As the New Orleans Pelicans head into the offseason looking to improve on the heels of their best season since 2011, they have the best of both worlds.
The Pelicans’ core group of players, starting with All-Star power forward Anthony Davis, are all under contract. However, six of the players who were on New Orleans’ roster last season are free agents, giving the team a lot of flexibility as it looks to improve.
Coming off a 45-37 record and eighth playoff spot with a young team in the very competitive Western Conference, stability, though, could mean a lot in getting off to a fast start and having more successful season.
“We’ve always been a team that has gotten better as the year has gone on, because we had basically a different team for (each of) the past three or four years,” coach Monty Williams said. “Corporate equity is a huge thing, so I would like to have most of our core guys back. I feel we will. But I’m not opposed to making the right change that’s going to make our team better.”
The Pelicans are poised to offer Davis a five-year, $140 million contract extension this summer on the rookie deal he signed in 2012.
However, with the NBA beginning a new nine-year, $24 billion TV contract with the 2016-17 season, Davis is expected to wait. He is under contract next season for $7,070,729, after which he will become a restricted free agent. The Pelicans can make a $9,191,947 qualifying offer to retain the right to match an offer from any team.
Guard Eric Gordon has the option to accept a $15,514,031 salary for the 2015-16 season or opt for free agency. He may have to decide whether taking that and risking injury will be more prudent than a multiyear contract elsewhere for less per year — four years and $36 million, for instance.
Guard Tyreke Evans is under contract for the next two seasons at $10,734,586 and $10,203,755. Point guard Jrue Holiday also has two years left, at $11 million each season, before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
The Pelicans are in even better shape with starting small forward Quincy Pondexter, who is under contract through ’17-18 for $10,853,932, including $3,382,023 next season.
However, sixth man and 3-point shooter Ryan Anderson is entering the final year of the four-year, $34 million contract he received in a sign-and-trade with the Orlando Magic in 2012. He will be paid $8.5 million in ’15-16.
After that is where the flexibility — and uncertainty — comes in. Both Pelicans centers, starter Omer Asik and backup Alexis Ajinca, are unrestricted free agents, able to sign with any team.
So is forward Dante Cunningham, a big contributor last season, forward Luke Babbitt and guard Jimmer Fredette.
Backup center Jeff Withey is a restricted free agent, but the team is expected to make a qualifying offer of $1,147,276, then bring him back. Backup point guard Norris Cole, who helped key the team’s run to the playoffs, also is restricted; the Pelicans can match another team’s offer by making a qualifying tender of $3,203,789. The team likely will just offer contracts to both.
Re-signing Asik, the quarterback of the team’s defense, is the No. 1 priority in free agency, Williams said Tuesday. He said Asik is “highly valued by the franchise” for his role in the defense’s improvement this past season.
Cunningham and undersized starter Pondexter, 6-feet-6, combined to cover up a lineup deficiency at small forward, They were key in the Pelicans’ defensive improvement and are the kind of intense players that fit Williams’ system. More importantly, they enabled Tyreke Evans, 6-6, to move from small forward to the backcourt, where he belongs. It remains to be seen if both Pondexter and Cunningham will be brought back.
“When we put (Quincy) in the starting lineup, you saw our team take off and win more games,” Williams said. “Our defense picked up for sure, and he shot a career high in 3-point percentage (43.3 percent in 45 games).
“I commend those two on what they did at that position. We have to evaluate those two and see what we need or if we’re going to stand pat going forward.”
Ajinca, 7-2, will be interesting. He was paid an NBA veterans minimum of $981,084 last season, his second with the Pelicans. However, he was much improved, particularly offensively, and may be able to get an offer out of the Pelicans’ price range.
Babbitt was an end-of-the-bench player once Anderson returned from a sprained knee, but with Anderson missing 60 games with injuries the past two seasons, he may be a valuable insurance policy.
Fredette, who played sparingly and was ineffective when he did play, is not expected to return.
Backup guard Toney Douglas signed a two-year, $1.33 million contract at the end of last season and is seen as valuable in the event injuries hit the backcourt.