Which Way Is Up?

Published: March 5, 2016

Fans of the New Orleans Pelicans have no shortage of legitimate gripes this season. They are often lost, however, in the seemingly endless supply of illegitimate ones, poor support for legitimate gripes, and just incessant, poorly-directed ax-grinding for whatever justifiable personal reasons people have. Picking apart a play or two in each game, focusing on this run or that run or this player or that player, second-guessing strategic and tactical decisions all have a place, but this can sometimes lead to a forest-trees kind of problem, or perhaps the swirl of disentangling cause-effect and correlation, or even a category mistake.

To me, a clear common note in the cacophony of screams is very simple: The lack of hope. In harmony with that are a lack of faith in the organization’s ability to keep Anthony Davis happy and the lack of ability to bring in some wins, confidence, and fun for the fanbase. This is chord that has been struck.

Here’re what I think the roots of the problems are.

  • Primary objective. Make no mistake about it: The Benson organization wants to win an NBA title and soon. Moreover, they are willing to spend to do it. The problem is that many other teams are also in that position, so you can’t just go get the guys you need to win a title. “Come play with Davis” is unreliable, just as “Come play with LeBron” did not quite work for Cleveland in his first stint there or in his first year back. Him going to a place with a plan and real basketball people with their hands on the buttons and the wallet mattered. Miami had a ton of flexibility early on, and that helped, too. Back to New Orleans, the onus is on the organization and its goals, and this organization is still in the process of actually stabilizing, for better or worse. I’ve been questioned and more about these claims, and poor analysts simply ignore the fundamental fact that these businesses are . . . businesses. Underneath it all, and you can take this to the bank, this organization’s modus operandi is managing calculated risk. As I said, they’ll spend when their analytical, talent, and financial lights are all green, and they’ll take chances in the market and on players, which is something that is absolutely necessary to win a title. However, that requires some sharp analysis and confidence on the part of those making the calls. When there is doubt or ignorance, the best move is to raise the floor, even at the expense of lowering the ceiling, as opposed to the opposite type of move.
    This is exactly what this franchise has been doing, and I’m not opposed to it. Had they been able to “make the leap” with their assets panning out on the court and trading them “up,” we’d be happy campers. This has not happened, and it seems less likely this will happen with the current assets for a number of reasons. In the end, the moves are guided by this principle largely because the organization can not tolerate stagnation. Luck has, obviously, landed them right where they were trying to avoid being, but that does not mean that their thinking was anything but exactly along these lines. Each move is tinged with this . . . going after known-cost controlled players who have an NBA history rather than unknown cost-controlled players who do not . . . signing low-cost free agents to unguaranteed deals . . . employing small incentives in contracts . . . playing in low-competition player markets . . . dealing with GM’s more than agents and players . . . and more. The farther this team gets from winning a title, the less they will pursue it. Sure, someone may just decide to come here to play with Davis just as LeBron decided to return to Cleveland, and that will be welcomed and embraced fully, but that is simply not something you bank on, even if you have the plan to deal with it should it happen.
    It can be argued that the hiring of Gentry was a risk that lowered the floor, but I’ve stated that this was more about an organizational level risk than one on the level of the basketball court, and I stand by it: They got the guy with the highest ceiling they could last summer to avoid getting someone far worse this one in case they remained convinced Monty could not take this team to the proverbial next level. Moves to stabilize the key pieces of the Saints organization and their timing support this claim.

  • Lack of improvement. What’s gotten better this season? One thing of significance in any significant way. Some nerd may end up pointing out that some weird shooting percentage on Tuesdays after a full moon are slightly up, and I simply will ignore said nerd because that is irrelevant. I’m ignoring the win-loss record because, despite what some obtuse pseudo-fans claim, injuries have effects, and it is perfectly fine to notice that. I also find it hard to believe anyone studying this team thought the record would significantly improve due to internal factors, even when healthy, given the lack of roster churn combined with a coaching change. What I’m talking about is how the players actually move around with and without the ball. Talking about “the offense” and “the defense” is convenient and appropriate for casual discussion, but the fact of the matter is basketball is about people moving around, how they move around and when they do so. Revolutionary, huh? As a side note, beware any analyst who can’t point to specifics at that level without referring to jargon. At bottom, the world is simple; it’s just a matter of seeing how it is simple. That’s the hard part, ironically.
    That one thing is Anderson’s interior play. His new turnaround shot is unbelievably effective and gives him a legitimate second “place to be” which could actually affect how he is guarded, though perhaps not on this team at this time. Cunningham has improved, but he’s a backup. Even if he’s starting, he’s a backup because he plays like one. That’s simply his “rank” in the League. Him happening to start is a reflection of Pondexter’s injury or some player not on this team being on another team, not Cunningham. The addition of Dejean-Jones is clearly a paper improvement made since Summer. He’d earned a 3-year deal thanks to his upside and the Pelicans needing to ret-con their recent drafts, a commendable activity. Injuries elsewhere on the roster caused him to lose that deal, but he got it back thanks to that MLE spot they’d saved for him in Summer when they were still preparing to potentially go over the tax, as I noted in July and several times since. This is not an improvement of any significance, however. It may turn out to be, but this question was about this season, and he got injured immediately following the ink drying on his second long-term deal. He basically has the same deal he had in the Summer, so the money agrees with me regarding improvement. Holiday is returning to form, but this is not really an improvement, just as taking off a heavy backpack does not actually make you stronger and lighter . . . it’s just a burden being removed so your natural state is restored. Davis is better in some ways, but this is to be expected and is not really a credit to the team. Also, the fact that some of his metrics are down is not really controverting evidence since his stats are still elite and the noise his higher up there. The coaching change and certain style changes also affect these stats through no fault of his own. I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’s playing with a nick or two, either. At all.

  • Personality. I don’t mean whether someone is jovial or not, upbeat or sour, or whatever it is that people immaturely make fun of Eric Gordon for. I mean that personality of the team. Identity. Style. Even with Monty, this team had no personality; they were just a team. That is likely because Monty had the team under tight control. Gentry (and by “Gentry,” I’m including the entire staff) asks a good deal from his team, and they just stare blankly. I’m not sure he lost the team because I’m not sure he’s ever had them. Given the autonomy the guys have, he doesn’t really “need” them in the same way in a game, either.
    Regardless, I’m dumbfounded. I sat back and endured writers from this site and more praise Gentry, Erman, and others as NBA people with connections, various talents, and the ability to motivate. Erman and Weber in particular are supposed to be big-time motivators. So far, we’ve got nothing at best and the opposite effect at worse. Are they trying to cultivate job security by undoing the few things that don’t need fixing? “Some men you just can’t reach.” That’s true, and maybe we have some critical mass of such people on this team that cause some sort of attitudinal collapse. Fine, these guys can prove the facts of this season to be a fluke next season or confirm their praises to be nothing but blather and PR that was bought hook, line, and sinker. For now, my healthy skepticism has been overcome by the data.
    The team shows flashes of playing well, then it just fades along with hope and glory. Forget the ability, just look at the consistency of effort, focus, determination. If what is going on on the court reflects what goes on in practice and film sessions, this team is simply trotting out not only the same roster, but the same sets of plays and the same mistakes game after game after game, and the only thing to be done is tinker with the depth chart. Since that is being done, I find it both commendable but also a piece of evidence in this case.
    The basketball IQ thing went from being under-discussed to over-discussed in relation to its importance, but the basketball head is nothing without the basketball heart. You can’t win with just heart either, but real fans can tell the difference and stand behind the guys who try but just can’t do it. These guys can kind of do it, but just kind of do it sort of sometimes.
    This is, to be completely frank, an abomination.
    It must be dealt with as such, not as an annoyance or unfortunate happenstance.
    I picked that word on purpose. It’s a good and apt word.

So, which way is up? Just like in Dante’s Inferno, any direction leads up from the center of Hell except the ones that got you there, figuratively speaking. The fatal snare is continuing to trap yourself there by your own efforts to escape in some insidious “perpetual stasis machine” where the stagnation is actually exacerbated by being left behind from the progress of the world around you. We may not be there, but the idea applies, and “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” may be virtually hovering above the entrance to the Airline Drive facility for some prospective Pelicans. There are many things to do and many things need a-doing. It was not as simple last season as FireMontyLulz or whatever it is that people state when they don’t actually realize they appear foolish, nor is it that simple this season.

Finding the right question is tough, as those who have paid attention to me for a long while know I believe quite strongly. That, and everything has a cost. If you don’t know the problem you are trying to solve, you are simply relying on happenstance and, worse, being fooled by it.

  • This team will absolutely need to make some changes to the coaching staff. I’ve been screaming on these virtual pages for years for additions and incremental changes to the coaching staff, and I will continue to do so.
  • This team will need to cut loose some players who resist the coaches and the pecking order. Davis’ contract kicking in will absolutely affect his informal authority, as will his tenure on this team once Gordon goes (if he goes), but players are people, and they have egos. The ones whose ego is more of a negative than a positive need to go. Leadership is a complicated thing, and figuring it out is probably a trillion dollar problem (literally), but I can tell you that it won’t work when people are not receptive. Get enough of those, and it snowballs from there.
  • This team needs to spend the remainder of this season improving things that matter going forward. Now that Asik is back, he needs to be involved like he was in January. He was in his proper role then, and was playing in a fashion that will make his contract next season and beyond perfectly neutral with room for it to be slightly ok.
  • The organization needs to bring in someone that knows and loves basketball to work with the ownership level guys. You have to run a business like a business, but when that is all that motivates you, then that’s all you’ll ever get, and it will be obvious. Restaurants there to generate money and only generate money are clearly distinguishable from those there to generate money and do something else. Many sports fans are casual, to be sure, but when that fandom starts getting deeper, they can tell when the team is just a reverse ATM. I know the organization is doing what they think is best for the city and the surrounding areas, but they need to do something else. They’ve done a great job, really, of turning this business around as a business; it’s time work on the basketball love, not business love, at the top. Maybe it’ll flow down.

Gentry was clearly admonished for speaking his mind about the playoffs, and that is unfortunate (though it supports that this team put business concerns first, which is justified). I commend him for speaking his mind. I understand why he had to wink-wink apologize. His honesty about his players has been viewed as a negative by some, and I’m sure by some in the organization, just as Monty’s constant placing the blame on himself made their PR job harder, too. This is largely rooted in the organization’s active and obsessive control of the message and information. As I often say, they “weaponize” information. Truth, half-truth, spin, obfuscation, and kenobi-esque truths “from a certain point-of-view” are co-mingled. That combined with the natural cherry-picking by agenda-driven writers and fans leads to chaos, so the level of productive discourse drops. That’s fine, it keeps their adversaries and watchdogs (like me) few in number . . . at least the fair and effective ones that are beyond the reach of their various types of influence. I get it, I commend their efforts, and it certainly serves them well on that front. However, when they buy their own “manufactured message” or think that the world will bend to the empty assertions, it all goes downhill fast.

Clearing away all the distraction, the way up is the way pointed to by truth here, whichever way that is. If Gentry, or anyone else in the organization, is going to win me over from my very tenuous skepticism at this point, it’s by being honest and correctly applying that in the balance of this season and going into the offseason to build this team the right way all while the Sword of Damocles swings over his head. It’s not an easy place for them to be, but if he can do that, assuming he is given the opportunity to do so, then he’ll end up winning over more than just me.

Speaking of the information control and not an easy place to be . . . Gentry is supposed to be doing regular morning show appearances on the flagship station, but he does not. Why? I’m not 100% sure, but I willing to be that the fact media personality who knows more about basketball than any other in town, Gerry Vaillancourt, is the host of that show. Being accountable is entailed in honesty. Someone needs to go on that show, honor the duties to the flagship station, and face some fair, informed interview questions. The weekly evening show is good, but it’s hosted by employees of the organization. Good a show as it is, and great a host and mind and guy and firefighter as Sean is, it’s not the same when it’s an independent host, and certainly not the same when the host is a former broadcaster for the team. There is a reason media are often required to maintain a semblance of neutrality, after all, because sometimes the semblance matters in either direction. It all adds up, guys. It all adds up.

Everything has to be re-evaluated. There is no single big move to fix this, and by fix, I mean fix it so that the team achieves their own goals of a sustainable franchise that can capitalize on the chance at a title if one presents itself, not the win-at-all-costs fancies of some well-meaning fans. The “win now” mandate is, I think, often misunderstood. If there was an order to win now, we would have seen more draft picks traded, more moves for overpaid players. Win now means win games, not titles. Those are waaay different paths. It’s also why the team has not tanked a season or even a decent fraction of one. To keep the local money flowing, their priority is to give fans a reasonable expectation of a win each and every game. This is also what they do on the NFL side of campus. Understood this way, the problems are substantially easier to fix.

If those get fixed, the hope and faith and fun issues should resolve themselves in time, at least to the point of any other irrational fanbase, which is the best kind and the only kind I want to be a part of. This, of course, leaves the question of Davis’ future with a large question mark, but so do the myriad of issues this offseason, the upcoming CBA negotiations, and more.

The truth will set you free . . . one way or another.


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