If continuity is king, the New Orleans Pelicans are wearing the crown.
Less than 24 hours into free agency, general manager Dell Demps came to agreements with the team’s three highest priorities — All-Star forward Anthony Davis along with centers Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca — to keep the core of the team’s frontcourt in New Orleans for the long term.
While Davis’ five-year, $145 million extension (that keeps him under contract until at least 2020) was the top priority, it was also the easiest to do.
The Pelicans simply offered Davis the maximum amount of money allowed by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement and had exclusive negotiation rights with him entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Meanwhile, the decision to retain unrestricted free agents Asik and Ajinca was far more complex.
While both centers performed well at times last season, at least on one end of the floor, their strongest appeal may have been the franchise’s ability to exceed the salary cap to bring them back.
By owning the pair’s Bird rights, New Orleans had far more flexibility in signing Asik and Ajinca than it did any other big man on the open market.
So, when Demps committed a combined $80 million toward them Wednesday (Ajinca’s deal was for four years and $20.2 million while Asik’s registered at five years and $60 million, though only $44 million is guaranteed), it sent a clear message of where the Pelicans’ priorities lie.
The goal of this offseason is to stabilize the roster. Those three moves were the biggest pieces.
Yes, Asik struggled offensively, having a higher percentage of his shots blocked than any other player in the NBA. And Ajinca was often to slow to rotate defensively, leaving him susceptible to having the worst foul rate in the league.
However, each flashed enough ability in the post on the other end to maintain sufficient value to Demps.
Ajinca notched double-figures in scoring in 20 games last year, despite averaging just 14.1 minutes per game. Asik finished with the league’s third-best rebounding rate, pulling down 21.4 percent of available rebounds when he was floor.
And together, their return adds the continuity Demps and the Pelicans said they’re happy to maintain.
While the team scuffled at times in 2014-15 — before clinging to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and getting swept out of the first round by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors — there is a belief within the front office that this group is capable of far greater accomplishments.
It’s part of the reason coach Monty Williams was replaced by Alvin Gentry in June, as the potential missing piece to mix the talent already on the Pelicans roster.
Through two days of free agency, the Pelicans’ overtures to outside talent have been limited as Demps placed priority on bringing back the various free agents in danger of leaving.
“We feel like we have the opportunity now to do something special,” Demps said two weeks ago. “We are doing everything in our power in working together and collaborating to put together the best possible roster. We feel like we owe it to, not only our organization, but the community. This city and community are ready to win right now.”
Sources familiar with the situation said the Pelicans’ top priority has now shifted into bringing back restricted free agent Norris Cole and the unrestricted Dante Cunningham, both of whom joined the roster midway through last season.
Cole was offered a $3 million qualifying offer by the Pelicans earlier in the week, which allows them to match any contract the backup point guard can generate from any other team. If he doesn’t receive an offer from anywhere else, Cole will play on the one-year qualifying offer this upcoming season.
The Pelicans don’t own Cunningham’s Bird rights, meaning they will have to use part of their mid-level exception to bring him back next year, which also limits any other free agent signings Demps could make.
But the team wants to follow the model of Golden State, Atlanta and Memphis, which brought back the largest percentage of their previous rosters and shot up the standings last year.
“I’ve had a lot our players calling and texting me and they’re excited and can’t wait,” Demps said two weeks ago. “I’m ready to put the best possible team out there.”