After a ruptured left Achilles tendon put a heartbreaking end to DeMarcus Cousins’ season, we wondered how the New Orleans Pelicans — sitting seventh in the West, just two games up on the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers — might go about picking up the pieces. How would a team built on the undeniability of its two top-line stars and with such little depth replace (some of) Boogie’s mammoth production, fortify the roster around Anthony Davis, and stay afloat in the playoff chase?
The answer (or, at least, part of it) came Thursday. After two days of will-they-won’t-they days of reports, the Pelicans and Chicago Bulls agreed to terms on a trade that sends power forward Nikola Mirotic — Chicago’s top scorer and best 3-point shooter, and a player whose name has been bandied about in trade talks all season — to New Orleans for center Omer Asik, guards Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson, a top-five-protected 2018 first-round draft pick and $2.5 million in cash. The Bulls will also send back New Orleans’ 2018 second-round pick, which went to Chicago along with swingman Quincy Pondexter in September, and will get the right to swap second-rounders with the Pelicans in 2021.
The deal’s consummation came two days after Mirotic — a 26-year-old out of Montenegro whose tenure in the Windy City went south when Bobby Portis broke his face — reportedly rejected a prior iteration of the trade. As reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and detailed by Ben Falk at Cleaning the Glass, as a player on a one-year deal with a team option for next season, Mirotic had the right to veto any trade that would cost him his “Bird rights,” the name given to the NBA salary cap exception that allows teams to exceed the cap to pay their own free agents.
If the Bulls traded Mirotic to New Orleans without guaranteeing his $12.5 million team option for next season, he’d lose his Bird rights, so Mirotic needed to approve the deal. He didn’t — which makes sense, given how few teams are likely to have meaningful salary cap space this summer. If Chicago did guarantee the second year to grease the skids, though, it would put the Pelicans on the hook for an additional $12.5 million for 2018-19.
At first, that looked like a non-starter for New Orleans: with more than $90 million already on the books for next year for just seven players, unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Cousins (who will command top dollar even after his Achilles tear) needing a new deal, and a projected luxury tax line of $121 million, the Pelicans didn’t seem eager to take on any guaranteed money for next year. Hence the first-round-pick sweetener to jettison Asik, owed $11.3 million next year and just under $12 million in 2019-20 (albeit with only $3 million guaranteed for the final year) in what has proven to be a disastrously unsuccessful contract.
But the two sides kept talking. Eventually, the Bulls — who held Mirotic out of Wednesday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers to protect their asset — got the Pelicans on board with guaranteeing Mirotic’s ’18-’19 contract by giving back this year’s second-rounder, and by taking back Allen and Nelson.
For the Bulls, the goal’s simple: sell high on Mirotic (in the midst of a career year thanks in part to Chicago’s insistence on moving him) to increase future financial flexibility and bring back draft assets that might help general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson add to what has become an intriguing young core. Moving Mirotic also has the ancillary “benefit” of making this year’s Bulls worse, thereby potentially improving the chances of landing a high lottery pick in the final draft before lottery reform levels the odds. The Bulls enter Thursday’s action with the NBA’s sixth-worst record, at 18-33.
While the Bulls made Thursday’s trade with the future in mind, New Orleans pulled the trigger thinking about right bleepin’ now. Two straight losses without Boogie cast the Pelicans’ need for an injection of offensive talent into stark relief. Standing pat and relying on the admittedly superhuman Davis might not have been enough to hold off the Clippers (whose tread-water-or-tear-down? plans remain unclear after shipping out Blake Griffin) or Utah Jazz and stay in the West’s top eight. So general manager Dell Demps did what needed to be done to land Mirotic, who’s shooting a blistering 42.9 percent from 3-point range this season and gives Alvin Gentry a willing and threatening floor-spacer. His presence next to Davis at center (not AD’s preferred position, but one he must play with Cousins sidelined) ought to open up a Pelicans offense that has averaged just 101.1 points per 100 possessions in two games without Cousins.
Importing Mirotic to slot in alongside Davis, resurgent guard Jrue Holiday and steady-sniping wing E’Twaun Moore — and to bump yeoman’s-work forward Dante Cunningham back to the bench role for which he’s best suited — came at a cost: Mirotic’s guaranteed salary for next season, and another first-round draft choice, which New Orleans seems to trade every year. This time around, though, Demps seems to have gotten good value for his pick.
Should the Pelicans find themselves needing to get under the luxury tax line when it comes time to give Boogie the max this summer, it’s a good bet that Demps will be able to find a suitor for Mirotic’s $12.5 million expiring deal. Should Cousins decide instead to leave New Orleans, well, you’ve still got a pretty good starting power forward on hand at a reasonable price.
By holding out to get this summer’s second-round pick back, Demps also added something that he might be able to use as a sweetener in another money-clearing deal (say, getting somebody to bite on the final $5.3 million owed to center Alexis Ajinca?). And by including Allen and Nelson, New Orleans both ducked the “hard cap” or “apron” line of just under $125.3 million in total team salary and opened up an additional roster spot. Here’s where we remind you that center Greg Monroe — a high-scoring, playmaking New Orleans native — is about to hit the market, and could find the chance to log big minutes in his hometown for a team with postseason aspirations awfully enticing.
You can’t really replace players as productive and dominant as Cousins, and trading first-round picks is never fun. New Orleans is still short on the wing — Darius Miller has been a godsend, they’re hopeful Solomon Hill can one day get healthy and play up to his contract, and DeAndre Liggins is a reclamation-project adventure — and it’s an open question how much fear a Davis-Mirotic-Monroe frontcourt would really strike into the hearts of the West’s elite. But six days after it looked like their season might be in shambles, the Pelicans seem to have righted the ship.
Despite limited options and flexibility, New Orleans looks to have found a path to reload its offense on the fly and remain in the hunt for a return to postseason play while still leaving some room to maneuver this summer. With rare exceptions, you can’t solve all your problems with one trade. This ain’t a bad try, though.
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