The New Orleans Pelicans vs The Sword of Damocles

Published: September 16, 2013

There’s a time to live and a time to die
When it’s time to meet the maker
There’s a time to live, but isn’t it strange
That as soon as you’re born you’re dying?

— Iron Maiden, The Clairvoyant

What is the biggest threat the New Orleans Pelicans face? That’s an open-ended, ill-defined question, but that does not diminish the importance of getting an answer to it.

Not Business As Usual

The New Orleans Pelicans, like most other businesses, face multiple problems every day to keep their business operating correctly. They face just as many to try to get their team winning on the court.

After just over a year of ownership, Tom Benson and his cadre of businessmen have made significant changes at an unprecedented pace to their NBA franchise and regional sports here in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf South. Some will argue that expansion franchises do more, but I would counter, saying that these teams start with a clean slate, slap up their structure, pick our some curtains and doilies with that being their prime focus, and declare themselves open for business. Mr. B.’s situation was more like, in terms of physics, reversing the course of a moving object rather than starting movement from relative rest, or using a construction metaphor, they had to gut and rebuild a house without demolishing it. Both require more effort, and the latter is more constrained and just nastier business in general.

For years, I’ve been dedicating most of my free basketball-writing energy to addressing the most pressing problem facing this franchise, which could be termed “the business case” for professional basketball in New Orleans. Any business can fail, but many thought it was impossible for professional basketball to succeed in New Orleans, and that is a very different problem.

Now, however, the situation has changed. The business of the team has improved significantly. Much needed changes are in work or completed, such as the addition of practice facility and Arena upgrades. The merging of certain business aspects of the Pelicans with those of the New Orleans Saints has gone smoothly or better. The organization is working to get sponsors and season ticket holders attached to the team, even to the point of reducing prices.

This improving of the business is essentially a proxy for greatly reduced chances of relocation following this lease. Again, the business can fail, but I think risk is low.

Taking that off the table, one’s mind might jump to the death of Tom Benson. Tom Benson served on the NFL’s finance committee for over 20 years and helped change ownership rules to aid in succession planning, meaning he has thought extensively on these matters. Based on this and conversations I’ve had, I’m quite confident the Saints, and now Pelicans and other ventures, will pass seamlessly into good hands that will follow the wishes of Tom Benson.

Basketball Reasons

Unfamiliar as it is, the business side of the house seems not to be the source of greatest concern for the franchise. That leaves basketball, as is the case with most NBA teams.

There are a few ways to go with this, but the conclusion I keep coming back to is that the biggest threat is Anthony Davis not remaining with the team into the 2021-2022 season.

Anthony Davis signed a standard contract for a first round draft pick. It offers nearly-defined compensation over four years with the last two being team options. This gives the Pelicans control of Davis through the 2015-2016 season. While there are several ways for the situation to play out, the most likely situation is that he becomes the Pelicans’ “Designated Player,” receiving an extensions that pays him the maximum for 5 years beyond his rookie contract, or through the 2020-2021 season.

If the franchise and NBA are different enough in 2021 to convince Davis to do what Paul did not, it is conceivable that the franchise could have Davis under contract for the length of his career.

This is predicated on the assumption that Davis remains healthy, engaged, and stays on the path many Pelicans fans and experts believe the 20-year-old is on. If he fizzles out, suffers a major injury, goes to Mars, etc., this article needs to be revisited.

The best chance the Pelicans have of being a successful team, and a title-contending team, in the next 20 years will likely be with Anthony Davis under contract. Davis has the most potential of any player in New Orleans, other than perhaps Chris Paul, since the Jazz days. Additionally, he was one of the highest rated draft picks since in recent years. Such talent is hard to acquire by any means, so letting it get away would be difficult to recover from quickly. Moreover, having that talent under control for so long is only possible through the draft. Drafting well requires some combination of having a bad team and luck, neither being things on which a successful franchise should want to rely.

More and more, Davis will become the face of the franchise, just as Chris Paul was during with the Hornets. After 8-9 years, a significant amount of brand equity and marketing effort will leave with Davis if he leaves town. The franchise’s ability to return value to sponsors will drop instantly, and it will show on the bottom line. This would happen with around three years left of the lease of the New Orleans Arena (or whatever is called at the time). Add in a changed political and economic climate, and re-upping in New Orleans may seem a scarier prospect than it did in 2012. Davis leaving will not cost New Orleans its NBA team, but it could be the spark that sets off a blaze if the fuel is sitting there and the conditions are right.

No other player or staff member can have the positive effect Davis can for such a long time, which is why I deemed his potential departure as the greatest risk to the franchise at this point. Eric Gordon’s play and contract are a big deal at the moment, but he’ll either play up to his contract or be gone in three seasons. If someone is worried about Monty Williams not having what it takes, his contract just got extended, but he can be excused at any time if the organization deems it necessary.

Anyone can point to their pet problem, but it’s really all about Davis.

The Sword of Damocles

As the story goes, Damocles was a subject of great king by the name of Dionysius II of Syracuse who praised his king for the magnificence surrounding him. Dionysius offered to trade places with Damocles for a time, but upon taking the throne, Damocles noticed that a large sword dangled point down above his head, hung by a single hair from a horse’s tail.

The Sword of Damocles picturesquely represents the hidden costs and perils associated with greatness. For the Pelicans, this is the inevitable departure of Anthony Davis. The question is what can be done to change the circumstances of leading to that departure. Will he retire as a Pelican after spending his entire career with the franchise? Will he leave as a free agent in 2021 in a manner similar to LeBron James (who worked out a sign-and-trade)? Will he force his way out a touch early, a la Chris Paul?

Using the metaphor: What can be done to hang that sword up more securely?

If he’s worth all of this trouble, he’ll be getting the maximum salary allowable. Other teams may not be able to offer him as much, but Dwight Howard left money on the table to sign with the Houston Rockets this past summer. Also, good teams make conscious decisions to clear room, or have deals to clear room, for guys like Davis. So, money should not be a huge discriminator whether he goes or stays, though it would be a factor in where he goes to should he leave New Orleans.

Some will point to the market size as an issue, but that is a bigger deal for players with lesser star power. The big companies find the top talent and give them contracts. Miami is not a large market, though it is nice place, and LeBron James went there when he could have gone to much larger markets.

Winning will be an important factor in Davis’ ultimate decision, but amassing wins is not enough, as LeBron James and Chris Paul showed the NBA. Cleveland won many games with LeBron James on their roster, but he still left. In fact, they made it at least to the second round each season starting with his third, but he still left. So, it’s not just about establishing a winning record or making it deep into the playoffs.

LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard chose to go to teams who were not contenders before their arrival. Those teams, however, were able to surround that star with upper-level talent, talented younger players, and (eventually in the case of the Clippers), capable coaches. So, potential to win is important.

This recent history indicates that the factors that may affect Davis’ decision the most are somewhat in work. The Pelicans are not carrying a single bad contract should Eric Gordon’s performance and health continue to improve though this season. They have a number of talented young players with good, multi-year contracts, along with some raw prospects being developed with the team and overseas. All of the their first round draft picks and many second round draft picks after this offseason are available for use or trade; there is no guarantee the Pelicans will pick in the 2014 Draft. All of this adds up to a talented roster who are also trade assets, should it be necessary, and a ability to develop more. In fact, their recent record of developing talent has been quite an improvement over the days of Byron Scott.

These changes were accomplished in just three years under Monty Williams and Dell Demps, just two after Chris Paul left, and just one under the ownership of Tom Benson. Additionally, the organization improved, as noted above, in terms of ownership, building a dedicated practice facility for the team, improving the business, and more.

All of this shows that the franchise is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes in their retention of top talent. They can, of course, make new ones, and perhaps events beyond their control will shape Davis’ choice in 2021 (or before). Time is on their side, however, and they are starting off well. During the 8 years, maybe less, Davis will likely have to be influenced, the Pelicans can turn over the roster at least twice, change coaches and GM’s at least twice, and continue to improve the reputation and quality of the franchise.

All of this focus on Davis leaving should not be taken as a downer for a fans or a knock on the Pelicans. This is problem that comes with the benefit of having any great rookie under contract. It’s best to recognize these issues and prepare for them realistically.

In the meantime, watching Davis in a Pelicans uniform should be enjoyed. Talent such as he seems to have is rare, so take the opportunity to see it mature. If anything, knowing that it will not last forever, one way or another, should make us all more likely to enjoy it while it lasts, especially when establishing a winning record is part of the formula. Just hold the organization accountable for making it last as long as it can, and maybe make us as comfortable as possible that the sword will stay firmly in place above our heads for 20 years, not 8 . . . or less . . .


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