On Dec. 18, the night the San Antonio Spurs retired Tim Duncan's jersey, Alvin Gentry told his players they could stay for the postgame ceremony.
The New Orleans Pelicans head coach had been a member of the Spurs staff for two seasons and considered Duncan a model of greatness. "He wanted to be coached like the 12th or 13th guy on the team."
As the Spurs paid homage to Duncan, Pelicans star Anthony Davis and his teammates listened to current and former Spurs talk about the ways Duncan forever changed his team and the city. They heard Tony Parker tell the crowd, "Timmy is by himself, in his own league by himself." They watched head coach Gregg Popovich well up with tears while talking about Duncan's parents.
Davis could be forgiven for wondering what might have been. Just five years earlier, this was the vision for his career in New Orleans: a franchise player—supported by a championship-caliber owner and front office—with a unique skill set who was destined to remake a small-market team. Instead, the night was a reminder of how wide the gap had stretched between that vision and the hard realities facing Davis.
The Pelicans fell to 9-20.
On Feb. 19, Davis is taking the spotlight as a first-time starter and hometown host for the All-Star Game in New Orleans at the Smoothie King Center. After missing the final 14 games of last season with injuries and never playing more than 68 games in his first four campaigns, he's back to his League Pass must-watch form, a next-level cross between Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett and Scottie Pippen.
Only 23 years old, he's averaging 27.6 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game this season, once again generating gasps and tweets. Stats aside, the first half of the 2016-17 campaign reminded the league how ridiculously fun it is to watch the man known as The Brow.
And how frustrating it is to watch him mired on a bad team.
The Pelicans started the year 0-8. And while they've shown positive signs in recent weeks, they will likely miss the playoffs for the second straight campaign. All-Star Weekend will be the highlight of the season in the Big Easy, where the locals are growing decidedly uneasy.
Davis continues to say all the right things about his loyalty to the franchise, but New Orleans fans are nervous about how much time they have left with him. Despite Davis' ongoing evolution, the positive momentum around the Pelicans peaked three years ago.
Injuries, a flawed roster and an increasingly unsteady ownership situation have pushed the team further from contention. When Davis looks around at his own franchise, that quintessential Spurs stability is in short supply. In Year 5 of the Benson-Davis era, the combined futures of the billionaire owner and the otherworldly talent are foggier than an early morning in the French Quarter.
Benson is now 89 years old, content to delegate to loyalists who divide their time between the Pelicans and the New Orleans Saints, his other team.
In 2012, when Benson bought the then-Hornets, he promised to match his Vince Lombardi trophy for Super Bowl XLIV with a Larry O'Brien one.
At the 2012 press conference to announce Benson's purchase of the team, then-Commissioner Stern praised him as the perfect owner. "We would have to invent him if he didn't exist."
Benson did seem like an ideal fit: a local with deep pockets and roughly 25 years experience running a franchise. A native of New Orleans' gritty Seventh Ward, he'd built an empire of car dealerships and banks in San Antonio. Benson was known as a tight-fisted, hands-on owner—a tough negotiator who served three stints as chairman of the NFL's finance committee.
New Orleans might have been a small market, but the NBA was getting a heavy hitter.
He promised a quick turnaround for the franchise. "We expect this club to be one of the most outstanding clubs in the league—otherwise, I don't want to get involved," Benson told reporters.
A few weeks later, the Hornets won the top pick in the 2012 draft lottery and the right to select Davis, a sure thing. "Just the first step for us to win it all," a jubilant Benson declared.
But instead of leading the march to a championship, the owner has since taken a back seat.
He opened a new practice facility next door to the Saints practice field and offices—the physical proximity was convenient for the many members of the football team's staff who now worked second jobs as NBA executives. Saints president Dennis Lauscha took over as Hornets president, and the teams merged their ticketing and promotions department in a move that purportedly infused the middling Hornets with the best practices of the Super Bowl-winning football operation.
The job of rebuilding the team around Davis went to another loyalist: Benson tapped Saints general manager Mickey Loomis as head of basketball operations despite the fact Loomis had no NBA experience. Loomis was also in the middle of an eight-game suspension for his role in the Bountygate scandal.
There was no precedence in professional sports for an executive working two high paying jobs, but Loomis holds a special place in the House of Benson. In September, the Times-Picayune's Larry Holder asked Benson to name his most important decision in his 30-plus years as Saints owner. Benson didn't hesitate.
"Moving Mickey up to be the general manager," he said.
Through Benson's five years as Pelicans owner, the decision to make Loomis his stand-in was a cost-effective mistake: Most new owners clean house, but Loomis kept Pelicans general manager Dell Demps and head coach Monty Williams in place.
Hired two months apart in 2010, Williams and Demps came to New Orleans as a high-pedigree package. They had weathered the transition and now found themselves with a clean slate and a new superstar.
According to a source close to the situation who's not authorized to speak on the record, Loomis brought a win-now attitude with him from the Saints office. He gave Demps the OK for several big moves aimed at surrounding Davis with young talent. Demps traded for Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans, one-dimensional scorers who had trouble staying healthy, and gave up two No. 1 picks for point guard Jrue Holiday, only learning later that Holiday had failed a physical with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Current Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon, signed to a max deal in 2012 despite openly begging for a fresh start, missed large chunks of the next three seasons. Charged with building a solid core for Davis, Demps instead built a hospital ward.
Feeling the heat, Demps, according to the source, convinced Loomis and Lauscha that he had the best shot at re-signing Davis and that a defense-first coach like Williams wasn't the answer in the new era of fast-paced offenses.
There were also whispers of friction between Williams and Davis' camp. Still, the team squeaked into the playoffs for the first time since Paul left, clinching on the final day of the 2014-15 season to earn the right to face the Golden State Warriors. Pelicans fans still shake their heads over the blown 20-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 3, but New Orleans was excited again.
On April 28, 2015, Benson addressed a letter to Williams and his staff, Demps and the players.
"Our fans were truly galvanized by your dedication," Benson wrote. "I am very excited about the future of our Pelicans, and you have my word and my resolve to bring everything to bear to win."
Two weeks later, Williams was fired. Apparently, the decision had been made prior to the playoffs: The team wasn't progressing fast enough, and it needed a change. Demps won the day, and Williams was let go.
Loomis offered limp explanations for the move.
"I just felt like we had a good season; Monty did some real good things," he said. "We needed something different going forward."
Fans were left to wonder just what Benson meant by "my word and my resolve" and whether Benson was involved in the change. Who was in charge of the Pelicans? Did Demps or Loomis make the final call? And what part did Davis play in the decision?
For a team fresh off a 45-win season, these were big questions.
A source close to Davis denies reports that the Pelicans made the decision to fire Williams without the star's consent. Rather, Davis had the option of weighing in and declined, unwilling to risk the "coach-killer" tag.
Of all the parties involved in the firing of Monty Williams, The Brow may have shown the most wisdom.
Demps and Loomis began the search for a new coach. The opportunity to work with Davis made the job attractive to Jeff Van Gundy, but he was interested in a larger front office say that wasn't part of the offer. Davis still hadn't signed his extension, so there was no guarantee the new coach would have more than two seasons with him.
Instead of attracting a high-profile leader, Demps and Loomis protected the status quo, settling on Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry, who was known as a keen offensive mind. Armed with a billionaire owner and arguably the best young player in the league, Demps and Loomis ended up with a retread.
Still, Demps made good on his biggest promise to Loomis. In July 2015, Davis signed a five-year, $145 million extension. By all accounts, Davis loves playing in New Orleans and felt comfortable committing to the franchise for the near future.
But the clock began ticking before the ink dried, and there are more and more reasons for Davis to regret the decision.
The Pelicans brought Gentry on to implement the high-scoring style he'd perfected with the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, but he'd inherited a roster geared for Williams' half-court, grind-it-out style. He encouraged Davis to develop his three-point shot and then questioned his toughness when the big man started racking up injuries.
The Pelicans finished 30-52 and ranked 21st in league scoring.
Gentry couldn't take all the blame: Pelicans players lost 351 games to injury in 2015-16, the most in the league. Quincy Pondexter, acquired in 2015, missed the entire season. Evans injured his knee in January and never came back; Anderson missed 16 games; and Gordon broke—then re-broke—his finger, playing only 45 games.
Davis' season ended 14 games early, famously costing him an All-NBA slot and a $24 million bonus. The disaster ended up damaging his reputation: After topping the annual preseason general managers poll as the player they'd select when starting a team with 86.2 percent of the vote, Davis received just an honorable mention this season.
After years of trade speculation, Gordon and Anderson were allowed to walk as free agents last offseason. Solomon Hill and Lance Stephenson, (who quickly became an injury casualty), were the team's biggest acquisitions for the 2016-17 campaign.
After three years without a first-round pick, Demps drafted rookie Buddy Hield. He's played well recently. Jrue Holiday sat out the first 12 games to care for his wife and has shown signs of a return to form. Evans is playing his way back into shape after being sidelined for 11 months with a knee injury.
After the 0-8 start, the team has looked relatively competent, regularly overmatched and almost definitely bound for the lottery.
Here is where the owner and his president of basketball operations might step in, either to fire someone or to overhaul the roster. As the team wastes another year of Anthony Davis, no such signs emanate from the franchise. Instead, Loomis has downplayed his influence on the team.
Last month, he revealed he was too busy scouting players at the Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, to watch the team's January victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"So, I think it's probably overblown the amount of actual time and work that I have to do with the Pelicans," he told reporters. "[The position is] something Mr. Benson has asked me to do but, again, I think it's overblown the amount of actual work that I do [with the Pelicans]."
What Benson has asked Loomis or Demps to do this season is anyone's guess. Benson has appeared frail in recent public appearances, and his impact on the daily operations seems questionable. He recently settled an acrimonious legal battle with members of his family, an episode that cast doubt on Benson's mental faculties and his leadership.
A highly publicized succession plan crashed and burned when, in January 2015, Benson announced that his wife, Gayle, his wife since 2004, would take over as the Saints and Pelicans owner upon his death.
For years, Benson had groomed his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, as his heir apparent.
Inside the team offices, LeBlanc alienated co-workers with erratic, imperious behavior that led Benson to order a leave of absence in 2012 for her "lack of focus." Meanwhile, tensions between LeBlanc and Gayle Benson escalated, culminating with a physical confrontation in a team suite during a Saints game in December.
Six days later, he named Gayle Benson as his successor and barred LeBlanc from team facilities.
The lawsuits erupted quickly, and New Orleans got an inside look into family drama roiling an empire worth an estimated at $2 billion. Neither side pulled punches. LeBlanc, her mother and her brother accused Gayle of staging a "coup" with the help of unnamed team officials. Tom Benson was in a weakened state, they alleged, isolated from his family and surviving on a diet of wine and candy.
This month, more than two years after the fight began, Benson and his heirs agreed to an undisclosed settlement, but the questions remain. When Benson dies, the heirs could challenge his will, throwing the franchise back into turmoil. Or Gayle could fulfill her husband's wishes.
A more recent lawsuit raises further questions about the inner workings of the family business.
In January 2016, Rodney Henry, Tom Benson’s personal assistant for about 25 years, filed a federal discrimination complaint against the Saints that said Mrs. Benson called him "a black son of a bitch" after the assistant drove her husband to the hospital without checking with her, according to the Times-Picayune's Katherine Sayre. The suit remains unresolved.
Five years after David Stern deemed him the perfect fit, Tom Benson is no longer involved in the daily operations of the Pelicans. He travels with his wife to watch horse races—the couple invested in thoroughbreds in recent years—and leaves the basketball business to Loomis, a trusted deputy who admits to spending little energy on a struggling product.
Five years into the Anthony Davis era, the Pelicans are stuck between chasing an eighth seed and starting another rebuild. Holiday, Evans and the overpaid, underused Omer Asik are all who remain of the roster that was supposed to support Davis for a Tim Duncan-like prime.
Holiday might follow Gordon and Anderson into free agency, leaving Demps with nothing to show for his blueprint.
Gordon, who's second in the league in three-point field goals this season and a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, told NBA.com's Fran Blinebury, "Things never worked out, never came together in New Orleans. They kept changing what they wanted me to do, and in five years there, we only had one good year where we made the playoffs."
As the losses and injuries mount, Demps is undoubtedly on the hot seat, but it's unclear what—or who—will come next. The franchise has Davis as a face but lack direction.
Fans can't expect Davis to remain patient out of love for the city.
Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Media Group, the same agency that represents Russell Westbrook, is Davis' agent. A source close to Davis' agent floated the possibility that the end game could find the two uniting in Los Angeles with the talent-starved Lakers. Those kind of rumors are the ones that expand into panic when a team flails like the Pelicans have in the last two seasons.
Prior to that December game in San Antonio, Davis was asked what he admired about Tim Duncan.
"He never gets fed up; he never let no player speed him up," Davis said. "He was always poised, calm, collected." So far, the young superstar has modeled himself accordingly, on and off the court. The biggest question is how long he can remain patient.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Five years ago, New Orleans raised a glass to a new era for its NBA team. A local owner and his championship brain trust and an ultratalented first choice in the draft would be leading the way.
As the league descends on the Crescent City for its annual weekend of parties and celebrities, Pelicans fans have plenty of reasons to reach for a drink.
Brian Boyles is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter at @BrianWBoyles. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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