NBA Free Agency: Wings and a Prayer

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.

The Pelicans have their biggest needs in the frontcourt, with length, athleticism, and rim protection; and in the backcourt, they need one more player to control the offense.

New Orleans has its most depth on the wing, with Brandon Ingram, Trey Murphy III, Herbert Jones, Naji Marshall, Dereon Seabron, and even Zion Williamson capable of manning the small forward position. Garrett Temple remains on the roster in a “break glass in case of emergency” role.

The wing position is probably the most shallow position group of free agents this offseason; but here is the best of what’s available. Do you see any potential fits with the Pelicans?

Yuta Watanabe, Brooklyn Nets

LeBron James isn’t the only player in the NBA known as “The Chosen One;” free agent forward Yuta Watanabe also goes by that moniker.

The 28-year old forward out of Japan came to the league after a four-year career at George Washington University where he was a two-time member of the Atlantic 10 All-Defense Team and the 2017-18 A-10 Defensive Player of the Year.

During his final season with the Colonials, he averaged career highs in points (16.3), rebounds (6.1), and shot 36.4 percent from deep.

In five NBA seasons with three different teams, Watanabe has struggled to find consistent minutes, though it looks like he began to grow into a role as a second unit scorer with the Brooklyn Nets last year.

He appeared in a career-high 58 games and posted his best shooting numbers since entering the league. Watanabe was a terror from long distance, converting 44 pct. of his three-point attempts, and he shot 56% inside the arc, finishing with a .491 overall FG% and making 60 threes for the year.

He has great length as a perimeter defender at 6-8, and racked up five steals in 19 minutes back on New Year’s Eve in a win over the Charlotte Hornets. He also had five games with at least two blocked shots, one less than Jaxson Hayes.

One of his other exceptional attributes is that Watanabe gets better as the game goes on. In the first half of games he shot 41.7 pct (36.2 3P%); but in the second half those numbers improved to 56.3 pct and 52.9 pct respectively.

Yuta Watanabe wouldn’t give the Pelicans much as a shot creator or ball-handler, but his defensive abilities coupled with his energy and athleticism, could make him an excellent fit as a finisher in transition and as someone who can knock down the open triple when needed.

TJ Warren, Phoenix Suns

It wasn’t that long ago that TJ Warren seemed to be on the path to becoming, if not a star, a consistent 20 ppg game scorer in the NBA.

Between 2017-2020, Warren averaged 19.3 pts, 4.5 reb, 1.4 ast, 1.1 stls, and 0.6 blks per game with the Phoenix Suns and Indiana Pacers. He shot better than 50 pct. from the field, 38 pct. from long distance, and almost 80 pct. from the charity stripe.

Then came the 2020-21 season, and Warren injured his left foot. He would play in only four games over the next two seasons before joining the Brooklyn Nets prior to last season.

He showed some decent progress with the Nets, playing almost 20 minutes per game and averaging just under 10 ppg while still shooting above 50 pct. However, after he was traded back to Phoenix, he saw his minutes and production take a dive.

The Suns reduced his playing time by one-third, and all of Warren’s offensive numbers tailed off considerably. By the time the playoffs rolled around, TJ Warren was only seeing spot duty. He played in only six of Phoenix’s 11 postseason games.

New Orleans has struggled to find consistent offensive production off the bench, and Warren presents the versatility of being able to play both the three and four spots on both ends of the floor.

He has elite efficiency as a mid-range shooter and excels in transition and has shown to be a capable and willing defender. His salary demands shouldn’t be considerable, and Warren could fill multiple roles should the Pelicans move on from players like Marshall or Temple.

Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic

If there’s one thing that is known about Terrence Ross, it’s that he has bounce.

His ability to finish above and around the rim is one of the main reasons he’s been able to carve out a 10-year career in the NBA.

Ross split the 2022-23 season with the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns and was still a very good player off the bench for both teams. In 63 games he knocked down 95 three-pointers while shooting a more than respectable 36.8 pct from beyond the arc.

His 95 threes would have been good enough for third-best on the Pelicans this season, with CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III the only players on the current roster to outpace his shooting percentage. The corner three, one of the big areas of concern for the Pels, in another area where Ross excels.

Over 12 seasons, he’s averaging 38.9 pct on his attempts from the corner, including 44.1 percent this past year. Only Murphy, Ingram, and Larry Nance Jr. were above 40 pct for New Orleans.

At 32 years of age, it seems that Ross still has plenty of gas in the tank, and he made less than $1 million in salary. His cost is affordable and his talent would be a welcome addition to the second unit.

He adds scoring, athleticism, shot creation, three-point shooting, and defensive activity to the table. Terrence Ross can be the type of player who raises the floor for the Pelicans as well as the ceiling.

Jae Crowder, Milwaukee Bucks

We’ve reached the portion of the list where the only way many Pelicans fans will accept either of the following players is as human pinatas to be dangled from the scoreboard above the Smoothie King Center floor.

However, each year the cry goes out for “toughness” being needed for the roster. Players that can use their physicality, their mental strength, and even their ability to be nothing more than a fly in the ointment on occasion, have been lacking from the New Orleans DNA for quite some time.

Jae Crowder and the Pelicans already have a very tempestuous relationship, that reached the peak of its fervor during the Pels/Suns playoffs series after the 2021-22 season. Those hard feelings carried over into this past season with the crowd at The Blender serenading Crowder with a chant that cannot be transcribed here, but remains close to the hearts of Pelicans fans everywhere.

Regardless, Crowder continues to find himself with important roles on very good basketball teams.

With Phoenix in flux, Crowder was moved to Milwaukee late in the regular season. In a limited capacity he was able to put up numbers, averaging 6.9 ppg and shooting 43.6 pct from three-point range on more than three attempts per game. He’s connected on almost 1200 triples in his 10-year career.

He has more than 409 starts, so he can fill-in as a short term starter at either the small forward or power forward positions. While his athleticism is slipping, he can still be a solid 3-and-D wing.

He knows how to win, and he plays with a high level of tenacity and intensity. If he can bring down his price tag, Crower could be another solid addition to the Pelicans bench.

Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies

It’s crazy how quickly things can change in the NBA. You can go from the embodiment of a team’s culture and style of play to an unwanted distraction in a heartbeat.

Such is the case of Dillon Brooks.

Brooks was good enough to make the 2022-23 NBA All-Defense team and start all 73 games that he appeared in for the Memphis Grizzlies, but the Grizzlies decided that they’ve had enough of the Dillon Brooks experience.

Dillon Brooks is one of the most hated and vilified players in the NBA and can go from one of the reasons your team is winning, to helping start comebacks for your opponent.

It’s never been a question of talent with Brooks. The questions have been about his attitude and his possibly over-inflated opinion of himself.

No shot is a bad shot in Dillon Brooks’ world. On his way out of Memphis he stated that he has more to his offensive game than the Grizzlies would allow him to show.

Even with his reputation as an elite defender, he’s also earned a reputation for being unnecessarily physical and potentially dirty. He seems improperly placed in starting lineups because his offense can be so streaky. Brooks isn’t turnover prone, but he doesn’t create for others.

His three-point shooting percentage peaked in his second season (.375), and then declined for three straight years before rising slightly this past season (.326).

If you’re adding Dillon Brooks to your roster, it isn’t because you expect him to become a star. You add Dillon Brooks to be a wild card, an agent of chaos and attitude in a locker room full of really nice guys.

Even then, the likelihood of Brooks ending up in New Orleans is miniscule at best.


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