Two days after the nation celebrates Independence Day, NBA players will get to exercise their independence with the start of the league’s free agency period on July 6.
According to the latest numbers by Spotrac, the New Orleans Pelicans have a bit of work to do to get under the salary cap. The Pels have 13 players currently under contract, with more than $207 million committed to the roster. They sit $73.64 million over the cap. Only seven teams in the league are worse off financially.
This is professional sports however, and what is true today may not be true tomorrow.
David Griffin does have some flexibility and he has plenty of assets to sweeten a deal if need be.
Though Jonas Valanciunas has shown his value over the past two seasons, averaging 15.9 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, it seems that he is not the Pelicans’ center of the future. JV saw his minutes cut by nearly six per game to 24.9, his lowest since the 2018-19 season. Yet, he still was one of only nine players in the entire NBA to average at least 14 points and 10 boards. Jonas was the only member of the group to post those figures in fewer than 30 minutes per game.
And, he only has one season left on his contract. His expiring deal and production could be very appealing to the right team. If the Pelicans do decide to move on from Valanciunas, they’ll need to replace his offensive rebounding, offensive efficiency, toughness, and ability to show up.
Restricted free agent Jaxson Hayes’ days in New Orleans appear to be numbered, and if you ask much of the fan base they should be expired. There is no more frustrating statement associated with the Pelicans, perhaps other than “wait until this team gets healthy,” than “if Jaxson Hayes ever puts it all together.”
In four seasons, Hayes has yet to show the type of improvement the franchise has expected since he was taken with the eighth pick in 2019. That was ahead of other front court players like Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, PJ Washington, and Nic Claxton.
Then, there’s Willy Hernangomez. Though Willy has been a fan favorite and a loyal soldier over the last three seasons, he too has fallen out of favor when it comes to Willie Green’s rotations. Hernangomez appeared in just 38 games last season, his fewest since the season before he arrived in NOLA. His discontent with his playing situation was clear as the season wore on. The Pelicans hold his club option, though it seems highly unlikely that he returns.
The Pelicans’ options as far as free agents aren’t plentiful. Like this year’s NBA Draft, the big board is not deep with big men. But there are a few who could make an impact.
Thomas Bryant, Denver Nuggets
Bryant will be entering his seventh NBA season, but will only be 26 years old when it ends. While not the most glamorous name on the list, Thomas Bryant has proven to be an effective offensive presence during his career.
This season he averaged 25.1 pts, 14.7 reb, and 1.3 blks per 100 possessions while shooting 62.3 percent from the floor and 44.1 percent from long distance. The only other players to match those numbers were named Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis, and JaVale McGee.
Defensively, he has work to do, but he isn’t a disaster. His defensive real plus-minus last season was 0.50, ahead of DeAndre Jordan, Nerlens Noel, and Jalen Duren. Hernangomez and Hayes registered at -1.31 and -1.86 respectively.
As an inexpensive, rotational big, there’s still potential for Bryant to tap into. He could provide scoring around the rim and can still be a threat from the perimeter while providing more athleticism than either JV or Hernangomez.
Mason Plumlee, Los Angeles Clippers
The last of the Flying Plumlee Brothers, Plumlee continues to plug along as one of the NBA’s most consistent and durable bigs in the league; capable of being effective as both a starter and as a reserve.
In his 10-year career Plumlee has appeared in fewer than 70 games in a season just twice, averaging 74 per year, with 446 starts. In 79 games with the Hornets and Clippers this past season, he posted 10.8 pts, 8.9 reb, and 3.1 ast.
He started 60 games, collecting 23 double-doubles. He had at least eight rebounds in a game 49 times and at least one block in 33 games. Hernangomez and Hayes combined for 9 and 22 such games, respectively. Valanciunas had 56 games with eight boards and 37 with one block.
Plumlee will surely draw suitors as long as Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, stand atop the league. He earned more than $8M with the Clippers this season, and should get more in the open market.
Meyers Leonard, Milwaukee Bucks
Meyers Leonard has two things going for him. He’s 7-feet tall and he is an exceptional shooter for his size. He’s also incredibly cheap, so make that three things.
Leonard was on the rise until his career was knocked off track after he used a racial slur during an online gaming session. He was exiled from the NBA, and it took him a while to find his way back to the league.
The Bucks took a chance on him, and though he only appeared in nine games during the regular season, Leonard showed that his shooting touch hasn’t left him yet.
Over 10 seasons, he’s maintained a career .390 shooting percentage from beyond the three-point line. Between 2017-2021 he made 43 pct. of his attempts from downtown and had an effective field goal percentage of 64 pct.
He doesn’t provide much in terms of rim protection or rebounding, but he’s a specialist who’s really good at what he does. He could be worth a look.
Naz Reid, Minnesota Timberwolves
Pelicans fans have been salivating over Reid for the past four seasons. And with good reason. After going undrafted out of LSU, Reid has put the work in to develop his game, and it should pay off this summer.
Though undersized at 6-9, Reid is powerful, packing 260 lbs onto his frame. He’s also coming off of the best statistical season of his young career.
In 68 games for the Timberwolves, Reid posted career highs in points (11.5), rebounds (4.9), steals (0.6), and field goal percentage (.537). He’s also become a very accurate three-point shooter, making a career best 75 triples this past season, while shooting 35 pct. from deep.
Most of Reid’s skills are displayed on the offensive end, he has yet to prove to be much of a one-on-one defender. He has shown some flashes as a shot blocker, averaging just under one block per game for his career. With his athleticism, his work ethic, and perhaps some additional coaching, he can become at the very least a solid team defender. No matter what, there is going to be a lot of competition for his services.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
While Lopez is probably the least likely of the free agents to join the Pelicans, based on just how valuable he has been to the Bucks, there’s still a chance that “Splash Mountain” could relocate from the Midwest.
Though he’s only been named to the NBA All-Star team once in his career, Brook Lopez is still one of the top centers in the league at the age of 34.
Lopez was named to the All-Defensive First Team for the first time in his career after this past season, his 15th in the league. After missing most of the 2021-22 campaign, Lopez played in 78 games, his highest total since 2019.
He also played 30.4 minutes per game, the most he’s played in almost a decade. Even still, his efficiency was incredible. Lopez was one of only four players in the NBA to average at least 15 points, six rebounds, and two blocks per game (Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr., Myles Turner).
His 37.4 percent shooting from distance was a career-best, and since the start of the 2016 season Lopez has shot a robust 35 pct. overall from downtown. He’s clutch at the line as well, converting better than 80 pct. of his free throw attempts.
It would take a tremendous amount of maneuvering and convincing, but adding a veteran like Lopez into the heart of the Pelicans defense would be the type of landscape shifting move that fans are looking for.
Honorable mention: Jakob Poeltl, Raptors; Dwight Powell, Mavericks; Drew Eubanks, Trail Blazers; Bismack Biyombo, Suns
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