The offseason is just beginning. While teams and free agents have agreed to contracts, those can’t even be signed yet. In theory, there’s still time for significant additions. Most of the big names in the market, however, have already been claimed, leaving mostly complementary players and deep bench guys waiting for a contract. The majority of teams moved fast and pounced on their targets.
The Pelicans, on the other hand, have been really quiet and have mostly sat out the whole offseason so far. It turns out it might have been the right decision, even if it doesn’t look like it at first glance.
New Orleans didn’t have a first-round pick as a result of the trade that brought them Omer Asik from the Rockets. Instead of trying to move up in the second round at least, they stayed at 56 and selected Michigan State’s Branden Dawson only to move him for cash to the Clippers.
The Pelicans entered free agency over the cap but could’ve carved out between $12-14 million in cap space, depending on how high the salary cap is set. To do that they would’ve had to renounce all their free agents, a group that included rotation pieces Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Dante Cunningham and Norris Cole. Instead, they brought back Asik and Ajinca for a combined average salary of $17 million a year to man the center slot and Cunningham to $3 million a year to provide some depth at forward. They’re reportedly looking to bring Cole back as well.
On opening night, the roster will roughly be the same it was in the 2014-15 season, when they barely made the playoffs and were swept by the Warriors. The team’s average age, even including 22-year-old Anthony Davis, is over 27 counting only the players that’ll return. Before committing long-term money to role players over 25, most teams make sure they have a strong enough core to go deep in the playoffs and the Pelicans haven’t done that yet, which suggests they might have played things too safe instead of taking a risk to raise their ceiling. In reality, this was the only reasonable course of action.
It’s impossible to know how good this current group can actually be for two reasons. First, injuries ravaged them last season. Between Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, they combined to miss 98 games last season. When everyone was available, the Pelicans could put together some killer lineups. The Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Davis-Asik unit outscored opponents by over 11 points per 100 possessions, per Those are likely the five players that’ll be on the floor at the end of games, and they’ve been effective together in limited minutes.
The other reason we don’t know their upside as a team is because they incorporated players midseason last year. The Pelicans made their moves before the offseason even started, signing Cunningham and trading for Quincy Pondexter and Cole. Pondexter could be the starting small forward next season and Cole — if he returns — and Pondexter will allow for a lot of lineup combinations. They were productive last season and should be even better than they were last year with a training camp under their belt. The Pelicans can realistically go nine deep with rotation-caliber players if everyone remains healthy.
The West is unforgiving, so it’s unclear if the Pelicans will get a higher seed next season. The Trail Blazers are expected to fade after tearing down their core and losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, but the Thunder are a lock to return to the playoffs. It remains to be seen how much how much the Clippers will slide after losing DeAndre Jordan to Dallas and how much the Mavericks will improve, but in all likelihood, New Orleans won’t have homecourt advantage even if everything goes according to plan. Other teams simply have more talent right now. That’s fine for the Pelicans, because they have time on their side.
Davis signed a five-year max extension that’ll keep him locked in on his contract for at least four of those seasons. New Orleans can afford to take things slow and improve gradually. After next season, Gordon and Anderson will enter free agency and with one more year on the team, the front office will be able to decide whether they’re long term pieces or not. Holiday and Tyreke Evans will have expiring contracts that’ll look like bargains once the salary cap rises. The team will have its own draft pick to add young talent. That’s the offseason in which they should make adjustments after getting a better understanding of what works next to Davis.
It’s not uncommon for front offices to make moves for the sake of looking busy without actually improving the team. It must have been tempting for general manager Dell Demps to shuffle some names and claim to be making progress. Instead, the Pelicans will happily take another year of Davis getting better next to older players while they figure out who’s a keeper. It’s not as exciting as seeing new faces in training camp, but it’s the smart thing to do for now.