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Can the Pelicans Win 50 Games Next Year?

After hearing the news of Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry accepting the job as the New Orleans Pelicans’ head coach, this tweet came across my timeline:

After deciding it would take far too many subsequent tweets to get my point across to Mr. Kelapire and others who feel the same way, I decided to break down the Pelicans’ outlook for the 2015-2016 season.

The Pelicans are coming off a season in which they won 45 games (the team’s most since the 2010-2011 season), had a legitimate MVP candidate (Anthony Davis) and lost to the eventual conference champions (and favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy).

Despite saying then head coach Monty Williams needed to make the playoffs in order to save his job, management decided it was best if the two parted ways and are bringing in Gentry to lead the most coveted asset in the league: a young franchise-changing big man on a rookie contract.

In parts of five seasons with the Phoenix Suns (his last head coaching job), Gentry amassed a .523 winning percentage, although he only made the playoffs one time (a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2010).

In his three full seasons with the Suns, his teams finished first in offensive rating in 2010 (115.3), nine in 2011 (109.5) and nine again in 2012 (106.2), according to Basketball-Reference.com. Defensively, his teams finished 23rd (110.2), 25th (110.4) and 24th (106.5) in those seasons, respectively.

Although both his offense and defense seemed to decline during his tenure in Phoenix, Gentry is the coach receiving the credit for the offensive resurgence in Golden State this season – something that he’ll be expected to do in New Orleans.

New Orleans had the ninth-most efficient offense in the league this season, scoring 108.2 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com. However, they also had the ninth-worst defense, allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions despite having two defensive-minded bigs in Davis and Omer Asik. While Gentry could very well turn the Pelicans into more than just the eighth seed in the Western Conference, he’ll probably have to do so with a very familiar roster during the 2015-2016 season.

The Pelicans will have about $56 million on the books for next season assuming Eric Gordon exercises his $15.5 million player option. With the cap expected to be around $67 million next season, this leaves them with what seems like $11 million to work with in the summer, but it’s not quite that easy.

If Gordon opts in, he, Davis, Jrue Holiday, Quincy Pondexter, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson are the only players the Pelicans will be committed to paying next season. While this is a very strong core of six players, the Warriors, Spurs, Hawks and a plethora of other teams have shown that it’s important to be able to call upon your bench in key situations, meaning the Pelicans are going to need to have a busy offseason if they want to take another step forward. But because of the complex nature of the NBA’s salary cap, the Pelicans are going to have to get creative.

The Pelicans traded a first-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets last summer for center Omer Asik. Because Asik had played two years for the Rockets and now one in New Orleans, the Pelicans now own his Bird rights, meaning they can go over the salary cap to retain him. However, in order to keep teams from using their available cap room and going over the salary cap to re-sign their own players, the league has implemented a cap hold system.

Under this system, the Pelicans have a cap hold of about $12.6 million for Asik, which means they no longer have the perceived $11 million to spend on free agents. The Pelicans do have the option to renounce the rights to Asik to remove the cap hold, but that also means the team can no longer go over the salary cap to re-sign him.

If the Pelicans decide to pay Asik, there are still options to improve the team. The team will be below the “apron” (or less than $4 million above the projected $81.5 million luxury tax line), so they can use the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to help improve depth. After that, the roster would be rounded out with minimum salary players.

Renouncing the rights to Asik could allow the Pelicans to bring in a player like Robin Lopez (a player they traded in the Tyreke Evans deal) or Tyson Chandler, but the crop of free-agent centers doesn’t seem to contain a player who’s significantly better than Asik and willing to take less than $15 million a year.

To answer the original question: With Alvin Gentry, no first-round rookie due to trading the pick for Asik (a dumb move, but I’ll save that rant for another time) and little money to significantly improve the roster, do the Pelicans have enough to improve their team five wins over last season while teams like Oklahoma City, Utah and Minnesota will almost assuredly improve? Sorry, Mr. Kelapire (and other Pelicans fans), it just doesn’t seem feasible.

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