Breathe in, breathe out, New Orleans fans…
A recommendation every doctor would surely give this downtrodden fanbase in what is unquestionably becoming the wildest and wackiest month in Pelicans franchise history.
In a series of unfortunate events, New Orleans went from being considered one of the Western Conference’s offseason darlings, which was further enhanced by a scintillating 4-0 October start, to the NBA’s largest media circus in less than four months.
Now-former general manager Dell Demps—who was fired Friday, as first reported by ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski—will earn much of the blame and for good reason. A 311-388 record with the Pelicans in just under nine seasons, with a top-five superstar on both ends of the floor through most of the journey, is worthy of more than generic criticism.
The most damning statistic of all, as NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh highlighted in a recent column, revealed the total organizational failure:
“Since that 2012 lottery, Charlotte has gone 235-293 (.445 win percentage), per Basketball-Reference.com and reached the playoffs twice. The Pelicans have gone 235-295 (.443) since lucking into Davis. They’ve reached the playoffs the same number of times and gotten past the first-round once. Charlotte is one of 20 teams with a better record than New Orleans since he entered the league.”
National television media also decidedly put the New Orleans front office in its crosshairs. Rachel Nichols’ plea of “Can someone please get Anthony Davis some help?!” on ESPN’s The Jump helped shift the conversation from “Can the Pelicans reverse their fortunes?” to “When will AD force his way out of this perennial small-market underachiever?”
Demps’ fate was all but sealed once Anthony Davis went public with his trade request Jan. 28, per Wojnarowski. However, it wasn’t until Davis exited the Pelicans locker room and left the Smoothie King Center early in the third quarter of Thursday’s short-handed victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that the need for his dismissal became immediate.
The tenure of Demps was dependent on Davis. The GM who moved on from two franchise greats never got much time with Chris Paul. Demps pulled off a series of crafty moves (including a trade for Trevor Ariza in August 2010) in his inaugural season (and CP3’s sixth), but the team fell short of Paul’s expectations after a Round 1 exit against the second-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the 2011 playoffs.
The basketball gods shined a light on Demps in his third season at the helm, netting him Davis with the first overall selection and Austin Rivers at No. 10. However, rather than build a young core around Davis through successive drafts, Demps had a penchant for acquiring young veterans in place of cost-controlled talent, and he put the Pelicans in a precarious win-now position. That strategy was praised by few.
The Pelicans unloaded most of their first-round picks in Demps’ tenure for young veterans. Rivers, Nerlens Noel, Elfrid Payton, Sam Dekker, Buddy Hield, Zach Collins and Chandler Hutchison eventually morphed into Quincy Pondexter, Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik, DeMarcus Cousins and Nikola Mirotic.
Though unloading those picks was a folly on paper, Demps managed to upend the national conversation when he pulled off the stunning trade for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi during the 2017 All-Star Weekend in exchange for Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Hield and what would become Collins.
Demps built a core unlike any other in the NBA, with Davis, Cousins and Holiday approaching their primes. The Pelicans appeared to be every bit the Western Conference challenger to the Golden State Warriors when they defeated the favorite for the designation (the Houston Rockets) on their floor Jan. 26, 2018, to get to 27-21.
But we all remember what came next: Cousins was out for the year after tearing his Achilles in the final moments of that contest.
Should we trace the end of Davis’ and Demps’ time in New Orleans to that inescapable moment in Pelicans history?
How about the franchise’s perpetual rate of bad injury luck?
Per InStreetClothes.com (via Haberstroh), only the Philadelphia 76ers have lost more player games to injury in the past five seasons. In the present campaign alone, the Pelicans have lost 97 contests to their core of Davis, Mirotic (traded to Milwaukee), Payton, Randle and Moore. Head coach Alvin Gentry has been forced to trot out 24 different starting lineups in just 59 games.
Can the complaint be added up to just another in a series of the small-market disadvantages? The Pelicans’ most noteworthy free-agent acquisitions during his tenure include Tyreke Evans, Julius Randle, Solomon Hill, Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore.
A litany of excuses that extend as long as the Mississippi River was never going to be enough to save Demps from his fate, but his most noteworthy disadvantage was the one that decided his future: Davis.
“I think about that all the time,” Davis said in a candid December 2017 interview with Wojnarowski. “I hear these TV shows and see social media. They say [Kristaps] Porzingis. They say Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Joel [Embiid]. And that’s fine; I’ll just play basketball.”
Davis went on to discuss “winning” as his primary purpose, and the Pelicans did just that. A 21-13 finish to the 2017-18 season—without Cousins—led to a first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers that was supposed to provide AD the satisfaction he had been craving.
Fast forward to this season: A squad featuring two First-Team All-Defensive players from 2017-18 has the seventh-worst defense in the league, per NBA.com.
“We sucked,” Davis told reporters after the Pelicans’ embarrassing 118-88 clunker against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. “Seemed like nobody was interested in playing. When you play like that against a team who’s fighting, you should expect that result.”
Once the details of Davis’ desires to jump to Los Angeles seemed to become clear, the evidence suggested that winning and legacy may not have carried the weight many previously thought. Davis may value winning, but he seems to value attention along with a fresh start—something he was never going to find in New Orleans.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Davis’ preferred destination, per Wojnarowski, sit just three wins above the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings despite all of the struggles in New Orleans. Although in fairness, Davis may be willing to punt on a title this year in L.A., knowing he and LeBron would be closer to a championship with the Lakers in 2019-20 than he’d be on the Pelicans.
The Pelicans’ desired partner in the Celtics, per Matthew Geagan of CBS Boston, was openly dismissed by AD’s father, who cited loyalty as the primary sticking point only days after his son requested a trade.
“I would never want my son to play for Boston after what they done to Isaiah Thomas,” Anthony Davis Sr. told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com.
The Los Angeles Clippers made AD’s short list, per Ryan Snellings of FanSided, although they unloaded franchise player Blake Griffin unceremoniously last winter, which makes one wonder how concerned about loyalty Davis Sr. truly is (if he indeed is a public voice for his son).
Davis and his agent, Rich Paul, have earned the right to create their future together. Per the collective bargaining agreement, players’ obligations only extend as far as the lifetimes of their contracts. Franchises in nearly every recorded instance get at least six seasons to try to earn a player’s trust and continual participation.
Davis does control his right to play wherever he wants. And the Pelicans graciously allowed him the minutes he desired after he made the trade request—though many in New Orleans clamored for him to sit the remainder of the season.
Davis told reporters that he had no regrets following the Pelicans’ victory last Friday over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but sources told Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com that he has privately apologized to owner Gayle Benson for everything that has continued to transpire since the public was made aware of his trade request.
If he could go back and do everything again, would he wait until the summer? Would that have given the Pelicans the opportunity to wiggle into the playoffs, possibly ensuring a longer future for Demps?
It’s possible Davis does only care about winning. Russell Westbrook is painted as the shining example of the small-market superstar who doesn’t mind playing out in the boonies, and he has the benefit of an NBA Finals appearance to go along with two trips to the Western Conference Finals.
Still, the New York Knicks and Los Angeles continue to be linked to Davis, as well as to Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But what have those franchises exhibited in recent history to earn such consideration?
New Orleans can never hope to compete with the national attention New York and Los Angeles can provide their players. It can’t compete with the media spotlight on LeBron James.
Was it up to Demps, then, to discover the young superstar’s real motivations back in July? Or, was he supposed to do that in September after Davis signed with Rich Paul and Klutch Sports (James’ agency)?
Should all small-market GMs acquire young talent, get six years out of them and then unload any super-prized assets for smaller bounties? Rinse, recycle, repeat? Never take a chance on a longer, brighter future?
And as far as firing Demps, why make that decision now? Why not wait until the offseason? The move gives the Pelicans ample time to scour the NBA landscape and find the best possible target. Remember, the NBA draft June 20 is likely to figure prominently in future plans.
Former Cavaliers GM David Griffin, who has recently been outspoken on the Pelicans and their trade negotiations, is on the early list of potential candidates to replace Demps, per Wojnarowski.
In the interim, Danny Ferry, who was a special adviser to the GM, will assume Demps’ role.
Ferry was lauded for his work in Atlanta, where his roster assembled an impressive 60 wins without the benefit of a surefire superstar in 2014-15.
The Pelicans’ future GM is not expected to continue reporting to executive vice president of basketball operations Mickey Loomis. Instead, the general manager will conduct business directly with Benson. According to Fletcher Mackel of WDSU, this was per the request of Loomis, who wants to focus on football in the future. This should make the opportunity a bit more alluring to prospective candidates.
The Pelicans’ season is lost, but the future is not. With the front-office overhaul in high gear and the team locked into contracts with Holiday, Jahlil Okafor, Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson, the Pelicans may re-enter the Western Conference conversation sooner than some think.
AD will be long gone by then.
If Davis should fail to achieve the postseason success he longs for, will history remember Demps for his failures in New Orleans or hold AD more accountable?
Demps is responsible for his failures, and Davis should be tied to his. The two failed together and will leave New Orleans under a shroud of disappointment and regret, at least for now.