New Orleans Pelicans: A history of desperation

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images /

The New Orleans Pelicans franchise is desperate to keep its star, Anthony Davis. That same sense of urgency may doom them further, however, as it has done for nearly the past decade.

Despite almost daily and unregulated speculation from ESPN‘s hype machine, Anthony Davis is saying all the right things; he is focused on winning with the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans haven’t done that much winning so far this season, however, sitting at 15-17. They’re 13th in the Western Conference, above only the dysfunctional Phoenix Suns and the Stockholm Syndrome-affected Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Pelicans have shown absolutely no desire to engage anyone on trade talks regarding Davis, but behind the scenes, each loss must bring more dread and anxiety to a franchise that has had its fair share of turmoil. Their ace in the hole is the supermax extension worth $230 million that only it can offer Davis; if Davis does sign that extension, it would be the biggest contract in NBA history.

One has to wonder if money if AD’s main motivation, however, especially considering he fired his long-time agent and hired LeBron James‘s agent and friend Rich Paul earlier this year, in what he spun as a marketing decision rather than a long-game to get himself to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, to be clear, this is not another article declaring the imminence of an Anthony Davis trade demand; the good people of Louisiana do not need to start prepping their basketball Doomsday bunkers. Still, even the possibility of Davis not committing long-term to New Orleans has made the team’s front office act hastily on more than one occasion.

The Athletic’s Jordan Brenner has noted multiple league sources claiming the Pelicans are desperately looking for roster upgrades, with one East executive saying,

"“I know [the Pelicans] are talking to a lot of teams.”"

The Pelicans are just one of a handful of surprisingly underachieving teams, all of whom have sent out feelers for impact trades that likely aren’t there. This year’s trade deadline is setting up to be a seller’s market, one stocked with the likes of players such as Courtney Lee, Kent Bazemore and J.R. Smith, among other flawed wings. New Orleans would have to pay a hefty price to acquire anyone talented enough to move the needle for the team this season. Coughing up more trade assets in either case is risky for a franchise with its future in doubt.

It’s important to remember that the Pelicans have suffered from injuries more than most teams have this season. Starting point guard Elfrid Payton has barely played since October, Anthony Davis missed a week with an elbow problem early in the season, Nikola Mirotic has missed a bunch of games lately and Julius Randle had to leave Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat with an ankle injury.

Maybe this group has untapped potential, but if the team seriously expects Elfrid Payton’s return to solve all of its problems — pitiful depth, a porous overall defense, no rim protection outside of AD and a surprisingly feeble 3-point attack — it is sorely mistaken.

That does not mean the talent the Pelicans have is lacking, as the team is surprisingly capable given its overall lack of punch in years past. AD is AD, Jrue Holiday is playing like an All-Star, E’Twaun Moore is one of the most underrated players in the league (and showing some nifty drives this year to complement his terrific 3-point shooting), and Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle are both starter-quality big men with clear strengths, even if neither can defend the rim.

For arguably the first time in AD’s career, his team has enough talent to compete with anyone on a given night without him having to drop a superhuman performance. The problem lies in New Orleans’ depth and roster construction, both of which point back to general manager Dell Demps.

Demps was the subject of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s vitriol in an interview Stern did for Sports Illustrated in October. As Stern told Chris Ballard:

"“Dell Demps is a lousy general manager and none of those players are currently with the team anymore, and he may lose Anthony Davis.”"

That level of candor isn’t a good look for Stern, who has never exactly been viewed as a saint himself despite the good he did in building the NBA, but it’s hard to say he’s wrong about Demps.

The New Orleans Pelicans took the high road, tweeting out this response:

History does indeed favor the Los Angeles Lakers-Chris Paul trade that Demps arranged back in 2011 — one that would have netted New Orleans quality players in Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Lamar Odom, along with future All-Star Goran Dragic and a 2012 first round pick. The eventual Los Angeles Clippers deal that Demps had to execute after Stern vetoed the Lakers trade brought back Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and a 2012 first-rounder that became Austin Rivers (it is important to note that seven years later, three of the four players New Orleans got are still in the league).

The Chris Paul trade saga was ugly and Stern was in all likelihood trying to prop himself up by criticizing Demps during his interview, but that doesn’t change the fact that all these years later, the Lakers offer looks objectively better.

Outside of that Pyrrhic victory for Demps, however, his track record shows an uncannily long leash for an executive who oversaw teams that routinely missed the playoffs. Much of that stems from the franchise’s tumultuous ownership history.

New Orleans basketball was restored in 2003 when disgraced Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn moved the team from North Carolina to Louisiana, in part, by his own admission during a 2008 interview with The Charlotte Observer, to get away from social criticism he was receiving amidst sexual assault allegations and the revelation of extramarital affairs.

Shinn, who was both one of the least wealthy owners and the most incompetent owners in the NBA at the time, was struggling mightily with finances and in 2010 the NBA had to step in to buy the franchise in an attempt to stabilize the situation. That was how the league and David Stern were able to veto the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade.

The league did not want to move another franchise out of New Orleans (rightfully, I might add) and in 2012, local billionaire and New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson agreed to buy the franchise, ensuring it would stay in New Orleans.

For as good of a person as Benson was (and may he rest in peace), by all accounts, he did not particularly care about basketball and only bought the team for the city’s sake. He cared deeply about the community in New Orleans and preserving basketball there was influential, even if he did not (or could not, due to health troubles) manage the team the way most owners do.

Between 2012 when he bought the team and his death this March, Benson was a hands-off owner, which explains why Demps never had to account for any of his head-scratching moves.

New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans Pelicans /

New Orleans Pelicans

2012 also marked when the franchise received its on-court savior, Anthony Davis. Now, considering the hectic situation New Orleans was in during the NBA’s reluctant ownership period, Demps’ first few years on the job, from the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2012, can be forgiven, or at least justified — although trading the first round pick that became Tobias Harris for Jerryd Bayless back in 2010 is one of the worst moves of the past decade.

The franchise’s path to build around Anthony Davis, one of the few can’t-miss prospects of the 21st century, was obvious. The Oklahoma City Thunder had just come off an NBA Finals appearance after one of the most masterful rebuilds ever, one which saw them draft Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka in three consecutive years.

Their opponent? The LeBron James and Dwayne Wade-led Miami Heat, the same team LeBron had spurned his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for after the franchise had botched its efforts to build around him. The Cavs, after stumbling into their own transcendent talent, tried to kickstart their team by surrounding LeBron with veterans and established role players. That didn’t work out for them, to say the least, and when LeBron left the team instantly became a dumpster fire.

The dichotomy of how to build around a budding superstar was stark even back in 2012, regardless of how predominant a role luck plays in drafting. In the years since, the patient, draft-and-develop approach has yielded even more success stories; teams at the top of the 2018-19 standings like the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and even the monolith Golden State Warriors themselves all built their cores through the draft.

Demps opted instead for what the team hilariously and repeatedly called “young veterans.”

Since the 2012 NBA Draft, when New Orleans drafted Davis at No. 1 overall, Austin Rivers at No. 10 and Darius Miller in the second round, the team has drafted eight total players in six drafts. Only one of those picks was made in the first round — Buddy Hield at No. 6 overall in 2016.

The rate at which the Pelicans have traded away first-rounders to chase the playoffs in an attempt to keep AD happy is frightening. Knowing what kind of a talent Davis was, Demps traded the No. 6 pick in the (admittedly atrocious) 2013 NBA Draft and a 2014 first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jrue Holiday.

Holiday was just 22 at the time and coming off his first All-Star appearance, but he wasn’t even the best player on that middling Sixers team — Andre Iguodala was — and his ceiling was not that of a perennial All-Star.

Demps also traded Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez to kick the tires on Jeff Withey and Tyreke Evans in the summer of 2013, setting up the team’s “young veteran” core. After it almost immediately became obvious that Withey was not an NBA-caliber player, the Pelicans traded their 2015 first round pick to the Rockets for old-school big man Omer Asik and Omri Casspi. New Orleans insisted on bringing in a center because a young Anthony Davis apparently did not want to take the physical toll of playing the 5.

In early 2015, the team would dump Austin Rivers two and a half years into his career. Yet during the 2015 offseason, New Orleans committed $65.2 million of guaranteed money to Asik and fringe rotation center Alexis Ajinca.

Demps followed that offseason up by collectively losing his mind like the rest of the NBA during the free-flowing 2016 offseason. The team signed Solomon Hill, now one of its lackluster rotation pieces, to a four-year, $52 million deal. It also inked E’Twaun Moore, who was mostly unproven at the time, to a four-year, $34 million contract — although that move has paid off in retrospect.

With the 2016-17 squad again playing losing basketball, the team desperately traded rookie Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a 2017 first round pick to the Sacramento Kings for disgruntled superstar DeMarcus Cousins. The team still missed the playoffs, finishing 2016-17 with a 34-48 record.

Cousins famously went down with an Achilles injury just before the All-Star break, but the Pelicans actually finished the season playing their best basketball of the Anthony Davis era. After the Pelicans’ successful 2017-18 season, the franchise was faced with a free agency conundrum: re-sign Cousins despite his injury, and for what would likely be a massive contract nonetheless, or let him walk. The team chose the latter, and although it was probably the right call, that put a bow on the 2017 trade to bring him to New Orleans.

The Pelicans gave away two first round picks for 65 regular season games of DeMarcus Cousins.

Even worse, when Boogie went down, the franchise panicked at the thought of missing the playoffs for the third straight season and sent its 2018 first round pick and Omer Asik’s bloated contract to the Chicago Bulls for Nikola Mirotic.

The hilarious part? It was the combination of bloated contracts that Demps had signed — mainly Asik, Hill, Moore — that forced the Pelicans to sign Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $126 million max contract during the 2017 offseason. Holiday has earned every dollar of that contract so far, but he simply would not have commanded that amount on the open market and had the Pelicans over a barrel in negotiations.

Now, after years of shortsighted trades and overpays for role players, the Pelicans are facing the situation they’ve feared since the minute the dark clouds above the franchise parted in 2012: Anthony Davis’s departure.

They have frantically tried to plug roster holes over the years with 10-day contracts and trying out other teams’ castaways, and that was never more evident than Wednesday night in Milwaukee, when the team played Tim Frazier, Aaron Harrison, Wesley Johnson and Jahlil Okafor a combined 50 minutes.

Yes, Wednesday was an aberration as three of the team’s six best players are hurt, but this team has looked alarmingly vulnerable even when only Elfrid Payton has been out. The imbalanced roster has five and a half impact players and then a whole lot of nothing. It features precisely one rim protector — Davis — and one natural, NBA-caliber point guard — Payton. The wing rotation is led by Moore, who is only 6’4″, after which there is a precipitous drop-off in quality.

Even if you argue that the Jrue Holiday trade was worth it, New Orleans has given up two first round picks for Omer Asik — one to acquire him and one to dump him — and two picks for Boogie Cousins since then. Buddy Hield and Zach Collins (who was taken with that 10th overall pick they sent the Kings in 2010) would help this team so much right now.

The justification for all of those moves and any move the team makes in the coming months has been to keep Anthony Davis happy. Now, the team is capped out and its only hope is that Davis values money above winning, because even with a top-five player, New Orleans is lightyears away from championship contention.

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No matter what happens over the remainder of the 2018-19 season and next summer, when Davis will likely either sign a max extension and collectively drop the blood pressure of every basketball fan in Louisiana or refuse to sign it and kick off the next great NBA trade sweepstakes, New Orleans will be a cautionary tale for future NBA history. The consequences of continually mortgaging the future will eventually cost you the present.