It was after practice near the end of the season and, with the Pelicans about to wrap up a 34-win campaign, the focus among reporters had switched to next year.
Coach Monty Williams was asked whether the team needed an upgrade at the small forward position.
“Yes,” he said. “But LeBron James is not coming here.”
Neither is Carmelo Anthony — the No. 2 free agent this summer who, like James, is a small forward. They head a list that drops off into mostly aging veterans and castoffs but with a sprinkling of possibilities such as P.J. Tucker, who played with the Phoenix Suns last season, and Wesley Johnson, who spent 2013-14 with the Los Angeles Lakers.
With the trade for center Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets needing only final details to be worked out, the Pelicans move forward with a workable salary-cap situation, although shedding a player currently under contract — Eric Gordon, for instance — would help immensely. That particular move is unlikely, though.
The free-agency signing period begins Tuesday, but that may not be how the small forward the Pelicans need gets to New Orleans. General Manager Dell Demps said he felt “very confident” the team will land a good player.
“It might not be in free agency,” he said. “It might be through trade. But we’re going to look at every avenue.”
A trade looks like the best option, and another one with Houston tops the list. Asik became available because the Rockets are clearing space in an attempt to sign Anthony. Houston also is shopping other players, including point guard Jeremy Lin and small forward Chandler Parsons.
If Demps could wrangle Parsons away, it would be something of a coup. A promising player at 25, Parsons at 6-foot-9 has good length for his position, has excellent range and is a finisher on the fast break and on drives to the basket. He made $926,500 last season, his third in the NBA, and is slated to receive $964,750 this season, a steal for a player of his ability.
That the Asik deal has been held up to work out “final details” makes it look like Parsons may be in play. Like Asik, he has one year left on his contract.
It’s also interesting that the Pelicans traded point guard Pierre Jackson to the Philadelphia 76ers for a second-round pick Thursday — only to get back a point guard, Louisville’s Russ Smith. Houston was interested in Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton. Like Payton, Smith is good defensively, which the Rockets covet, and as a rookie second-rounder, he would be inexpensive.
“Our priority is improving the team,” Demps said. “We can look at it from a traditional (or) untraditional (perspective).”
Denver is another potential trade target. The Nuggets are backlogged at small forward with Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Quincy Miller. Gallinari’s $10.1 million contract does not fit in the Pelicans’ plans, but Chandler’s is a more palatable $6.3 million. The 6-9 Miller filled in admirably last season when those two were injured and, at a salary of $788,872, he is very cap-friendly.
If Chandler’s contract is not too hefty for the Pelicans, a sign-and-trade involving backup point guard Brian Roberts could help obtain him. Roberts was scouted and signed by former Pelicans assistant general manager Tim Connelly, now the Nuggets’ GM.
On the free-agent front, Tucker and Johnson are affordable options. Both are unrestricted.
Tucker, whom Williams said was one of the keys to the Suns’ surprising season, made $884,293 last season. At 6-6, he is undersized for small forward, but he is a bulldog of a defender, makes open 3-pointers and improves his team’s chemistry with unselfishness and intelligence.
Johnson averaged career highs in scoring and rebounding last season but was having a disappointing career before that. The 6-foot-7 fourth-year man posted 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Lakers, making $919,099.
Another option could be Utah’s Gordon Hayward, a restricted free agent. The No. 9 pick in 2010 out of Butler, Hayward averaged 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists last season, his best in the NBA. But it would be stunning if the Jazz doesn’t match any offer made to him.