By Richard Fischer
Pelicans’ general manager Dell Demps has made his intentions clear:
He wants to win. And he wants to win now.
Maybe Demps is feeling pressure from soon-to-be 87-year-old owner Tom Benson to deliver the Crescent City a perennial title-contender like the other sports franchise.
Maybe he feels making the playoffs or strongly competing for a spot in the stacked Western Conference is the only way to keep his job.
Or maybe his philosophy as a GM quite simply is that attaining assets now – even at the expense of future assets – is the way to go in the NBA.
Regardless of the reason, New Orleans’ chips have been moved firmly into the middle of the table with the acquisition of Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets.
Asik, slated to make $15 million next year (with $8.3 million counting against the cap in a brilliantly conniving contract written by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey), will bring New Orleans an interior presence it desperately missed last season.
Love Jason Smith all you want for his attitude, heart, hustle and mid-range game, but he’s not a starting center in the NBA. As for Alexis Ajinca, despite the strides he made last season staying healthy and anchoring the middle, there’s a reason he wasn’t in the league to start the year and made just a shade under $638,000 – next to nothing for a big man getting minutes.
Asik will not only protect Anthony Davis from getting banged down low by opposing centers, but he will make New Orleans an absolute juggernaut on the boards and a rim-protecting nightmare when the two play together. Asik is a bonafide top 10 center (and maybe better than that), and Davis’ ability to make the mid-range jumpshot will not make this team a spacing disaster as some fear (as long as New Orleans can finally find a small forward who can shoot).
But Asik comes with a price – apart from the protected and reverse protected first-round pick that will go to Houston next year if it falls between 4 and 19, which it likely will. (Note: there are reported discrepancies on the specific protections, but in all likelihood, the pick will belong to Houston next season)
Asik’s cap number of $8.3 million pushes New Orleans over the cap, and unless Benson is willing to pay an exorbitant penalty (not likely), somebody on the current roster has to go to make this trade work.
That leaves New Orleans with options.
They can trade one of the following players to a team with cap room and take less salary back: Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson or Austin Rivers (in theory Davis could be included here, but he’s so far beyond untouchable he’s not even worth mentioning).
Holiday and Evans appear to be part of Demps’ plans and are practically untouchable – unless if the general manager is presented with an offer he can’t refuse. So they’re likely staying.
Gordon’s contract is among the worst in the league. Newsflash, huh? So even if he were to be dealt, the Pels would almost assuredly have to take back an equally awful contract. So he’s likely out as an option unless if Demps doesn’t like any possible trade offer and boots Gordon out the trap door. More on that in a minute.
So that leaves Anderson and Rivers – two players who made tremendous strides last season. On top of already being one of the most coveted three-ballers in the league, Anderson showed better post moves and defensive ability than he ever had until his season abruptly ended with a freak neck injury. The previously maligned Rivers came back strong in his sophomore season showing he could finish at the rim, make an open 3 and defend at a high level.
The loss of either Rivers or Anderson would be a tough pill to swallow if the return isn’t of equal value. And unfortunately it probably wouldn’t be as both project to outperform their salary slot next season. But the Asik move likely forces one of those two players away.
Not so exited about the Asik trade anymore, huh?
But there is a creative solution Demps could carve out – one that would make Pelicans fans happy although it would once again mortgage the future to improve the team now.
New Orleans could implement the stretch provision onto the final two years of Gordon’s contract.
That would allow the Pels to immediately cut ties with Gordon while giving them enough salary cap room to not only absorb Asik but sign a starting small forward in free agency. That’s three pretty doggone good things. But here’s the catch. New Orleans would have to earmark one fifth of Gordon’s salary against the cap each year over the next five years – effectively putting the Pelicans at a cap disadvantage for what could be the duration of the Anthony Davis window. Plus, Gordon may opt out next summer (yeah right, but he can), and if he doesn’t the Pels can move him more easily at that point as an expiring.
The Gordon stretch would certainly be a calculated risk – one that would bring long-reaching future negative effects with big-time short-term gains.
But that would be just like any other day in the Pelicans’ front office.
It’s your move, Dell.