The Injury Inefficiency Efficiency

Published: February 13, 2017

The New Orleans Pelicans seem to be plagued with injuries. Some Pelicans fans feel like this is a curse of some sort. Some writers and even employees and players have mentioned, likely in jest and in frustration. The data backs up that the fans are not wrong about the effect of the injuries and which players are most affected, even if other teams have it worse in terms of games missed.

Why to the injuries strike at the heart of the roster? What rational basis is there?

I claim this is because the Pelicans actually target injured players, among others.

Jahlil Okafor and Big Men

I bring this up because the interest in Jahlil Okafor touches on this issue, given his injury history . . . or his potential current injury of some degree. Okafor was the third overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and is potentially being traded, in terms of major pieces, for New Orleans’ 2018 first rounder with some protection, depending on the other parts of the deal.

Okafor has not only no performed like the best third pick of all time, he’s faced some injuries and off-the-court issues. His value is simply not what it was at the time of the draft.

And the Pelicans are gunning for him.

I’ll leave to others to discuss the fit and merits, or the lack of either, (Graham McQueen, Michael Pellissier). The contract details are uninteresting. He’s on a rookie contract for a couple more years. Nothing fancy. They will need to decide on his 4th year option this around the start of the 17-18 season if they get him.

What I’m going to talk about the connection between why Okafor is being looked it as an option over other possibilities, like Nurkic or Plumlee (both recently traded), or the Centers on their roster already.

Let’s talk about the current Centers. The Asik deal was, for the most part, negotiated prior to the trade for him. Ajinca was a reasonable backup signed when the team had little cap flexibility and his contract isn’t crazy in the current market. The move to Gentry has affect the fit of the them on this team, particularly in a small-ball setting. It’s is non-negotiable with Davis that he needs someone that can deal with bigger guys when his and the team’s level of play does not force them off the floor. Davis’ own injuries speak to this, at least for now.

So, write them off, with the most charitable interpretation of their presence on the team being that they simply do not fit due to lack of fit.

Inefficiencies and Risk

This leaves the Pelicans looking outside for answers, which is often the case since they have traded a number of picks in recent years. Buddy Hield is coming along fine, and we’ll see if he sticks around . . . I think he does.

To understand a team’s moves, you have to understand their mindset, their goals, their competencies in addition to the market and all that. The Pelicans have, from day one, had a “Young Veterans” strategy. This the way Dell works, and the Shinn, NBA, and Benson eras have reflected this. Davis has had this franchise on a clock since he proved he was what the scouts thought he was. This was written in 2013 stating this baldly and embracing Davis’ likely desire to leave the franchise before the end of his second contract if they did not convince him to stay. This is an old idea, not a new one, and I didn’t come up with it either. Paul, Carmelo, and more have forced their way out of situations they were not happy with prior to their free agency.

This has caused the franchise to try to pull in value to more closely align with a Davis-centric timeline rather than a slower, more business-building pace. This was met with reasonable and unreasonable skepticism as it was unfolding, and the results have brought on reasonable and unreasonable criticism.

The shift from Monty to Gentry had a few reasons, but it did not change the overall philosophy so much as the on-court product, tactics, and strategy. Young Vets was still in effect. Okafor fits that.

In order to give Davis the team he needs on his timeline, the franchise took risks. All teams do. By trading picks, they replaced the risk of a pick not panning out for making sure their incoming players had a certain talent level. The price was cost control and a loss of a higher possibility of getting a figurative diamond in the rough. This is what people who have to rely on imagination rather than analysis pick on, in case you haven’t noticed. It’s a reasonable criticism when levied reasonably. It’s also just empty hot air by others. The source matters, people. At any rate, that is replacing one kind of risk with another.

They have also exploited certain inefficiencies in the market. Dell has been successful in getting decent prices for players in Restricted Free Agency . . . Anderson, Evans, Lopez . . . then converted them into trades to further tailor the deals. This has been a strength of his. He’s been successful in finding players in other markets and with reclamation projects . . . Ayon, Dejean-Jones, Frazier, Babbitt, Cunningham, Morrow . . . . These were not all successful, but perfection is not the standard. He’s very good at finding those little creases where buyers are not, then striking effectively. In more open markets, like free agency, the draft, and the broader trade market, the success has been limited. It should be noted that this has also been avoided, as well. Playing to strengths and avoiding weakness is sound and commendable, but it does not eliminate or forgive the weakness.

This kind of work is seen in the Pelicans’ roommates on Airline Drive, the New Orleans Saints. In their Super Bowl run many such players were on the roster, some from that season, some from much earlier. We saw that this season, especially on defense.

By far, the highest payoff of any risk the ownership has taken has been with Drew Brees. His value over the years is obvious and without question, so I will not detail it here.

However, I do not think the success of Drew Brees can be ignored in another way, too.

It’s not uncommon for people to mistake luck for skill. Even those who possess skill and an objective and introspective mind, disposition, and incentive still fall victim to this. Drew Brees was acquired by the franchise in part because he was recently injured and with an uncertain future. Prior to that, he was a young player, drafted with a pick of value, who was underperforming enough for his team to get the top pick in the draft, trade that away, and still draft a quarterback to replace him. Once he got injured, the replacement was waiting for him, and he was adrift on free agent waters with just one working shoulder.

Viewed this way, Drew Brees was a two-fer. He was one of those perhaps undervalued players who found himself better than his situation . . . with an injury.

Davis’ injuries are due, in part, to his body still growing and his style of play. Anderson’s injuries were also largely freak accidents.

Setting Davis aside, Jrue Holiday was injured when they traded for him. Philly was penalized for not fully disclosing the injury, but that is not the same thing as no disclosure. Evans had knee issues in the 2012-2013 season. These are light, though.

Eric Gordon was injured for most of his Clippers career, then they re-signed him as a restricted free agent knowing his injury issues. The Suns were not too interested in working out a sign-and-trade, so the Pelicans were in a tough spot, but the decision still indicates a tolerance for the injury risk. To be clear, they did get a slight discount compared to the rookie extension.

Asik was dealing with back issues prior to coming to New Orleans, and he battled them last season. He was traded for a protected pick that was out of the lottery and salary filler. His follow-on contract was lengthy, but of comparable or better value to his prior one, accounting for the cap increases. Again, fit is a valid criticism.

Morrow was coming off injury, and his low stakes contract even had a clause related to his hip. The team was not able to keep him once he rehabbed his hip and image.

Robin Lopez had an injury problem in the vaunted-Phoenix and played 82 games with New Orleans. His value increased enough to be a part of the trade to bring in Evans and has gone on to have a respectable career.

Motiejunas was tainted with injury concerns, and the Pelicans promised him time with his minimum contract.

Their pursuit of Greg Oden, who was leaning toward the Pelicans’ much richer offer than the Heat’s minimum contract, until the Heat offered an extra year that later disappeared. This pursuit was prior to trading for Asik.

Davis and others have played a while with injury, and with no long-term effects. It happens all the time. Too much is made of the fragility of athletes as a whole. The Pelicans were certainly not shy of playing Pondexter when they got him, which would indicate they discounted whatever might have been told or medically determined at the time. More speculatively, Pondexter was playing poorly in Memphis prior to returning to New Orleans after a foot injury sidelined him for most of the prior season. Fit was blamed, but his numbers were off. It’s not official, of course, but it’s very possible Pondexter was injured when they got him.

Still, the franchise sees injury as a tool to use, just like risk in finance. They are taking calculated risks. It might be a bad plan, and it certainly has the potential to fail. We’ve seen it on both sides of the campus numerous times. We can say it’s a bad plan, but some of the leadership hit a flaming home run before, and I bet they think they can do it again.

As a final note, I don’t think this is an issue of “being cheap.” I think the idea is that they hunting for that big payoff, and they simply can’t do it by normal means. It’s just not in the cards. Related to this is that they have to build some kind of credibility and goodwill so they can actually get even second-tier free agents to consider them as a destination. Directly helping players is one way to do the latter, and each person you sign might be a relatively good payoff. Two related problems with employing this tactic in the NBA are that rosters are far smaller and salary is far less flexible. When a gamble does not pan out, it’s effects are far larger unless it at the very end of the roster on a minimum contract. Moreover, you have to stick with the injured guys and give them time when they are able to play.

Circling back to Okafor, he is another one of these kinds of players that has multiple kinds of concerns surrounding him that depress his value. There is potential to be found for those that want to believe it in his pre-draft scouting, flashes of good play (particularly with some decent passing), and the idea that a change of scenery out of Philly may help him. They also just need offense, and Dell’s wanted an offensive big man for a while, even before Davis. Okafor is far from ideal, but there is a certain efficiency in taking risks like him.

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