Examining the likely salary cap crunch for the New Orleans Pelicans

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·4 min read
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The New Orleans Pelicans are one of just two franchises – along with the Charlotte Hornets – in the history of the NBA to never pay the luxury tax. Despite the boom in money into the NBA over the years, the Pelicans have never crossed that threshold even during the years with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday leading the team.

That makes the upcoming offseason particularly interesting for New Orleans. After a disappointing season that saw them not even earn a spot in the play-in tournament, the Pelicans now face the potential of heading into the luxury tax for a team that finished as the 11th seed last season.

Last summer’s acquisitions of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe did not have the impact on the season that the team would have likely wanted. Adams’ two-year, $35 million extension did not seem out of line given his production in his career. However, receiving that money before playing a game alongside Zion Williamson – the franchise’s cornerstone moving forward – was a curious decision.

While the pairing had some positives on the season, including a ridiculous offensive rebounding rate of 30.6% when they shared the floor, it wasn’t the zag while the rest of the league was zigging that the Pelicans anticipated it would be.

Adams can still be an impactful player on a contender in a different situation that doesn’t include a bulldozing big man like Williamson in the frontcourt alongside him. Eric Bledsoe, though, did not produce the same kind of optimism for his future this season.

One year removed from a Second Team All-Defense honor, Bledsoe finished the season with New Orleans sporting the second-worst defensive rating, trailing only Adams. The offense wasn’t any better as his deficiencies as a shooter were glaring playing alongside Brandon Ingram and Williamson. Taking the third-most attempts from beyond the arc on the team, Bledsoe shot 34.1% on the season.

Effectively, the two offseason acquisitions anchored down the returning starters in Williamson, Ingram and Lonzo Ball. While the starting lineup had a net rating of plus-2.0 as a whole, the trio of returnees minus Adams and Bledsoe had a net rating of plus-15.5 this season.

This brings the Pelicans to their conundrum this offseason, which includes restricted free agents Ball and Josh Hart. If reports are to be believed, Ball’s contract could be in the neighborhood of $18-20 million annually after a career season in which he established himself alongside Ingram and Williamson.

Hart, meanwhile, saw his 3-point percentage dip even further below average this season but also saw his rebounding rate trend in the other direction as he averaged 8.0 per game in just 28.7 minutes per contest. In fact, his rebound rate of 13.8%, according to NBA Stats, puts him in the neighborhood of Miami’s Bam Adebayo, New York’s Julius Randle and Montrezl Harrell of the Lakers.

A conservative estimate of a contract in the $12-15 million range annually next season, then, means the Pelicans could be looking at paying $30-35 million to retain Ball and Hart. In a recent podcast, HoopsHype salary cap expert Yossi Gozlan noted the Pelicans would be roughly $37 million – including the cap hold for the No. 10 pick – under the luxury tax line.

The number crunch to avoid the luxury tax, which seems like an expectation from ownership given their history, will then get really tight really fast.

One of the logical conclusions would be to move on from their two offseason acquisitions from 2020 that did not blend with the core that they would be committing to. At the trade deadline, the Pelicans were reportedly shopping Bledsoe, though it was with a desire to get positive value back in a trade.

Following a disappointing year from both the team and the guard himself, would the Pelicans be open to cutting ties with Bledsoe at the cost of a draft pick from their war chest of draft assets?

Adams would certainly have more value in a vacuum. But at $17 million owed to him next season, finding a trade partner that can take on his salary without sending much in return is difficult. Teams like Charlotte, New York or San Antonio all may be interested in a big man as teams with cap space and a potential hole in the frontcourt.

Shipping out Adams also makes sense from a roster standpoint after a strong second half of the season from Jaxson Hayes, the No. 8 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He would be able to step into the starting lineup and, at just $5.4 million next season, would be significantly cheaper than Adams.

It’s all a number crunch the Pelicans front office is going to have to navigate this offseason. Even if ownership is willing to pay the luxury tax, which David Griffin stated was the case under the right circumstances during his exit interview, it makes little sense to do so with a roster that finished outside the postseason last year.

Will Adams’ or Bledsoe’s time in New Orleans be short then? Or will Ball or Hart be the cap casualties in restricted free agency?