When fortune forces you into one of the deepest, most top-to-bottom talented conferences in NBA history, even your potential is graded on a curve.
Just ask the New Orleans Pelicans, who have seemingly fallen off even the lower fold of the league-news cycle—owing, perhaps in part, to their lack of a first-round draft pick.
Come November, however, we might very well be speaking of these Pelicans as one of the league’s legitimate up-and-comers.
Assuming they play what few cards they have, that is.
With just under $49 million in committed salaries, the Pelicans could conceivably make a play for any of the slew of free agents set to hit the market on July 1. And with the NBA’s luxury tax threshold expected to rise to $77 million (per Larry Coon), there’s more than enough wiggle room to make even a big-time free-agent play a possibility for the Pelicans.
However, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s John Reid reported back in May, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps contends his team won’t be looking to duplicate last year’s summer splash:
Last year was our opportunity to go on the free-agent market. We’re very far under the luxury tax and we’ll still have opportunities to use money to add players to our group. But we’re currently not going to be a cap team; we’re not going to be able to go get a max free agent. And so our plan is to continuously add pieces to our group to make our team the best possible team we can be.
Which “pieces” in particular could the Pelicans pursue? With Al-Farouq Aminu, Greg Stiemsma, Jason Smith and Anthony Morrow all slated to field competing offers, New Orleans’ biggest concern will most certainly be frontcourt depth.
Luckily, this summer’s free-agent class includes a bevy of bigs, each of whom could be had for well under $10 million a year, with Kris Humphries, Spencer Hawes, DeJuan Blair and Elton Brand being just a few notable examples.
If the Pelicans are willing to trend into the $10-$15 million range, players like Marcin Gortat and Luol Deng—each of whom would fit swimmingly alongside third-year stud Anthony Davis—could make for interesting plays.
The more creative play for New Orleans, though, lies in alleviating its most glaring weakness: an expensive backcourt logjam with scant chance of sorting itself out.
In Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, the Pelicans boast a trio of talented guards whose redundant skill sets could derail a franchise resurgence before it begins.
Of the three, Gordon remains the most immediately tradeable, why with his four-year, $60 million deal set to expire at the end of the 2015-16 season (assuming he exercises his $15 million player option for that year).
What remains unclear is whether New Orleans would be looking for a straight one-for-one deal—Gordon and a future first-rounder for the Detroit Piston’s Josh Smith or Greg Monroe (in a sign-and-trade), for example—or a roundabout way of getting back into this year’s draft, a possibility Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal recently sussed out:
It's too soon to determine NOLA's exact target, but none of the aforementioned players are particularly bad options. Everything just depends on the package the Pelicans are capable of putting together, as it would be highly beneficial for them to part ways with Eric Gordon, freeing themselves of his albatross contract and opening up the 2 for Tyreke Evans.
That said, there are still a number of other assets that could be traded, including those future picks. Pierre Jackson, the standout point guard who spent the 2013-14 season dominating the D-League because the big league roster was just too crowded, is certainly an intriguing bit of bait, for example.
As Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears notes, the Pelicans are leaving no stone left unturned in their crusade to crash the draft:
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that New Orleans is able to parlay Gordon (and the necessary ancillary assets) for Monroe, Smith or a seasoned, positionally sensible talent.
At that point the Pelicans would be coming to camp with a starting five of Holiday, Evans, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis and Greg Monroe (or Josh Smith). That’s not just a compelling core on paper; it’s a potential playoff team.
What’s more, a full four of those five are on the right side of 25, making their ceiling even more ripe for the raising.
Obviously, rounding out the roster will be of the utmost. This is where New Orleans’ $19-ish million in cap space comes in handy.
It seems unlikely that the Pelicans would part ways with every one of their restricted free agents. As such, you can expect players like Aminu and Smith—serviceable reserves, if not world-beaters—to get a serious second look.
As far as potential cosmetic fixes go, New Orleans has plenty of options on the table. But no amount of high-minded horse-trading can match the single biggest bellwether for the Pelicans near-future fortunes: their soon-to-be superstar power forward, Anthony Davis.
In Davis, New Orleans boasts the NBA’s most tantalizing talent time bomb—a 6’10” athletic specimen with the defensive instincts of Bill Russell, the mid-range touch of Kevin Garnett and a point-guard’s acumen, the product of years spent playing the part of floor general before an impossible high-school growth spurt spurred him to a hardwood makeover.
Davis isn’t simply a cornerstone; he’s a one-man basketball foundation, capable of altering franchise fortune and NBA landscape alike. Surrounded with the right pieces, he has a chance to become a surefire Hall of Famer by the time he’s 25. Which, oh by the way, is still a full four years away.
Even if New Orleans stands largely pat, Davis’ year-three leap alone might be enough to push the Pelicans into the postseason.