If Tyreke Evans does make his way to New Orleans this offseason, the Pelicans will have to do some maneuvering to make the salary cap math work. While this could take several forms—trading Eric Gordon, finding a taker for Greivis Vasquez or other bench fodder, etc.—one option the Pelicans will likely explore is buying out Robin Lopez’s partially guaranteed deal for $500,000 before the July 5th deadline. Lopez, who started much of last season, is currently slated to earn just over $5.1 million in 2013, according to the indispensable spotrac.com salary database, so issuing him his walking papers would make a considerable impact on the team’s cap situation.
This option is appealing financially, but will only work on the court if the Pelicans are comfortable with transitioning to a frontcourt rotation anchored by Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis. At the offensive end, this is a solid pairing, matching the elite perimeter shooting of Anderson with Davis’s athleticism nearer the basket. Anderson’s floor-spacing creates ample room for Davis to work the pick-and-roll game with new addition Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, or (in this scenario) Tyreke Evans, depending on the matchups on a given night. If the pieces jell, the offense could be dynamic. There is little doubt that this pairing is what the then-Hornets front office envisioned when they traded for Anderson and drafted Davis.
The bigger question comes at the defensive end of the court. Anderson puts great effort into his defensive assignments, and has historically acquitted himself quite well, especially against other stretch fours. His rebounding is quite respectable for other players in his position and role. However, Anderson is only a “good” athlete by NBA standards. He may struggle if forced to take on a more central role in the team’s defensive scheme, although he can only be helped by having an elite rim protector behind him.
Davis, on the other hand, has no such athletic limitations. Davis’s pterodactyl reach, explosive leaping ability, and excellent timing have already made him a high-level shot-blocker at the NBA level. However, Davis remains extremely thin for the center position; for all his athleticism, the admittedly small number of low-post bangers with developed post games will likely be able to bully their way deep into prime post position. While players such as Kevin Garnett have learned to thrive in the post despite stick-thin frames, the prototypical post player typically carries a tad more bulk to assist in the physical battles under the basket.
One important consideration that is frequently overlooked is the positional flexibility afforded by having a center as fleet-footed as Davis. With the exception of the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, and (pending the return of Tiago Splitter) the San Antonio Spurs, most NBA teams lack two capable low-post scoring threats. In truth, many lack so much as one such player. This allows the Pelicans to explore cross-matching options in which Davis may guard the opposing power forward while Anderson guards the center. Many NBA centers flounder when pulled away from the basket by an opposing big man, but Davis, with his now-famous background as a high school guard, has no such difficulties.
Of course, releasing Lopez does not preclude the Pelicans from adding an additional big to the bench. Salary cap exceptions are a GM’s lifeline in situations such as this, and the Pelicans would be wise to seek out a brawnier option to shore up their bench depth. In a dream scenario, the Pelicans may even be able to buy out Lopez, and then resign him to a more favorable contract (although there is not an overabundance of available, young, capable centers on this year’s free agent market, and the Pelicans would likely be priced out for his services).
Lopez has unquestioned value to the Pelicans, and the team very well may seek other options to get under the cap threshold. And all of this is moot if Evans signs elsewhere or returns to the Kings. However, the Pelicans must carefully consider whether the team believes that Anderson and Davis are ready to assume center stage and anchor the frontcourt rotation. While the offensive potential is tantalizing, the big-bodied presence of Lopez would likely be missed on defense and on the boards. Dell Demps and his staff have shown they are ready to sacrifice future flexibility and the prospect of future lottery picks to claw toward respectability; this represents a critical decision point in determining whether that quest will be successful.