As the eyes of many NBA fans shift towards the postseason, some front office executives are thinking about how they can improve the fates of their franchises that are not currently vying for postseason play. The pre-draft process is filled with tons of scouting, evaluation periods, internal discussion and workouts for some of the hopeful rookies that want a spot in the NBA.
Taking the drafting needs and picks into consideration, financial considerations can paint the biggest picture to what decisions will be made beyond the draft. Trading some players, utilizing cap space for taking on others, and preparing for free agency all are highly informed by the team's salary situations – after all, the NBA is a business.
The New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz won their first-round matchups in convincing fashion, but struggled to get off the ground against the top teams in the Western Conference. If they plan on catching the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, both organizations must manage this summer expertly without taking a step back.
New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Record: 48-34
2018 Draft Picks: 51st
Restricted Free Agents: none
Unrestricted Free Agents: C DeMarcus Cousins, PG Rajon Rondo, G Ian Clark
Other Players of Note: SF Darius Miller (partial guarantee), C Cheick Diallo (partial guarantee), G/F DeAndre Liggins (non-guaranteed contract), C Emeka Okafor (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $99,835,589
Luxury Tax Room: $24.2 million
You won't find someone that's been more critical of Dell Demps over the last few years. His willingness to deal first-round picks away for minimal role players would always come back to hamstring his teams efforts eventually. This summer might be that time. DeMarcus Cousins, the highlight of Demps' one positive deal, is an unrestricted free agent on a dangerous Achilles injury, which can derail the efforts of a big man rather quickly. While the team can go over the cap to retain Cousins and has multiple efforts to do so, they will lack ways to add more weapons to their team this summer, making them essentially the same team we saw in New Orleans last year.
Does Demps have any tricks up his sleeve to surprise the rest of us and improve his team?
Order of Operations
1. Negotiate for a one-year deal with Cousins
Coming off an Achilles injury and in a year where the market is short on teams with cap space and the need for a big man, DeMarcus Cousins is in a bit of a bind. While he'd certainly jump at any long-term offer that is at or near the max contract, he's been pretty public about his desire to play for a contender and not sacrifice winning for money. That makes New Orleans, the team that holds his Bird rights, the ideal destination for him, whether it's a long-term deal or a one-year contract while he proves his Achilles is fully healthy.
Demps and the Pelicans would be wise to push heavily for that one-year deal, but not at the cost of losing Cousins. It's still too early to tell if the experiment in New Orleans of playing him and franchise big man Anthony Davis together is a formula for success; it certainly is bucking most trends in the NBA of going smaller.
The one-year deal comes with some risk for the Pelicans; DeMarcus will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and with many more suitors on the market and potentially no doubts about the level of play he'll return to, the Pelicans might risk the fit of him and Davis triggering the emotional Cousins to walk out of the door. However, locking Boogie up to a five-year heavy deal would be costly over the long-term. Boogie would make $30 million next year -- and push New Orleans into the luxury tax -- while also costing $40 million in the 2022-23 season way down the line. That's a ton of guaranteed money to lock up in a player with an injury concern.
While I'd expect the one-year deal to be the path New Orleans pushes for, they could try to build a long-term deal that's incentive-laden for Cousins based on his health. If that were to happen, the Pelicans might be getting the best of both worlds: security to not worry about losing their prized big man while receiving protection in the event his injury is debilitating.
2. Rondo with the MLE
Once Cousins is signed, the Pels will be far above the cap, and perhaps even above the luxury tax. Even if Cousins leaves, New Orleans is less than a million from the actual salary cap. Because Rajon Rondo was signed to a one-year deal last year, his Bird rights don't belong to the Pelicans, meaning they must have cap space or use their Mid-Level Exception to re-sign him.
During the postseason and the huge upset of Portland in the first-round, Rondo proved his worth as he was a key contributor for the Pelicans. They should look to re-sign him regardless of Cousins, but if Boogie comes back his partner in crime should be there as well.
Would Rondo be willing to take the Taxpayer Mid-Level, anticipated at $5.45 million? That would be the price of keeping Cousins, which likely pushes them close to the luxury tax if not above it. It would also likely mean sacrificing Ian Clark, who also is on a Non-Bird deal with New Orleans. That's the cost of the roster that Demps has built, though.
3. The four non-guaranteed contracts
New Orleans has four players on non-guaranteed contracts: big men Cheick Diallo and Emeka Okafor, guard DeAndre Liggins and wing Darius Miller. Miller played a good role last year as the much-needed 3-and-D type of wing New Orleans lacked. He played far above the $2.2 million he'd be due in full next season, so the Pels should keep him past their early-July guarantee date. Diallo, who is still young and could have some value if Cousins is to miss some time, has a hefty partial guarantee as well. Demps will almost certainly keep him around.
The other two players are interesting dilemmas. Emeka Okafor, who will be 36 before the start of next season, would be the fourth center on the roster in New Orleans. While he's available to stay on the cheap, does New Orleans have a need at another position to the point where he's expendable? A lot of that will have to do with Cousins. It helps that Okafor's contract isn't guaranteed until January. Liggins is a bit of the same; he's already here and he's cheap, but he provides little in the way of much-needed outside shooting. With a late guarantee date, New Orleans should hold off on cutting him until they're certain a better replacement exists.
4. Finding value at the 51st pick
Could the Pelicans find someone to help fill out their roster here immediately? That is debatable, as this isn't regarded as a highly-deep draft class, and the 51st pick is too hard to predict from here.
Could New Orleans package that pick with one of Liggins/ Diallo/ Miller to get a legitimate rotation piece? Demps probably will be aggressive with this pick, so don't rule out a trade.
Which leads us to...
5. Thinking trades and the need on the wings
New Orleans has severe roster imbalance right now. They lack outside shooting and have very few wings on the roster. The midseason addition of Nikola Mirotic helps, but only two of Mirotic-Davis-Cousins can play together at a time, so there's a maximum on the value Mirotic really provides. What will the Pelicans do if they don't end up with the right 3-and-D wing at the veteran's minimum or through the draft?
There is some internal optimism that Solomon Hill becomes a starter and a reliable rotation player, but the Pels still need more depth and insurance behind him. Would they consider trading away one of their non-guaranteed contracts to a team in worse cap situation just to get a three-point shooter? There aren't a lot of teams out there that have wings available and are in that situation.
Orchestrating a trade would be much more difficult and require the Pelicans likely offering up, and paying someone to take on, either Alexis Ajinca or Solomon Hill. Demps is a proven win-now type of bidder, and with all future draft picks available to trade, he might dip into that pool once again to provide more levelness to the roster.
2017-18 Record: 48-34
2018 Draft Picks: 21st, 52nd
Restricted Free Agents: G Dante Exum, PG Raul Neto, PG David Stockton
Unrestricted Free Agents: F/C Derrick Favors
Other Players of Note: G/F Thabo Sefolosha (non-guaranteed contract), F Royce O'Neale (non-guaranteed contract), F Jonas Jerebko (non-guaranteed contract), C Ekpe Udoh (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $89,333,610
Cap Space: $11.6 million
Utah far outperformed expectations last year in the absence of Gordon Hayward, and much of that is due to their rookie Donovan Mitchell. With the look of a legitimate NBA superstar, Mitchell has the Jazz now in a great spot long-term. He and defensive anchor Rody Gobert will be the pillars for the future in Utah. With a little bit of cap space available to them this summer, the Jazz could be an intriguing team with the ability to get much, much better in the future.
That said, based on their own free agents, the Jazz will likely act as an over-the-cap team until decisions on their marquee guys Derrick Favors and Dante Exum are made. That, and the timing of their signings, could hinder their cap space, while the multiple non-guaranteed deals could bolster it.
Order of Operations
1. Can they hit again in the draft?
Outside of San Antonio, no organization may be better run than the Utah Jazz. Year after year that strike gold in the draft or with undrafted free agents, orchestrate trades that work out in their favor, remain competitive in the loaded Western Conference and keep their costs low. It's truly remarkable how they've been able to thrive as a small market organization.
With the Jazz hitting big time on Donovan Mitchell last year and orchestrating a big trade up in the draft for him, do they have that same magic touch this June to flank him with another big-time future stud? There are avenues again for the Jazz to trade up, but they could also get a good value with the 21st pick. Utah has no holes on their roster and, with the hope that Favors returns to the Jazz, no needs for starters next season. They can afford to take anyone they thing provides the most long-term value.
2. Can they retain Favors?
Free agent power forward Derrick Favors has supreme value, both for Utah and for other teams around the league. He's the type of player that can be a positive at the 4 or the 5, and he's young enough to still continue to improve in his role. While a year ago there were fears about the duo of Favors and Gobert working together, they disproved that for a while this year... up until the Houston series.
The cost of keeping Favors is likely in the $15 million per year range, but who are they really betting against? Teams like Dallas, Phoenix and Chicago could offer more money, but will they offer an optimal scenario for the big man in terms of supporting cast and winning?
One scenario that should be considered as well: a sign-and-trade for Favors. Because the Jazz will keep his cap hold and act as an over-the-cap team until his contract situation is resolved, Favors would be sign-and-trade eligible. What about a mutual sign-and-trade with Milwaukee for Jabari Parker, or with Washington where they eat the final year of Marcin Gortat's deal and get a draft pick? It's a bit unlikely, but that is an avenue where the Jazz could get something in return for Favors while committing more fully to a smaller, quicker style of play.
3. Maximizing value from their non-guaranteed contracts
Three players have zero guaranteed dollars for next year, and they have a great deal of value on the trade market and for a Jazz team that is looking for a big splash. Those contracts make for a combined $12.8 million in additional space: Thabo Sefolosha ($5.25m), Jonas Jerebko ($4.2m) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.36m). Sefolosha's guarantee date is July 1st, while Jerebko and Udoh are July 9th.
The Jazz can get creative with how they deal with these players. First off, they have to think about the value that each provides on the roster next season. Jerebko likely provides the most on-court value, thanks to Udoh's severe backup status and Sefolosha's injuries. Second, what upgrades would be available to the team without those players? That answer depends on what happens with Favors... if he stays, the Jazz will be over the cap and have only their Mid-Level Exception of $8.8 million to replace any and all of those guys. If Favors leaves, this could be the avenue to getting more cap space to sign a new player, but the timeline doesn't necessarily fit -- Favors would have to announce his signing elsewhere before July 9th.
The third option, and perhaps the most likely, is the Jazz trading at least one of these non-guaranteed deals to another team that is in desperate need of cap space. Because the Jazz will operate as an over-the-cap team, they'd have to find a player to match salaries. That said, there should be a market available for these contracts, and one that either helps Utah move up in the draft or grab another veteran for their bench.
Would Jerebko be enough to get the team a long-term backup 5 in Frank Kaminsky? What about pairing Udoh and Sefolosha together for E'Twaun Moore? What about those two and a protected pick for JaMychal Green? Many teams that are looking to start a rebuild or are in need of certain changes to their roster, and Utah is one of the few teams that can leverage their non-guaranteed deals into something of more value.
Regardless, the first domino to fall will be Sefolosha, and based on their financial numbers, it would be surprising to see the Jazz simply cut him and take the extra $5 million of cap space. Regardless they'll likely operate as an over-the-cap team, so they should keep these guys and soak their value via trade.
4. Exum & their other free agents
Beyond Favors, Utah has three restricted free agents they have a leg-up on retaining. Of those three, only one figures to be a key factor in their short and long-term plans: Dante Exum. The Australian product is still one of the hardest players to predict on the free agent market. He's shown great flashes of defensive potential and could be a long, versatile ball handler in the right situation.
The question is how much money will any team outside of Utah offer him? The Jazz, based on how far below the luxury tax they are, will probably match any offer that comes in for Exum, and they can do so because he's a restricted free agent that they'll tender. Still, the Jazz will want to drive the value down as much as they can without disrespecting Dante, and could try to preempt any other offer sheets that get put in front of him.
Raul Neto, the veteran backup point guard, then becomes a fallback option to Exum. Either way, expect the Jazz to push back talking to him or Stockton until Favors and Exum become known quantities. There's too much potential flexibility if they both leave for the Jazz to make a decision too soon.
5. Thinking big
Based on their flexibility, the Jazz are in a bit of a waiting game here with their roster. The best course of action to utilizing non-guaranteed contracts and roster spots is to see things through with Favors and Exum. But there are ways for the Jazz to take matters into their own hands, go on the offensive and make an aggressive push for a star player through trade.
Hear me out on this: Utah ships Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, Joe Ingles and two first-round picks to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. Or they do the same package with Crowder instead of Ingles and only one pick to Charlotte for Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. These are ways for the Jazz to add another big-name player through trade, something the organization likely has to do since they've never been a big-time free agent destination.
Either trade would be a big-time aggressive move for the Jazz, hoping to maximize Donovan Mitchell's window while he's on his rookie contract. They'd do so without giving up many rotation players, and would add great firepower at the top of their roster. On the flip side, two teams that crave cap space in San Antonio and Charlotte would then get up to $9.5 mill space, while taking back a versatile rotation player in Ingles. Would that be enough for San Antonio to make a push for one of the other big names on the market?
Neither of these scenarios are likely, but if I'm the GM in Utah, I'm picking up the phone and seeing if I can make an aggressive push for a top-tier superstar like Kawhi. Now is the time to open the window for competing as wide as possible.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).