Eric Gordon set the final piece on the New Orleans Pelicans’ path to July 1.
By signing his player option and remaining with the franchise for one more season, Gordon guaranteed his $15.5 million contract would remain on the books when free agency opens.
“I’m excited to continue playing for the Pelicans for the 2015-16 season,” Gordon said in a statement released by the team. “We made some big strides last year and are looking forward to doing even bigger things under coach (Alvin) Gentry’s leadership. I appreciate all of the fan support in NOLA and all over. For Pelicans fans concerned about things that happened in 2012 (when he said he’d rather play in Phoenix), do know I’ve matured since then and want to be in New Orleans to make this city proud by winning … a lot!”
While those words may be encouraging to the fan base, Gordon’s decision to stay leaves General Manager Dell Demps facing a bit of a salary-cap crunch, though an expected one. Despite Anthony Davis still playing out the final season of his bargain rookie contract, which pays the budding MVP candidate just $7 million for the upcoming year (even if he accepts the Pelicans’ forthcoming five-year, $140 million extension offer), there are difficult decisions to be made.
Entering free agency, the Pelicans for next season have $55.8 million tied up in guaranteed contracts for six players: Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, Davis and Gordon. The salary cap is projected to land at $67.1 million, leaving the Pelicans with barely more than $11 million to sign the second half of its roster.
Even with the cap skyrocketing in 2016 thanks to a new television contract kicking in, it still would leave the Pelicans in a tight position for this year as they strive to make a return trip to the playoffs and make noise in the crowded Western Conference.
But the NBA’s salary-cap structure isn’t nearly as unforgiving as the NFL’s, leaving a variety of loopholes and opportunities to climb above the salary cap without getting penalized by the burdensome luxury tax. So, the first major decision to make will be whether Pelicans ownership will allow the franchise to spend more than the salary cap, which sources close to the organization told The Advocate shouldn’t be an issue.
The next item on the agenda hinges on the decision of free agent center Omer Asik, acquired last offseason from Houston in a trade that cost New Orleans a first-round pick.
If the Pelicans are unable to retain Asik, they likely will operate below the salary cap and are limited to remaining within the $11.3 million threshold and $2.8 million exception. That constricts the kind of movement Demps can make when it comes to adding new pieces.
But if Asik is re-signed or the Pelicans find a way to breach the salary cap through trades or re-signing the various other free agents from last year’s roster (teams are not allowed to go over the cap by signing free agents), there are a few mechanisms in place that allow Demps some additional freedom before reaching the luxury tax threshold, estimated at $81.6 million.
“Remembering that the Pelicans currently only have six players under guaranteed contracts for next season, that is not a ton of cap space for the remaining roster spots,” said Mason Ginsberg, a salary-cap expert for BourbonStreetShots.com.
“Conversely, if the Pelicans wish to re-sign their own free agents, they can go over the salary cap to bring back most of them. Doing so would give them a couple other salary cap exceptions: the $5.5 million mid-level exception and the $2.1 million biannual exception — to use as well.”
That would free up spots to not only retain most of last season’s roster but also add a piece or two under the various exceptions. Ginsberg pointed to candidates such as Gerald Green, Corey Brewer and Jared Dudley, who all could provide assistance on the perimeter.
It may sound like backward logic, but by busting the cap, there’s actually more money available to operate.
And, most importantly, it gives the Pelicans a chance to cash in on the bumper crop of free agents in 2016, when a higher salary cap will spur a flurry of talent to hit the open market — just as Davis is reaching his peak.
“The main point is this: Barring a flurry of unexpected transactions this summer, the Pelicans will have no trouble making cap room for another superstar player to pair with Anthony Davis next summer,” Ginsberg said. “That is, if one is available and interested in joining him.”