Look closely between that rock and the abutting hard place.
See the yellow beak? How about the red and blue feathers?
Yup. It’s the New Orleans Pelicans. They’re jammed up into a precarious position, uncertain how to escape.
As DeMarcus Cousins underwent surgery in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon, officially ending his season, the Pelicans found themselves trapped under the boulders of a harsh salary cap, devastating injuries and expiring contracts.
Adding to the tribulations, the Pelicans crumbled without their All-Star center this week, getting bludgeoned by the Clippers and last-place Kings in consecutive home losses. It’s erased nearly all of the momentum generated over the previous month, when New Orleans rattled off seven wins in eight games, stoking the belief this team was capable of winning just the second playoff series in franchise history.
It culminated Friday, in a rollicking Smoothie King Center, when Cousins muscled and finessed his way to a put-back and-1. He flexed and screamed as a jam-packed arena showered him with noise, putting the finishing touches on a head-turning victory over the vaunted Houston Rockets.
Thirty seconds later, Cousins was on the floor and the Pelicans still haven’t gotten up.
Listless crowds have greeted the past two losses. The sense of gloom reveals the dichotomous turn taken in the team’s trajectory.
“I think any time you lose a piece like DeMarcus, there’s going to be residue from it,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “In some way, we have to get over that. It may take a few games to do. But we have to get over it and move on. We are in a position where we are giving back a lot of things we accomplished in the last three weeks.
“So, we have to find a solution and then we have to get it turned and then we have to move on.”
And make no mistake, the Pelicans are still aiming to make the playoffs this season. From ownership to the front office to the coaching staff to Anthony Davis, there’s an intense desire to not throw away a top-heavy Western Conference and a 27-21 record.
While the public wrote the season off when Cousins’ tendon snapped, Gentry and general manager Dell Demps are in the final year of their contracts, eager to put a winner on the floor now.
However, countless obstacles stand in their way. The most obvious is, without Cousins, this roster simply isn’t good enough to win most nights.
Davis and Jrue Holiday can still be outstanding but the No. 3 spot and beyond simply don’t match up on most nights. Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore, Darius Miller, Dante Cunningham and Ian Clark can fill a role, but aren’t capable of providing what the Pelicans need.
In order to maintain ground in the standings, the Pelicans have to add a piece.
But, their first-round pick is the only movable item of value to entice a trade partner. And considering New Orleans hasn’t developed a first-rounder since Davis was taken in 2012, it’s no surprise to see another pick on the precipice of being shipped out.
Yet, the complications continue.
Nothing illustrated the Pelicans’ lack of wiggle room better than Tuesday’s thwarted trade for Bulls’ forward Nikola Mirotic, which publicly fell apart in the final moments.
On the surface, the trade seemed to satisfy all of the Pelicans’ demands. It would’ve shipped rarely used Omer Asik, a first-round pick and a minimum contract or two (Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen, Ian Clark or Cheick Diallo) to Chicago, in exchange for Mirotic.
It would’ve alleviated the burden of carrying Asik’s albatross contract ($10 million this season and next), freed up some roster spots to shop the buyout market, and most importantly, added a lengthy 3-point shooter who can help fill the scoring and rebounding gap left in Cousins’ wake.
But, it wasn’t that easy.
Mirotic carried a $12.5 million team option for next season, which he required to be picked up before finalizing the transaction.
Sources on several sides of the situation called it a deal breaker. Not because Mirotic isn’t a quality player on a good contract, but because the Pelicans are jammed by the luxury tax threshold.
If New Orleans put Mirotic’s $12.5 million on its books for 2018-19, it couldn’t afford to pay Cousins the five-year, $175 million maximum extension possibly required to retain the All-Star starter. And, for years, sources stated the Pelicans aren’t willing to dip into the luxury tax unless they feel the move would put them in striking distance of a championship.
Quite frankly, this wouldn’t. While fans have the right to gripe about the financials, this is the small-market reality being faced.
Mirotic could’ve stabilize the Pelicans this season, and allowed them to enter the postseason standing upright, but still not capable of winning a series. Perhaps he could be easily traded this offseason to a willing suitor, eager to grab the European shooter on an expiring contract, freeing New Orleans of the obligations.
But, ultimately, it didn’t meet the Pelicans’ razor thin parameters.
Keep in mind New Orleans had deals to acquire Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor fall through before landing Cousins at this time last year. So, uncompromising patience can be a virtue.
There’s still a week remaining until the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Demps is working the phones in a frenzy, trying to clear future salary obligations and add a helpful short-term piece, while being one of the few GMs willing to sacrifice a first-round pick to do it.
It’s a tough pathway to blaze in a competitive marketplace. For now, the rock and hard place are holding firm.