New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps’ smile is due to anticipation of a season in which the team is expected to be more competitive on the court than in recent ones.
However, it also because of the contract situation regarding the roster.
“I think we’re in good shape with our roster, and we’re in the position to watch our core group grow together,” Demps has said.
And, things stand to get better. The NBA recently signed a new nine-year, $24 billion television contract with ESPN/Turner Sports that will begin with the 2016-17 season. That will allow the Pelicans more than ample salary cap room to re-sign budding star power forward Anthony Davis and retain center Omer Asik and add free agents who can help the team to its goal of becoming viable contenders in the Western Conference.
The new contract is great for the league’s continued success, coach Monty Williams said, but particularly for small-market teams like the Pelicans. The past two summers, for instance, Demps had to maneuver with creative three-team trades to create space under the cap to bring in Tyreke Evans and Asik.
On Friday, the Pelicans exercised the option on Davis’ rookie contract, which will keep him with the team through next season, after which he would become a free agent. However, he can expect a maximum contract before that happens. Davis is on the last year of his three-year, $16,127,280 rookie contract, which will pay him $5.6 million this season. The team’s option for 2015-16 is for $7,070,730.
After that, it gets interesting. The Pelicans would have to extend a $9.2 million qualifying offer for the 2016-17 season, but he will get the new maximum deal. For players who have played six or fewer seasons in the NBA, that means a contract that is 25 percent of the team’s salary cap. For this season, with the cap at $63 million, that would have meant a salary of $16.5 million for Davis. It’s a higher percentage if he meets incentives such as being chosen league MVP or starts in two All-Star Games.
However, the salary cap is expected to jump from an estimated $66.5 million for next season to $80 million for 2016-17, when the new TV deal kicks in. That would push Davis’ deal to $20 million that season, with a six-year contract in excess of $130 million. And, that could be the low end. Some estimates are that the cap could be as high as $91 million.
The increased cash flow also will be a boon in keeping Asik, who will become a free agent after this season, in which he will make $8.4 million. The Pelicans get a season to gauge his play. If he plays well, other teams most certainly will come after Asik, a big, strong 7-footer who defends and rebounds well. However, as his current team, New Orleans holds his Larry Bird rights, which allow it to offer a higher contract.
The contracts of point guard Jrue Holiday and guard/forward Evans, both core players making an average of $11 million per season, run through 2016-17, with that of 3-point shooting ace Ryan Anderson (four years, $34 million) ending in 2016. Starting shooting guard Eric Gordon’s four-year, $58.4 million contract runs through the ’16-17 season, but he can opt out of it after this season.
Rather than secure guard Austin Rivers for the ’15-16 season, the Pelicans did not pick up the fourth-year option on his rookie contract. Rivers, the 10th overall draft pick in 2012, will be a free agent after this season. So, even more than Gordon, playing well this season is important for him.
Rivers obviously was in a tough situation. Team management likes his work ethic but wishes he would have made bigger strides entering his third season. He will make $2.44 million this season, and the option for ‘15-16 was $3.1 million. After that, it would have taken a $4.2 million qualifying offer to be able to match any offers for him as a restricted free agent in July 2016.
“This is a big year for me, but I’m in shape and I’ll play a lot of minutes this season,” Rivers said. “If I had to chose being a free agent after this season or next season, I’d chose after this season. So, I’m going to play hard, be aggressive and have fun.”
Williams said the Pelicans will revisit his contract situation after the season.
“We had a similar situation (last year) with Al-Farouq Aminu,” Williams said. “We still value Austin, but we had to do what was right for the team, and he understands that.”
However, the Pelicans have the re-signing of Asik on the line after this season as well as the need to add a front-line small forward and to bolster the bench.
If Rivers has a big leap in development, the infusion of cash from the new deal could result in his staying him. Seeing how hard he works, Pelicans officials say they are wary of letting him go only to see him flourish with another team.
Gordon will have a year left at $15.5 million when the TV contract begins. At the end of this season, he will have to decide whether to play his final year or opt out for a new contract, likely at less money per season but with the security of multiple years. With that on the line, Gordon already has stated that he will be more assertive offensively.
“I want to drive to the basket more, where I can score but also draw fouls and get to the free throw line,” said Gordon.
That is a good way for a player to increase his scoring average. Already a strong player, he was diligent lifting weights this summer and came back stronger.
It remains to be seen whether than option he holds will make or break any potential trade by the Pelicans to rid his salary.
Veteran small forward John Salmons, center Alexis Ajinca and forward Luke Babbitt all are scheduled to be free agents at the end of this season. Each of them has to earn playing time, then maximize that time with their performance to remain Pelicans, the source said.
Small forward Darius Miller is in his third season with the Pelicans after being a second-round pick in 2012. He showed promise at the end of last season, but that only earned him a veterans minimum contract for two years at $1,896,591.
“It’s the same type of contract I signed as a rookie,” Miller said. “Obviously, I have a lot of work to do, and I need to get better, but I believe I will.”
Rookie Russ Smith has a guaranteed three-year minimum contract ($2.3 million), rare for a second-round draft pick. Patric Young, an undrafted rookie from Florida, has a minimum two-year deal ($1.35 million).