jeff Withey, and that Eric Gordon doesn’t exercise his player option and chooses to remain on the team.
The Pelicans best hope to add some meaningful pieces may rest on convincing Gordon to opt out and explore his options in free agency. That may not be as easy as it sounds however, as he has $15.5 million owed to him this season, a figure he certainly won’t be able to match on the open market.
If Gordon sticks around, the $78 million owed in salary only puts them about $4 million below the projected luxury tax line. If the Pelicans ownership is willing to pay into the luxury tax, there may be a few options they could look towards in free agency.
Tyson Chandler is definitely someone who would solidify their interior defense. He would also instantly improve their rebounding ability and would be a great locker-room addition as well. A frontcourt of Chandler and Davis would be among the league’s most feared.
Robin Lopez might be a more affordable option, and would provide similar toughness. His work ethic and blue collar style could be a good contrast to Davis. Brandan Wright also makes sense in a similar role. Roy Hibbert could also fill a need for this team as a rim-protector, but he will need to take a drastic reduction in pay, which may be an inevitability anyway.
As far as shoring up their perimeter and wing play, assuming Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday are all still part of this team next year, their options are probably even more limited. Wesley Matthews would be a perfect fit, but he may be too expensive, even considering the toll his injury will take on his worth. Other less exciting options include Gerald Henderson, Alan Anderson, Jae Crowder or Al-Farouq Aminu. All of these players would be upgrades over their reserves at shooting guard and small forward now.
A lot of what the Pelicans decide to do this offseason hinges on who they hire as coach. They could very well decide to go in a different direction entirely and get rid of some of the redundancy between Holiday, Evans and Gordon. I wouldn’t be shocked to see one of them get moved before next season.
I think the bottom line is that this team is probably two significant pieces away from being a true contender, and those two pieces are probably not obtainable this summer. They probably have their eyes on the summer of 2016 when they gain more cap flexibility, and the salary cap explodes from the new television revenue.
All that said, there’s no reason this team can’t take the next step and get past the first round of the playoffs next season. A few shrewd moves could go a long way to ensure that happens.
The future is definitely bright in New Orleans. My advice for the fans is this: enjoy the ride.