Pelicans Failure: Bad Luck or Bad Management?

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Published: February 19, 2016

Three and a half years into the Anthony Davis era, we can say unequivocally that Dell Demps initial plan to turn the Pelicans into a contender has failed. The idea was to surround Davis with young veterans that could both grow with Davis and contribute to the win column in a significant way early on, as they continued to grow together. In theory, the plan was not a bad one, and each move could be rationalized at the time. Heck, most of them can still be justified today. But as a collection, they did not work. The question is, how much of that was due to bad luck, and how much of it was just bad management?

Results often crystallize the past for people. Any move could turn out to be a good one or a bad one, in theory, but time gives us a definitive answer. But just because something turns out one way doesn’t mean it was the only way it could have turned out. A player’s career can turn out dozens of different ways depending on hundreds of possible x-factors. Now, imagine compounding all those variables that lie within a single player with all the variables determining the career of 11 other players. Now, add in all the variables of all the other teams in the league, and tell me that a GM should be able to predict the future. If the Warriors got their main target a few years ago (Dwight) instead of Iggy, the Thunder are probably the favorites to win the title this year. Or if they moved Klay for Kevin Love. But those variables, completely out of Sam Presti’s control, will likely mean the Thunder never win a title and Presti will be labeled a failure.

Luck is not a real thing. It is a word we use to explain all of these unknowns that could go hundreds of different ways. If they go an unexpected way that leads to a positive outcome, we call it good luck. Bad result equals bad luck. But for the purpose of this piece, we will call all of these unknowns luck, and as we look back, we can see just how much “bad luck” the Pelicans have had. But that doesn’t excuse every decision made by those in charge either. Eric Gordon’s laundry list of injuries since he has been in New Orleans, for instance, could be seen as bad luck, but you can also argue that a smart, objective management team would know he was injury prone, and evaluate him accordingly.

So, let’s take a look at the moves that got the Pelicans here and determine once and for all: Bad Luck or Bad Management?

Matching Eric Gordon’s Offer Sheet

Rationale: Gordon was the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade. One year later, he was a restricted free agent, and the Pelicans just couldn’t let the centerpiece of a trade for their superstar walk. He was also just turning 24, and theoretically about to hit his prime. He would also be in that prime, again theoretically, when Davis evolved into an MVP caliber player.

Bad Luck: Gordon just couldn’t stay healthy early on in the contract. So, when he had multiple years remaining, he was untradeable because of the length of the contract. Then, at the end of the contract, he had no value because he was expiring in the year before the cap was set to spike. And the cap spike, by the way, is something that NOBODY could have predicted back in the summer of 2012. Demps matched the contract, in part, because he thought that he could trade Gordon later if he needed to. The injuries early on, and the cap spike later on, made Gordon virtually worthless on the market for his entire tenure in New Orleans.

Bad Management: Dell Demps could have done a sign-and-trade with Phoenix in the summer of 2012. Could he have netted much? Sources say no – just Robin Lopez and some other small assets, but think of how many times Gordon’s large cap number hurt the Pelicans as time went on. When signing Tyreke a year later, they had to part with Lopez and Vasquez just to fit Tyreke under the cap. Then, a year after that, they had to part with a 1st rounder to replace Lopez with Asik. Vasquez, down the line, was traded for a 1st. So, basically, the Pelicans could have had Lopez and two firsts instead of Gordon and Asik. Demps didn’t want to “lose Gordon for nothing”, but everything costs something in this world, and keeping Gordon handcuffed Demps more than he originally anticipated.

X-Factors: Do I have to remind you that Demps didn’t want the Clippers trade in the first place? He wanted the Lakers trade, and Stern said no. So, maybe the blame for this whole debacle can be laid at somebody else’s feet. Once that trade was forced on Demps, however, what was he supposed to do? Just let the centerpiece go and sell the fan base on the unknown guy that would come with cap space in future years?

Verdict: 40 percent bad management, 60 percent bad luck

This isn’t 20/20 hindsight – Ryan and I were on the podcast begging Demps to do the sign-and-trade back in 2012. It was clear as day that he wouldn’t live up to the contract because he was simply too fragile. He also wasn’t an ideal personality fit for an impressionable AD, and frankly didn’t want to be here at the time. Good business people know that it doesn’t matter what you paid for an asset, it is about what you can likely get for it moving forward when you decide whether you should part with it. As I have said numerous times before, Dell just doesn’t not seem to understand the concept of sunk cost. This is example 1A in that argument.

That said, if Gordon stays relatively healthy in 2012 and 2013, he has trade value at the 2013 trade deadline, and the Pelicans could have gotten something for him. Instead, he had no value at the 2013 or 2014 deadlines, and was too vital to their success in 2015 to sell for pennies on the dollar. Then, even before he got hurt, he had no value this season because of the fact that he was expiring and the cap spike, which again, nobody saw coming 4 years ago. That is just bad luck. If they run it back 100 times, he probably plays more than 115 games over the 3 year period from 2011 to 2013 more often than not, and if he does that, Dell probably gets something decent for him.

The Jrue Holiday Trade

Rationale: The front office believed that Davis accelerated their rebuild, and because of that, they thought a young vet could help more than a rookie from an underwhelming draft class. Of the possible guys available at #6 in 2013, Nerlens Noel was likely to miss the entire season with injury and was likely 3-4 years away from helping a team win, at best. Trey Burke was the other option, but again, he was years away from becoming Jrue Holiday. Again, at best.

Bad Luck: Jrue Holiday had missed 5 games in the 3 years before he came to New Orleans. Of course, midway through his first season here, he developed a chronic shin injury that cost him 90 games over the next two seasons. Again, if “luck” is determined by figuring all the likely outcome and “good luck” is an unlikely outcome that has good results and “bad luck” is just the opposite, then this has to be a massive amount of bad luck, no?

Bad Management: Details are hard to come by, but it is known that the Sixers were forced to compensate the Pelicans financially because they did not disclose Jrue Holiday’s medical history fully. One could say, ‘Shame on Dell’ for not being more thorough. Or, maybe, shame on the medical staff for not discovering the issue themselves. Or shame on Jrue for not disclosing, or maybe he did, and the Pelicans thought the issue wouldn’t resurface. But the real issue here is that, in retrospect, the Pelicans could have probably gotten Jrue for less. We know now that the Sixers were going to blow this thing up and they also knew about Jrue’s shin issues. Would they have said no to just Noel? Or maybe the 2nd pick was lotto protected? I think the real argument for bad management here is that Dell just didn’t negotiate hard enough to get the absolute best trade possible.

X-Factor: Tom Benson seems to get let off the hook far too often in my opinion when people cast blame. But the fact is, according to several people in the know, he was very clear that he wanted results sooner rather than later. Would Dell have made the same trade with a more patient owner? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

Verdict: 80 percent bad luck, 20 percent bad management

As we can see now that Jrue is healthy, trading Noel or Burke and Saric or Elfrid Payton for Holiday is a great move. And why wouldn’t Dell believe Jrue was going to be healthy for the next 4 years when he was an iron man for the last 3? You can say Dell was too trusting and that maybe he could have gotten Holiday for less, but the injury issues far outweigh the poor management decisions, and that is just bad luck.

The Tyreke Evans Acquisition

Rationale: The team wanted attacking perimeter players who could create offense for themselves and others, and Evans fit that mold better than anybody available on the market, and he fit the young vet mold, unlike somebody like Iguodala – who had far more miles on his tires.

Bad Luck: The Gordon injuries prevented him from being traded, and if he was, the Pelicans could have opened up the necessary minutes for Tyreke and Jrue without forcing Evans to play the small forward position he hates. You can also look at Tyreke’s injuries this season as bad luck. It is conceivable that a healthy 16/7/5 guy with multiple years on his contract could have netted a solid return at this deadline. Instead, he has season ending surgery right before the deadline, which killed all his value. In another turn of bad luck, Tyreke had two of his best games at the end of 2014, which resulted in seemingly pointless Pelicans wins. But they weren’t. The Pelicans lose those two games and they get Andrew Wiggins – the perfect small forward for this team moving forward.

Bad Management: The Pelicans didn’t have to part with Lopez in the Evans deal. They actually could have renounced Aminu and kept Lopez. Instead, they kept Aminu and eventually let him walk a year later, then traded a 1st for a Lopez replacement in Omer Asik. They also signed Tyreke with the idea of having him be a super sub, but were unable to find a quality small forward to allow him to be just that. Finally, they hired a coach whose system lis in direct opposition philosophically to what Tyreke does best. Knowing this, they probably should have tried to trade him as soon as they hired Gentry. But that is where bad luck sets in, as Tyreke was coming off surgery this summer and likely didn’t have much value. They probably thought they could get him healthy and then shop him come February, but then they rushed him back too soon. That is bad management of an asset.

X-Factor: Optimism bias has killed this team in my opinion. The Pelicans saw a talented young player stuck in a terrible organization and they thought they could “fix him.” Monty even pointed out his poor off ball defense before Tyreke ever played a game, but he thought his coaching could fix it. And isn’t that what you want – a coaching staff who believes in itself, and a front office who believes in their staff? But that belief burned them with Tyreke, and then Gentry and Erman came in and probably thought they could fix him too. Optimism bias and ego get us all.

Verdict: 20 percent bad luck, 80 percent bad management

The Pelicans won’t be the last team to bet on themselves being able to “fix” a talented player. But they traded two decent, cost controlled quality assets to get him and they didn’t have a deal already lined up to ship Gordon off  for a small forward, to allow Evans to play the guard role best suited for him. They chose Aminu over Lopez, which hurt them short-term and long-term, and then continued to believe that Evans could change when the Gentry staff came in. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…..

The Omer Asik Trade and Re-Signing

Rationale: The Pelicans were on the verge of the playoffs, and aside from the injuries, their biggest weakness the season prior was the hole at center. Remember… Greg Stiemsma?!!? The pick was protected enough to prevent them from giving Houston an elite prospect if everything went wrong, and in a series of brilliant small moves, Dell got Asik without giving up any other key pieces. When it came to re-signing Asik, the Pelicans knew that Davis didn’t want to play center, and they didn’t have the cap room to secure a replacement. So, Asik was brought back because they had his Bird Rights and could go over the cap to re-sign him.

Bad Luck: I have gone over and over the ways that the Pelicans could have kept Lopez if not for some bad luck and bad management, but getting the Warriors in the first round was a bit of bad luck as well. Asik actually would have matched up fairly well with a couple of other playoff teams. He was an above average center in the second half of the 2014-15 season, but that series seems to have killed his confidence, where another matchup could have boosted it.

Bad Management: I said it at the time, and I will say it again – Who was offering Asik 4 years and/or 10 million dollars per year? For the Pelicans to give him the contract he got, they would have had to be worried that they could lose him, and I simply will never believe that Asik had those kinds of offers on the table from anyone else. Dell’s sin wasn’t trading the pick (which ended up being 18th) or resigning him. The mistake was how many years he gave him. And if I am wrong, and some other team was offering 4 for 40, then you let him walk. Again, sunk cost.

X-Factor: Should Davis get some blame for not wanting to play center? If he was willing to embrace playing the position at least half of the game, would the Pelicans have invested a first round pick and/or such a big contract on the position? If he buys in fully, the Pelicans probably get by with just Ajinca or go and get a 20 minute per game guy like Bismack Biyombo.

Verdict: Trade – Perfectly fine, Re-Signing – 10 percent bad luck, 90 percent bad management

The bad luck is that AD got so banged up early in his career that he wasn’t open to the idea of playing center, even though the league is obviously getting smaller. But the length of the contract didn’t make sense in July and it doesn’t make sense now. And again, it could effect the team moving forward. Would the team be so hesitant to give Ryno 17 million a year if AD was willing to play center 20-25 mins a night and Asik wasn’t under contract? I don’t think so, but Asik is under contract and that might prevent the Pelicans from giving Anderson that deal. Again, one bad decision might lead to another bad decision that might not have been made if not for the first bad decision.

Conclusion

Could this plan have worked? In a nutshell, yes. Surrounding Anthony Davis with 4-5 quasi All-Stars in their early to mid 20’s could have turned the Pelicans into a better version of the 2004 Pistons. The problem is that Dell chose the wrong young veterans and the Pelicans also ran into some terrible luck. Many said that it was the skill sets that did not match, but I would like to argue that it was something else that prevented it all from working. The great teams have clearly defined pecking orders; clearly defined roles. The Pelicans just snatched up talent, and even worse, talent that was used to being the top player on a bad team. They didn’t nab winners, nor did they nab guys who knew how to sacrifice their role for the greater goal of the team. They got a bunch of ‘me’ players, and no real ‘we’ players. And even worse, these guys had all been losers for the majority (or all) of their NBA career, and what was their reward for that? A huge, new contract.

Surrounding a once-in-a-generation big man with a bunch of ultra talented guards isn’t the worst plan in the world, but Dell simply chose the wrong guards. He also didn’t (or couldn’t) cut bait when it was clear that he needed to, and then that led to him compounding mistakes. But one thing that can’t be left out of this whole equation is the timeline that Tom Benson put Dell Demps on. From the get go, he limited his options. A slow, 4-5 year build was never a real option for Dell, so he tried to have the best of both worlds. He tried to win now while also having a young team that could grow together for the long run. In theory, it can work, but any time you limit your options, you leave yourself very little room for error. And early on in the process, the Gordon contract just sat like an anchor around their cap, and that effected Tyreke, which in turn effected Lopez, which in turn led to Asik and so on.

Is Dell Demps a terrible GM? No, I don’t think so. But he was a new GM who had tremendous hurdles thrown his way. Think about it from his perspective. He gets his first GM job ever, and inherits a coach he didn’t hire. He also inherits a frustrated Chris Paul and David West. Then, the commissioner of the NBA becomes his boss, and after that he gets an 80-something owner who wants to win now and enormous expectations after getting Anthony Davis. His mistake was the same as Zach Morris’s in every Saved by the Bell episode – He tried to dig his way out of a previous hole and just made it bigger and bigger.

But the conclusion that we should NOT all reach is that this plan can not work. The young vet route can work, but just like the draft route or any other route, you have to find the right guys. And it can’t just all be about amassing talent. Roles and fit do matter, and hopefully that is the lesson Dell has learned above all else. Moving forward, if he and his staff get a second chance to build around Davis, they need to keep that in mind. You need guys who hate losing, you need guys who are still hungry, guys who have a chip on their shoulder, and guys who can be a vocal leader if AD is not that kind of guy. If those guys happen to be the most talented too, then that’s great. But it can’t just be all about grabbing talent and then figuring it out later.

Oh, and a little luck next time would help out too.

 

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