Brandon Ingram may technically be bound for free agency this offseason, but don't count on the New Orleans Pelicans letting him get away. As a former first-round pick playing out the end of a rookie contract, Ingram will be a restricted free agent this summer. That gives the Pelicans the right to match any offer made to him, and according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, that is going to be their approach to his free agency this offseason.
While that essentially guarantees that Ingram remains with the Pelicans, it does not spell out the exact mechanism through which a reunion will come. There are a number of possibilities here, each with drastically different potential ramifications.
The simplest way to keep Ingram in a Pelicans uniform and happy for the long haul would simply be giving him a max contract before free agency even begins. With the cap uncertain following the season's suspension due to the coronavirus outbreak, the exact dollar figure of such a deal is unknowable right now, but the Pelicans could lock Ingram up for five years if they can agree to terms on a contract with him. As a 22-year-old All-Star averaging career highs in every major statistical category, a max contract is certainly on the table.
If the Pelicans choose not to offer one, though, things get a bit more complicated. While they could potentially save a bit of money by either playing hard ball or allowing Ingram to sign an offer sheet that they then match, New Orleans would also lose a meaningful chunk of team control in the process. Other teams can only give Ingram four-year offers, and if a player option is included, that could cut another year off Ingram's deal and allow him to enter unrestricted free agency in only three seasons.
And then there is the strain forcing a player of Ingram's caliber to test the market could have on their relationship. While no two situations are identical, several All-Stars who have left their original teams in recent years have done so after contentious restricted free agencies. The Utah Jazz refused to offer Gordon Hayward the max in 2014, for example, so he signed a shorter-term max contract with the Charlotte Hornets and left the Jazz as an unrestricted free agent in 2017.
Kawhi Leonard faced a similar situation in 2015. While the San Antonio Spurs were willing to give him the max, they would not do so immediately after he became eligible in 2014, as the reigning Finals MVP. Instead, they forced him to wait a year. As the No. 15 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Leonard's cap hold in free agency was preposterously low relative to his actual value. The Spurs were able to use that low cap hold to artificially create the cap space needed to sign LaMarcus Aldridge, and then re-sign Leonard to a max deal afterward.
The Pelicans would likely prefer to avoid such acrimony with Ingram, especially in such a weak free-agent class. Someone is going to offer him the max. They might as well do so themselves and lengthen his next deal. Yes, if it came down to matching an offer sheet for Ingram, the Pelicans would certainly do so, but in a perfect world, their negotiations never come down to that in the first place.