It won’t take long for fans to recognize the New Orleans Pelicans next season.
The franchise continued on its free agency path of retaining its roster, by agreeing to terms with forward Dante Cunningham on a three-year, $9 million contract Saturday afternoon. The contract’s third season is a player option.
Cunningham is the third unrestricted free agent to be brought back this offseason, joining centers Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, who re-signed with the Pelicans on July 1.
The wrinkle to Cunningham’s agreement is his contract counts against the team’s mid-level exception, sources close to the situation confirmed. Since New Orleans didn’t own Cunningham’s Bird rights (the way it did with Asik and Ajinca) the team used a portion of its $5.5 million exception to cover the costs and keep Cunningham on the roster.
Since the team is operating over the salary cap, the amount of money available to sign free agents from around the league is restricted to those exceptions, which also includes a $2.1 million bi-annual exception.
Cunningham served as a combo forward last season, after being acquired from the free agent market Dec. 2. He appeared in 66 games and started in 27, mostly before forward Quincy Pondexter was added in a midseason trade. He averaged 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, gaining a reputation as a team defender.
He was forced to play most of his minutes out of position, spending a majority of his time at the small forward spot when his previous six seasons were mostly played at power forward.
Still, he earned good standing with his teammates, who spoke glowingly of his defensive tenacity and physical nature.
“Dante means a lot to us,” Anthony Davis said on Jan. 5. “He gives us some toughness that we may not have had all of the time, and he always plays hard and plays with an edge. It’s been good to have him here, and he fits what we do and how we want to play.”
Along with his defensive prowess, Cunningham also displayed a reliable midrange jump shot. Nearly 56 percent of his shots came from between the 16-foot mark and the 3-point line, and he converted on 42 percent of them, helping stretch the defense and bailing the Pelicans out of possessions late in the shot clock.
Yet he was skittish to take a step or two away from the goal, only making one of his 10 3-point tries.
Unless an unexpected trade occurs before the season, the Pelicans will enter the 2015-16 campaign with at least nine returning players, and team sources indicate the free agency priority has shifted to retaining reserve point guard Norris Cole.
Cole was extended a $3 million qualifying offer by the Pelicans last week, meaning he can either play on that one-year contract or the Pelicans can match any superior offer given to Cole in free agency.
If Cole is re-signed, the lone Pelicans not under contract are Luke Babbitt, Jeff Withey and Jimmer Fredette. Sources familiar with the situation said Babbitt and Withey are likely to be retained.