The New Orleans Pelicans had reached a crossroads, with their top two guards eligible for extensions. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin made his decision late Monday night: Lonzo Ball stays, Jrue Holiday goes.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Holiday is on his way to the Milwaukee Bucks for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and three first-round picks, along with pick swaps.
"You can't have a young team with Jrue making $25 million a year," a former Western Conference executive said. "It kills your cap space and room under the luxury tax."
Holiday, 30, is the better player but isn't on the same timeline as the Pelicans' talented young core. Ball, just 23, fits better with Zion Williamson (20) and Brandon Ingram (23), but is he capable of running the team as the lead guard without Holiday alongside him?
Or will Ball find himself marginalized by his new teammates in Bledsoe and Hill? The Pelicans are parting with Holiday, but that may not indicate a long-term marriage is near with Ball.
The biggest knock on Ball during his first two years in the league with the Los Angeles Lakers was his durability. He missed nearly half of each season and most of the offseasons, primarily with knee injuries, though he fared better in New Orleans, getting through 63 of 72 games.
His funky shooting form doesn't exactly inspire confidence. To be fair, he shot a solid 37.5 percent from three last season, but his poor free-throw shooting (56.6 percent) suggests the underlying issues remain.
While his overall numbers on the season were solid (11.8 points, 7.0 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game), he was actively worse through the Orlando restart, shooting just 30.5 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three. Griffin might be willing to overlook Ball's late on-court struggles. The NBA bubble wasn't for everyone.
But how much should he be willing to pay Ball in an extension? Will he be worth even Ricky Rubio (another low-scoring point guard) money at about $17 million per year? Or is Ball closer to a Marcus Smart-level role player, earning about $13 million per season?
"[The Pelicans] can't overpay for a low-energy, non-shooting point guard ... I wouldn't pay him more than $13 million," the former executive said. "I don't like his game, but I get that you have to sign him as a [key] part of the [Anthony Davis] trade."
The deadline on Ball's extension is Dec. 21, but if there's a stalemate, the Pelicans will still have the upper hand in negotiations the following offseason when he will be a restricted free agent.
Negotiations may not be easy after Ball's recent move to Klutch Sports and agent Rich Paul. Griffin, formerly the Cleveland Cavaliers general manager, has negotiated several deals with Paul, including contracts with LeBron James, JR Smith (four years, $57 million in 2016) and Tristan Thompson (five years, $82 million in 2015).
Given the sizable contracts for Smith and Thompson, Griffin may not be looking forward to sitting down with Paul to discuss Ball.
More to Come?
The price for Ball is no longer connected to Holiday's future, but now Bledsoe and Hill's. Bledsoe is under contract for the next three seasons at $54.4 million (the last year is only $3.9 million guaranteed). That's starter's money.
Hill is at $9.6 million for 2020-21 with another year at $10 million, but with just $1.3 million guaranteed. It's too early to know what Griffin has in mind, as last season he made several consecutive trades moving newcomers out before they ever got the chance to don a Pelicans uniform.
Either could end up on another team before the season, or perhaps Ball becomes the one who is expendable. Maybe Griffin keeps all three—the ink isn't even dry yet on the Milwaukee deal.
The challenge in moving Ball is that his play through three years hasn't exactly been overwhelming. Perhaps the Cavaliers might be interested in a taller (6'6") defensive guard to help play alongside Darius Garland (6'1") and Collin Sexton (6'1")—assuming they view Ball as a better player than Dante Exum. Would Cedi Osman be enough of a return for the Pelicans if they chose to move Ball?
Ball would fit in well next to Trae Young in Atlanta, but how much would the Hawks be willing to give up in draft considerations or young players (De'Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter or Cam Reddish)?
It's unclear if the Chicago Bulls are going to reinvest in Lauri Markkanen. He might be an intriguing fit with Williamson if the Bulls were interested in Ball.
At this point, it's just speculation. There isn't much buzz around the league that Ball is available. The focus had rightfully been on Holiday.
In the short term, the Pelicans are probably going to stick with Ball with the hope he either ups his value for New Orleans on the court or via trade. Assuming the team re-signs Ingram, a restricted free agent, the Pelicans have a deep guard and wing core (including JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker).
If anything, that's too deep. Griffin may feel compelled to make a move to better balance his roster, in addition to using his four picks in Wednesday's draft (Nos. 13, 39, 42 and 60). Free agency is two days later. The Pelicans will need to find the right price for Ingram and unrestricted free agents Derrick Favors and Jahlil Okafor, and Hart is also extension-eligible.
Holiday's exit seems to signal that Griffin has prioritized his core. If so, then Hill (34) and Redick (36) could be on the move. Both are respected veterans who may be kept to mentor their teammates, but the Pelicans may be better off cashing them out for additional draft considerations or emerging players.
Where does Ball fit into the puzzle? Don't expect an extension or a trade just yet. He's a unique player who could still prove to be valuable for the Pelicans on the court.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.