Issues of Trust

Published: November 14, 2016

I’ve spent some time thinking about just has gone wrong with this team that was controllable. Every team makes mistakes. Bad luck aside, I wanted to come up with an answer, and not just some early bad signing. I wanted the real root of the issue. These people are not incompetent. They can be wrong, and they are at times, but that is not exactly the same thing. I wanted something else. I came up with two answers, one word.


The Trust

On January 22, 2015, nearly 2 years ago, the Benson organization dealt themselves a significant and unforced injury.

I got an email that evening with the subject:


This may seem both innocuous and boring. Well, it was not innocuous, and this stuff, as our long-time readers know, is not boring to me.

Here is the key quote:

New Orleans Saints Owner Tom Benson has restructured the ownership transfer and control of the Saints and New Orleans Pelicans.

Here is the key word: restructureD

Past tense.

Well, guess what? It was not restructured. It still is not. There have been a series of public legal battles about the trust, some of which directly involved his mental state. While owner Tom Benson has emerged mostly victorious with respect to his goal of possibly leaving the future control of the teams to Mrs. Gayle Benson, his third wife, is still on the table, the spectacle, uncertainty, and official comments like this:

Three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson were split, 2-1, in favor of finding Benson capable of making reasoned decisions, despite some “mild cognitive impairment” that affected his short-term memory. A third doctor found that Benson’s impairment was “moderate to severe, thereby warranting full interdiction,” according to Reese’s original ruling.

Note, this quote is from 2016, while the battle started in January 2015. It is not projected to end until at least 2017.

For those who need a refresher, here is the basic situation. Tom Benson has had 3 wives, and he is trying to leave control of his empire to his third wife, Mrs. Gayle. The issue is that import assets are in a family trust, which is a legal entity that holds assets legally, and a major use of them is for succession. This trust has his family from a prior marriage as beneficiaries. The trust seems of the “intentionally defective” variety. This means that assets in it can be taken out under certain conditions. Benson is trying to take out the import assets of issue here and replace them with assets of comparable financial value, which is supposed to be allowed. This act, and the value of the replacing assets is at the core of the issue, at least legally.

There is much more to the matter, but this is a fair summary for the purposes of this article.

This trust is a private matter, so why bring it up? It could very well be that Benson’s circle believed that his heirs, who would not stand to lose money but control of particular assets, would make the matter public anyway, so they decided to get ahead of the matter. Even if this is the case, the language used indicates that the matter to be settled.

It was not. We can view this as a mere overemphasis of an important detail on my part. Sure. We can also view this, as I do, as an error on their part. Even if this fight were going to be made public, it could have been done more transparently.

And there is the issue.

Whether or not there was a way to handle this quietly, and whether or not the timing was ideal . . . though I think handling this sooner than later, no matter the circumstances at the time, is better than waiting, since Benson’s death would, apparently, result in chaos . . . the handling of the matter of the trust, and amphibologically, and the handling of the matter of trust is where I would point if asked to point to exactly where the most damage was done to the Pelicans since the NBA took over the team.

I know that many will point to some particular signing or trade or an injury, or even Benson buying the team. I disagree. I’ve talked with people who believe that Gary Chouest would have been a great owner, but I have always held that Benson was a safe owner. David Stern certainly thought highly of Benson. Safe here should be understood in all the good ways and, perhaps, in some of the bad ones.

To be clear, I think Benson is a fine owner. Other writers feel otherwise, but I think we have different things we value in sports teams, so the disagreement is understandable. I do agree that Benson is not the owner you want to build a basketball dynasty. I, however, am ok with that provided I get some good fun for decades. Honestly, I’ve had good fun, and I approve of the ownership overall. Much of the good they have done, especially relative to the state of affairs when they purchased the team, is very under-appreciated.

My approval of ownership overall does not mean that I am without criticism. The negative appearance and resulting disruption of this legal matter, I contend and have contended, keep talent out of New Orleans, both on and off the court. I have claimed that lack of available player moves in the 2015 offseason led to the firing of Monty Williams early in that offseason since it allowed some major change to occur prior to the legal battle getting more toxic, further thinning the talent pool. As Monty Williams was a good coach, he was not a coach that was going to take the team to a higher level or provide a more entertaining brand of basketball. Plus, Monty’s unwavering acceptance of blame soured the casual fanbase, making him an easy target. Some have scoffed at my claims, but I stand by them. As time goes on, it just bears out more and more.

Top talent, in all roles, have numerous options, but when there are questions of stability in a business, that business is ruled out as a possibility. Top talent is not just concerned with results; they are concerned with legacy. They become part of the sport. When that is on the table, you don’t let controllable, unstable, opaque issues, especially those dealing with paperwork, stand in your way.

Ownership instability limits the attractiveness of a franchise, and it virtually excludes the possibility of attracting and keeping a true talent.

In short, they day that email was sent, not having been a done deal, the franchise immediately accepted, willingly or not, a limit on what they could do to help Anthony Davis. The idea that top potential free agent coaches and GM’s were coming here, the kids of guys that call their own shot, is, and make no mistake about it, pure fiction. Meetings are granted and taken, rumors are spread for many reasons, and one is leverage. There was never anyone coming here that was not trying to elevate or recover. Gentry, Erman, Ferry. Cunningham, Hill, Stephenson. This willingness is an asset, and kudos to them for taking advantage of it, but it was never going to net a top flight guy (or gal).



More than this, the team has a pattern of consistently eroding trust with the public. The handling of the ownership trust is one. There is the matter of judgment of players and contracts. While I am not as down on some deals the team has made, many are highly critical of some signings. Losses are the justification of much of this criticism, so winning would silence many critics, rightly or wrongly. However, this is more about skill or competence. I’m not talking about this. I’m also not talking about stability or consistency. I’m talking about good, informative, business-appropriate communication.

The Pelicans have persistently failed in this. An organization can not violate certain rules, such as Demps not being able to discuss the Jrue Holiday trade until it was completed (as cap space was not going to open up for a couple of weeks); this is fine. A team also can’t tip its hand about moves. I was at a function where Demps said they were happy with their players going forward. Later that night, Marcus Thornton was traded; this is fine.

Consider the following examples:

  • Repeated vague and changing injury timelines, such as with Evans and Pondexter
  • Unreported injuries, such as with Davis or Asik
  • Limited appearances by staff on uncontrolled interviews, such as radio interviews
  • More frequent appearances by staff on controlled interviews, such as on their own in-house podcast
  • Cancelling interviews without explanation or with explanation following much later, such as with Demps this past offseason

There are more. I’m establishing the point, not exhausting a list of allegations. Piling on is not the point here.

This is not questioning competence. This is not alleging malicious intent. This is not an assault on anyone’s character.

I am simply stating objective, verifiable facts . . . for the most part generated by the team . . . placing them together, and citing a common thread. While there are examples of transparency, such as very detailed medical information released about Davis’ surgery and Verrier’s article about the medical staff, this was in response to the undisclosed injury mentioned above.

This is not cherry-picked, and this is not to say that there are many perfectly normal communications. Those are not the issue. Those are commendable, even if they are the standard expectation.

It’s their business, and they can run it how they choose, provided it is within the bounds of the law and rules of the associations to which the businesses belong. I’m simply pointing out that there is a cost to this way of operating, and I’m calling it another significant and self-inflicted injury.

The lack of trust is hurting their business more than the lack of wins. The Saints have two important figures that the people trust: Drew Brees and Sean Payton. So, while business may suffer when the wins are down, the rate of decline is slower, and there is more leeway given. With the Pelicans, there is no such rapport, at least with most fans.

I happen to actually have trust in certain things about the organization, but I can’t trust that Davis not appearing on the injury report means Davis is not injured.

I’m not alone either, and I think I have more trust in the organization than many. I know that people I respect look at me as naive or foolish for that, but I accept it. I’ve had many completely forthright conversations with people in the organization, and I’m truly thankful for that. Those conversation are part of the reason for my trust. I’ll never breach that trust, but I’ll happily say that this issue is more of a mode of operation, in my opinion, than a real issue of “character” or “disposition” of the organization as a whole. It is a way, believe, to try to accomplish some end they feel is better for the team.

They may be right, but I think it’s, ironically, bad for business.

It think there has been a fundamental miscalculation about the baseline level of trust here, and it is assumed to be higher than it is. The NBA left once. Then they came here with the typical sorts of wrangling teams do . . . buy N tickets . . . oh, wait, you bought N tickets, but not enough of them were the expensive ones, so buy E more . . . etc. Then, the team left due to Katrina, and Shinn tried to stay in OKC. Any trust that was gained upon their return, likely helped by winning and support of the league (same with the NFL there), was eroded when Shinn started breaking up the team, then had trouble coming to terms with Chouest. It’s always been something. There’s always been a reason for the justifiably suspicious to renew their suspicion.

Honesty is the best policy at some point. This area loves sports, and the people hunger for it. They defend their own furiously, complain as they will. Love can sometimes manifest as hate, because those are both reactions to things closely held. Things held at a distance turn into apathy or fear.

If you believe in your fanbase, maybe they’ll believe in you. So far, what you’re doing is not working. Wins aren’t going to come easy. If they do come, it will take a while to convince people that there is not another shoe waiting to drop. That shoe is not the back luck of something about to happen, but of something that already happened of which they have willfully been made unaware by the organization itself.

When the time is right, I hope the trust can be built.

I trust that it can.

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