The New Orleans Pelicans find themselves in a precarious position with the NBA's Feb. 20 trade deadline right around the corner. Realistically, the 12th-place Pels are already out of the picture for a playoff spot in the Western Conference in mid-February.
This, despite Anthony Davis' emergence as an honest-to-goodness All-Star in Year 2 and the congealing of an exciting, young nucleus with the offseason additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to a group that already included Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Injuries to Holiday, Evans and Anderson have had plenty to do with that disappointment, as has the team's porous defense under head coach Monty Williams.
The question is, should the Pels pack it in and pile up ping pong balls in the draft lottery? Or should they continue to build with what they have? There's some incentive for them to "tank." Their 2014 first-round pick will belong to the Philadelphia 76ers if it lands outside the top five.
But New Orleans' decision could be more complicated than that. Aside from ownership's desire to lure fans to the Smoothie King Center, there's the not-so-small matter of Davis' development to consider.
How might another non-competitive season affect the 20-year-old phenom going forward? Would tanking still be the Pelicans' best option? Is such a strategy even realistic for this squad?
Josh Martin, NBA Lead Writer: That was a solid debut from Anthony Davis in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, wasn't it? He made five of his six shots for 10 points, with a rebound and two steals to round out the 10 minutes he played in front of the home fans at the newly (and deliciously) renamed Smoothie King Center on Sunday.
It's easy to Davis, who won't legally be able to buy himself (or anyone else) a drink until next month, blossoming into not only a perennial All-Star participant, but one whose dunks, jumpers and defensive highlights become the stuff of legend in the Association. The kid's just scratching the surface—which is scary when you consider that such surface scratching has already yielded a player who averages 20 and 10 and leads the league in blocks.
But there could be a threat to Davis' development in the Crescent City. Injuries up and down the New Orleans Pelicans' roster have all but sealed the franchise's fate to fall short of the postseason for the third time in as many tries during the post-Chris Paul era. At 23-29, the Pels sit seven-and-a-half games back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets on the outside looking in.
At this point, New Orleans would be hard-pressed to make up that deficit and leapfrog the field, to say the least, especially with Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith still sidelined by injuries.
That stark reality could be reason enough for New Orleans to look down in the standings. The Pels are just five-and-a-half games out of last place in the West, and if their 2014 first-round pick lands within the top five of the draft lottery, they won't have to fork it over to the Philadelphia 76ers as a result of the Jrue Holiday trade.
To that end, there could already be movement afoot in the front office. According to The Racine Journal-Times, the Milwaukee Bucks have shown interest in trading for Eric Gordon, who, ironically enough, has been the healthiest member of New Orleans' new core this season. Doing so would allow the Pels to get out from under the more than $30 million Gordon is owed over the next two seasons while (ideally) bringing back a fungible asset or two and positioning the team to "tank."
But how might a 180 like this affect whatever it is the Pelicans are trying to build? By that, I mean, how would/could a concerted "tank job" by GM Dell Demps and company affect the development of a burgeoning superstar like Anthony Davis?
Grant Hughes, National NBA Featured Columnist: Here’s the problem: The Pelicans tried to skip a step in the rebuilding process. This past summer, they gave up Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-rounder for Jrue Holiday. Then, they compounded the issue by adding Tyreke Evans for entirely too much money.
The Pellies had a new mascot, aggressive ownership and a desire to make playoff noise in 2013-14. Instead of staying patient, they tried to engineer a quick fix to appease fans and elevate the organization’s profile.
But they miscalculated badly, the moves haven’t worked out and the Pelicans are now planted firmly in the dreaded “middle.” As presently composed, they lack the talent to do much more than sniff the .500 mark. Worse still, they’ve got over $56 million committed to player salaries through the 2015-16 season.
We tend to get too caught up in the binary thought exercise of telling teams to either “go for it” or “tank.” There are smarter, more deliberate ways to build a winner; just ask the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder or Golden State Warriors.
Let’s say they do sell off the assets they have in an effort to bottom out. At the very least, that’d be a defensible move because the Pellies could retain their top-five protected pick in this year’s draft.
But we’ve seen the toll deliberate losing can take on promising players. And Davis is as promising as they come.
A losing culture is a difficult thing to change. The damage done to every player who came through the Sacramento Kings’ system over the past decade was severe. Even now, DeMarcus Cousins is still recovering from the poisonous Kings environment in which he “developed.”
The ground in New Orleans probably isn’t as toxic as it was in Sacramento, but it’s not exactly fertile either. The Pelicans’ foolish offseason moves indicated a discouraging impatience and a lack of long-term vision that should make us wary of the front office’s ability to support Davis through a longer-than-expected rebuild.
Tanking is a dangerous play, but it might be the only one the Pelicans have.
JM: The comparison to the Kings' situation with DeMarcus Cousins makes sense, at least on the surface, though there's one key difference here that changes the equation considerably between the two: ownership. Sacramento stunk for so long (and still stinks) because the Maloof brothers had neither the resources nor (apparently) the interest to slog through a proper rebuild.
New Orleans, on the other hand, does. According to Forbes, Tom Benson, who took the franchise off the NBA's hands in 2012, was worth $1.3 billion as of September of 2013. He's brought stability to a team that, for a time, was so rudderless that Chris Paul and David West felt they had no choice but to jump ship back in 2011 (per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears).
Of course, that same financial largesse and enthusiasm from Benson's regime is largely responsible for the moves you've characterized as "miscalculations" on the Pelicans' part. But, by splashing some cash last summer, the new ownership demonstrated a clear willingness to spend, which any organization needs from its decision-makers if it's going to build a winner.
Also, I'm not so sure those moves were all bad, or that they won't pan out. The four-year, $44 million contract the team doled out to Tyreke Evans is clearly the biggest blemish, given his injury history, that poisonous stench he carried over from the Kings and the extent to which he's struggled to adjust to a new role on a new team in a new city this season.
That being said, Evans has shown signs of life, albeit in fits and spurts. He's scored 15 or more points on 19 occasions and logged a triple-double in December, during his first game back from an ankle injury. The kid's clearly a talent, and, at 24, still has plenty of room to grow and time within which to do so.
The same could be said for every member of New Orleans' current nucleus. Jrue Holiday was an All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012-13 and was enjoying his most efficient season to date with the Pels before suffering a stress fracture in his right tibia last month. Two lottery picks is a steep price to pay, even if one of them came in a weak 2013 draft and the other lands outside the top five in 2014. But for a player of Holiday's age (he turns 24 in June), ability and reasonable salary (he's owed just under $33 million over the next three seasons), the cost could be well worth it.
The 25-year-old Ryan Anderson has been a revelation when healthy (19.8 points, 40.9 percent from three). Eric Gordon, the most "injury-prone" of them all, has missed just three games this season and just turned 25 this past Christmas.
I disagree with your contention that this core group isn't good enough to do more than "sniff" an even record. According to NBA.com, the fivesome of Davis-Gordon-Holiday-Anderson-Evans has played just 91 minutes together, during which they've scored at a blistering rate of 123.5 points per 100 possessions. They've struggled on the other end (119.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), but that's to be expected from a young group that's hardly played together. They're all young enough that they should be able to grow into a formidable unit by the time any of them hit their respective primes. At the very least, the jury's still out on the ceiling of this squad.
A ceiling that, ultimately, will be determined by Davis' development. If AD's improvement is the key, what do you think would be New Orleans' best move? And if you're not convinced that the Pels' current supporting cast is suitable, who or what would you hope to see GM Dell Demps install around his 20-year-old All-Star?
GH: I'm sensing your counsel to the Pelicans would include some variation of the phrase "stay the course." I should make clear I'm not entirely ruling out a happy ending for the current roster. I will, though, go to my grave assured Evans is not someone capable of playing a significant role on a winning team. Nor am I ready to concede there's any value in a 91-minute sample that appears to depict numbers pulled from HarlemGlobetrotters.com/stats.
We definitely agree on Davis, though. He's a uniquely promising cornerstone who makes virtually any supporting cast viable.
I think we're losing track of the topic a bit here. I'm not sure how or with whom the Pelicans should engineer a rebuild, but I'm as concerned as you are that a "tank job" would put Davis' development in danger.
Everything we've seen from him so far indicates a stable, mature personality that could withstand (though not enjoy) a few extra losses. If the Pelicans do embark on a race to the bottom, do you think Davis' makeup would prevent him from slipping into a dangerous acceptance of losing?
JM: I don't see AD as being the sort of immature, self-serving youngster who might be thrown off by a bad year. This is a guy who's already intimately familiar with the highs of being a can't-miss prospect on a championship squad, as he was as a freshman at Kentucky, and the lows of being a nobody on a terrible team, as he was for the majority of his prep career at Perspectives Charter in Chicago. He didn't start to make noise on a national level until his last two years of high school, when a growth spurt boosted him from a nondescript shooting guard to something resembling the long-armed menace we see today.
In that respect, he's not a DeMarcus Cousins, who's been bigger, stronger and more skilled than everyone he's played against for years. Davis showed during that one year in Lexington, when he ranked fifth in field-goal attempts among his fellow Wildcats, that he's more than willing to set aside his own ego and do what's asked of him.
That year may have also prepared Davis for the turmoils of roster turnover. In two years' time, Davis went from one set of teammates in high school to another in college to yet another in the pros. That experience should serve him well if the Pels should opt for change.
And, let's not forget, as mature as Davis is already (or appears to be, at least), he's only going to improve in that regard. The kid doesn't turn 21 until next March and should only grow as a person from here on out.
Ultimately, though, Davis isn't going to be the one in charge of the locker room if/when a shake-up arrives. That'll come down to Monty Williams, whose job it'll be as the head coach to set the tone and maintain order in the event that the situation devolves into a free-for-all in New Orleans.
Do you think Williams is capable of heading off such a threat? More importantly, do you see Williams as the right coach to grow with and groom Davis for his formidable future with the Pels?
GH: I think you're right about Davis having the combination of life experience and maturity to withstand any potential tanking. And at the risk of oversimplifying, I think he's such a singularly brilliant talent that it'd be almost impossible to derail him—situation be damned.
The question about Williams is a good one, and I'd argue that next to the front office's ability to figure out the right way to build around Davis, the coach's leadership is as big a key as anything.
So far, I think it's reasonable to question Williams' fitness for the gig of grooming Davis. In terms of player development, it's difficult to point to any young talents who have blossomed under his care—especially if we adopt the position that Davis' growth is related more to his individual skill than any coaching help. Maybe that's not entirely fair to Williams, though.
Plus, the Pelicans underwent something of a roster overhaul when Chris Paul left town. So Williams has really only had the chance to mentor his current crop of players for a little over two years. Perhaps we just haven't given him enough time.
Other than a dust-up with Gordon (a guy who doesn't have a reputation for being easy to deal with), Williams hasn't presided over any significant instances of internal discord. So it would seem his players respect him, which is critical if hard times are ahead.
More broadly, I think we should be worried about Williams' skills as a defensive strategist. New Orleans ranks 26th in defensive efficiency this year, after finishing last season in the No. 28 spot. There are a million variables contributing to those numbers, but it's discouraging that he can't seem to engineer a decent defensive scheme around a player as dynamic and impactful as Davis.
I think on balance, Williams has done enough to get the benefit of the doubt as a leader. As much as anything, the Pelicans should be reluctant to shake up Davis' world by taking away the only NBA coach he's ever known, and a guy he seems to like. Williams should get a shot to lead New Orleans into whatever its new era looks like, but I'm not thrilled about him if I'm a Pellies fan.
What say you?
JM: I tend to agree that Williams deserves a real shot with this squad before the higher-ups make any drastic changes to the coaching staff. As you mentioned, Monty hasn't exactly had the best of roster luck since CP3 forced his way out of New Orleans in December of 2011. That's held true in the Anthony Davis era, during which the franchise has been racked with injuries and turnover on the regular.
Then again, if the Pels really want to tank, they could do worse than part ways with their head coach. The NBA's proverbial ships have been known to fall rudderless when faced with changes in captaincy, even more so when the crew is as young as New Orleans' is.
Sloppy nautical metaphors aside, I have trouble picturing the Pels engaging in any draft-oriented self-sabotage at this point. Any talk about the team moving Eric Gordon and/or Tyreke Evans before Thursday's deadline remains largely speculative (per John Reid of The New Orleans Times-Picayune), thanks to the cap-clogging contracts to which those two 20-somethings are attached. If Gordon and Evans weren't each owed upwards of $30 million after this season, the Pels might find takers.
But those salaries are what they are and won't likely be moved unless New Orleans sweetens the pot with draft picks and/or young players—in other words, the very same sorts of assets with which they'd want to rebuild if tanking were, indeed, Dell Demps' preferred play.
I'd imagine you share my skepticism about the Pels' prospects of a mid-season teardown. Still, can you envision any realistic scenario in which New Orleans would attempt to go "Riggin' for Wiggins"? More importantly, do you think the Pels actually will?
GH: Firing Williams could definitely force the S.S. Pelican to run aground, so it'd probably be wise to leave him at the tiller for now. Keep in mind, though, there are no laws at sea. So Demps might consider having Williams walk the pla...OK, we've gone too far.
I'm with you on the unlikelihood of New Orleans making a splash (seriously, no pun intended) before the deadline. You're absolutely right about the difficulty of trading the assets they currently have on hand. In a perfect world, somebody like the Milwaukee Bucks might bite on Gordon. But until David Kahn really does become part owner of that wayward club, we can safely rule out something as ridiculous as that.
If keeping that top-five protected pick from going to the Sixers were a realistic possibility, I'd probably suggest the Pelicans pull off a sneaky tank job like the one the Golden State Warriors employed to prevent their 2012 lottery selection from going to the Utah Jazz: If guys are "hurt," they stay hurt. And if they're not hurt, they get hurt.
There's nothing like phony injuries to accelerate a descent in the standings.
But there are just too many teams between the Pelicans and the cellar for that to be a real option. There are nearly a dozen squads with worse records than New Orleans, which means its dive would have to be pretty epic to get it into bottom-five territory.
I'd say the Pellies are stuck.
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