Why the Pelicans signed Ely and how they learned from the Cavs
There are always many signings in the final two weeks of an NBA season, moreso than at any other point of the calendar year except the July free agency market and the late September training camp binge. At a time when many of the games on the court are a bit meaningless, and many teams have long since seen their seasons trickle to a stop, the transaction wires are still ticking with regularity.
These transactions generally fill three needs. Some are for teams looking for playoff help, either teams looking to upgrade or switch things up at the last minute, or teams (namely Chicago) who frankly couldn't afford to do so before. Some teams, those outside the playoffs, are auditioning future talent, in the case of Philadelphia in particular a continuation of the strategy that has defined their season. And some are purely financially motivated with an eye to the summer, as will be seen below.
Some can be a combination of the above. The Bulls' signings of Lou Amundson, Mike James and Ronnie Brewer provide both depth for the playoffs from players familiar to the team (albeit in Amundson's case for all of 10 days), whilst also providing summer time financial flexibility. They do this due to the addition of an unguaranteed future additional season at the minimum salary, something which all three of those players have in their contracts.
The addition of a future unguaranteed season of salary is favoured by teams because it allows them to control a player's destiny over the start of the free agency period, fix their price should they decide to keep them, but most pertinently of all, add a future trade chip. An unguaranteed minimum salary contract can be dealt in trades come the summer time, often serving as helpful filler in bigger deals and valuable to the recipient team because of the ability to cut them immediately and potentially save significant money.
Unguaranteed future seasons are not very player-friendly, however. For both financial reasons (players are always trying to get as much as possible, as are their agents, as should they both) and reasons of pride (no one likes to be a pawn, signed only as a commodity to a team with only their own interests to serve), players do not benefit from such deals apart from the occasional yet rather empty boast of being able to say they signed a multi-year NBA contract.
Teams are therefore normally only able to add them if they have the leverage over a player to be able to do so by being their only suitor. There is a reason Amundson, James and Brewer had the extra season in their Chicago contracts but previous signee Jimmer Fredette does not - Fredette had multiple other suitors and thus did not have to. Nevertheless, despite this player unfriendliness, the conduct is common at this point in the season.
We looked at this science the other day when detailing Cleveland's signing of Scotty Hopson, and despite the logic within it, how unnecessary and poorly executed it was. That post examined how cheaply a team could create a significant trade chip using only the minimum salary. It talked about the Cavaliers didn't do it, but how easily another team could. And New Orleans just did it.
After waiving Greg Stiemsma, the Pelicans this week signed nine-year NBA veteran center Melvin Ely for the final three days of the season, long after the season was rendered a wash. At age 35, and quite a long time removed from his days as an effective NBA player, Ely is on the face of it an illogical candidate for such a call-up, especially in light of the Pelican's own press release announcing his signing only for the remainder of the season.
The same website says that James Southerland also signed for the remainder of the season, which indeed he did. However, there is in fact a second unguaranteed season attached to Ely's deal, which is where the signing's purpose can be found. As seen in the Hopson post, signing a veteran at the very end of the season to a deal with a future season can make for a significant cap hit the following season for minimal cost in the previous. New Orleans, then, have demonstrated exactly what it was Cleveland could and should have done.
As for why it was Ely in particular - well, why not Ely? He was in the D-League and thus available, he has many years of experience and is thus suitably expensive, and he has been out of the NBA for long enough that any opportunity to get back into it is to be welcomed. Ely will almost certainly not feature in the Pelicans plans as anything other than a contract to use in trade permutations, as a team in their position has no need for a nearly 36-year-old center whose only NBA caliber skills are four foot hook shots with both hands. However, he served that purpose well, earns a few thousand for sacrificing his freed for two months, and gets to enjoy being able to say he is back in the NBA, however briefly.
A win for all parties, then. Except for Greg Stiemsma.
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