After a few years of adjustments and development, we are finally seeing the world created by the newest NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. The combination of shorter contracts and rare non-rookie extensions have pushed the league closer to a year-round spectacle than ever before with early July taking a much greater place in the overall future of the NBA.
Underneath all those other machinations, we have also seen another major development that hopefully changes in the near term: the league has very few elite players on rookie contracts. While talents like Kyrie Irving (also soon to be off his rookie deal with his extension kicking in beginning in 15-16) and Andre Drummond possess the ability to make the leap into superstardom, we will have to wait to see it on the court.
We have already seen the best player in the world change teams twice as an unrestricted free agent and All-Stars like Dwight Howard use the opportunity presented by their first shot at true NBA freedom to change addresses. In the next few years, young stars including Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook will have similar opportunities for the first time in their careers.
Miami’s “Big Three” and the events of the past few seasons have taught the league to understand and prepare for the unpredictability this can present. The Rockets, Lakers and others rejected near-term improvements this summer to preserve their long-term flexibility with a clear justification for doing so.
The past few wild Julys have been fun but are only the appetizers for the true main courses in 2016 and 2017. While the pool of teams gunning for the best players has deepened with shorter contracts and a few more salary-conscious owners, the NBA’s massive new television deal will open up the competition even if the league chooses to use “smoothing” to ease into the higher cap figures. Even with smoothing we should see teams have more flexibility on the aggregate than any time recently with lots of high-end players who can choose to move and existing contracts that become easier to trade for the same reasons.
Amidst all the chaos, only one team has the true golden ticket: a young elite player that they can say with certainty will be there throughout this tumultuous time.
That team is the New Orleans Pelicans because they have Anthony Davis.
After a season where his team missed the playoffs and he barely made the All-Star team, it feels like Davis’ amazing accomplishments flew somewhat under the radar. In terms of Win Shares / 48 and PER, Anthony Davis has had the best age 19 season AND the best age 20 season in the history of the NBA. Despite missing fifteen games in 2013-14, Davis put up the 13th most Win Shares of any season for a player age 21 or younger ever, with only LeBron James and Magic Johnson posting a better total in their age 20 year (both with at least ten more games played).
This insanely high quality of play for someone so young gets even more ridiculous with the fact that Anthony Davis will be paid almost half as much in the next two seasons combined as Kevin Durant and LeBron will each make per season and New Orleans can match any offer at the lower maximum salary for the least experienced players in 2016 if they are silly enough to wait that long.
While some may see this as a future selling point, I think New Orleans should start incorporating into their team vision and pitches as soon as possible. LeBron and Dwight Howard have shown players around the league that they simply cannot rely on the assumption that the best players in the league will choose to stick around when they hit unrestricted free agency. This reality combined with shorter contracts leave very few sure things around the league unless players are in the same class and coordinate.
Even though last summer’s big additions Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will still be under contract, I look at 2016 as the first major opportunity for the Pelicans to grab a big fish. The free agent class looks strong right now and since major power forward talents like Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge will almost certainly already be on new contracts, it takes some potential options for team-ups off the table.
While Durant will presumably stand as the most desirable teammate out there two years from now, the Thunder would still have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka on major contracts so the Oklahoma City brass could be ecstatic that the cap increases would allow them to keep their core, but not augment it beyond locking up players like Reggie Jackson that are already on roster.
If that scenario occurs, New Orleans gets to woo elite players with the opportunity to play with a star just getting into his prime in a city that works as an asset for NBA players. They will be competing with the major markets until the Knicks and Lakers exhaust their flexibility but having a golden ticket makes the Pelicans an under the radar team to watch for Stephen Curry in 2017 as well, particularly since that season marks the expiration of Holiday and Evans' lucrative contracts and an amazing chance at bring a third star to the Big Easy.
We can be sure that other players still on their rookie deals will break out over the next few seasons but New Orleans should make sure to maximize their temporarily unique opportunity.