All Dell Demps Deserves is the Chance to Succeed . . . Or Fail

Published: October 5, 2018

Dell Demps is entering his 9th season as General Manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, and what a journey it has been. When he first arrived in 2010, a new coach was just hired without his input and the term “ownership turmoil” would be a vast understatement. As if that wasn’t enough, rumors were swirling that his superstar was eyeing an exit from the city. These were the cards that Dell Demps was dealt, and in spite of all of that, he weathered the storm and made some shrewd moves that helped get the Pelicans out to an 11-1 start just several months later.

He brought in young vets Trevor Ariza, Jason Smith, Marco Belinelli and Willie Green prior to the start of the season. And while he had to give up promising backup point guard Darren Collison, the rest of what he gave up equated to a steaming pile of trash. He got Belinelli for disappointing former first-round pick Julian Wright. Jason Smith and Willie Green (who each played 77 games that year and gave the Hornets a combined 2800 minutes) were acquired for Craig Brackens. Who? Exactly.

Dell Demps was off to a terrific start and the fans had four words to summarize their feelings on the new GM: In Dell We Trust. He was working magic around the edges and some were even starting to believe that he could undo all of the harm done by ownership that frustrated Chris Paul and David West to no end.

But it wasn’t to be. West got hurt before the playoffs and the Lakers knocked out the Hornets in six despite a terrific performance from Chris Paul. Several months later, after a lockout, Chris Paul demanded a trade and David Stern essentially became owner of the team. It was a mess again. Not to mention that Dell Demps had to deal CP3 with one arm tied behind his back because Paul would only opt into the second year of his contract if he was dealt to one of the teams he preferred. So, when Dell worked the phones and got Golden State to agree to add Stephen Curry in a deal for Paul, it didn’t matter because CP3 effectively nixed the deal. A deal eventually got done (not the one Dell wanted by the way), and while the direct return essentially produced nothing on the court, the fact that the team was so bad as a result of the trade put the Hornets into position to get lucky in the lottery.

And they did.

Dell’s third year started with a new cornerstone on the roster, as Anthony Davis was taken first overall. The plan was to surround Davis with young veterans over the next few years rather than putting too much responsibility on his shoulders early on and forcing him to suffer through 60 loss seasons just for the chance to possibly get a running mate in the next few drafts. The strategy was against the recent trend in the league, as teams like the Sonics/Thunder decided to let their young superstars put up a lot of shots, in a lot of minutes as they continued to pile up losses. And while some lauded that approach, they often forgot that the Thunder were the outlier, not the norm. You know who else stunk for multiple years straight? The Kings, the Wolves, and the Clippers. And they got high picks every year and it never lead to any real success.

Dell saw a different path, where he could create a culture of winning as his 19-year-old phenom could slowly grow into a role where he could eventually lead the franchise to championships once his body and game filled out. And did it work? Well, in some ways we still don’t know and therein lies the frustration.

While we can no doubt recount several transactions that appear as failures on Dell Demps resume, the truth of the matter is that Dell Demps has far more incomplete grades than he does pass or fail. He put an explosive offensive nucleus around Anthony Davis by acquiring Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Jrue Holiday – a group we affectionately called ‘The Finishing Five’. But the irony is that this lineup not only didn’t finish . . . it never started. Those five shared the court for less than 300 minutes, despite all being young and locked into multi-year contracts.

Injuries kept piling up to guys who had never been injury prone before, and some of which haven’t been injury prone since. Ryan Anderson ran into Gerald Wallace and his season was lost just as he was becoming red hot. Jrue Holiday, a warrior who had played almost every game since he had been in the league, got a leg injury just as the team was starting to click. Eric Gordon was in and out all the time, ruining any chance of developing chemistry. Tyreke Evans played quite a bit, but was often doing so at 50-60% because of various injuries. Quincy Pondexter was a key glue guy one season and out for the entire year the next. It just never stopped during the second iteration of Dell Demps build. So the result was failure, but its not hard to imagine a different world where luck is on their side and the Pelicans achieve a good amount of success.

And before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that luck is a huge part of the equation. Yes, the Warriors ownership is smart, but they have been aided by luck, as has every franchise that has achieved high levels of success. The Warriors perused Dwight Howard hard, but when he turned them down, they settled for their backup plan – future Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. The path to their first Finals saw every team they faced suffer major injuries either during or right before the series, allowing them a much easier path than is often afforded a first time champion. The Rockets were able to lure Chris Paul and sign guys like Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker to good deals the past few years, but that would have been impossible had they landed Chris Bosh a few summers earlier like they thought they were about to before Bosh changed course and headed back to Miami.

Luck is a real thing. We observe the results in the lone universe in which we can see, but things can play out an infinite number of ways, and there is no doubt that the luck has not been on Dell Demps side during his tenure. And that was the case again during Dell’s third iteration of his effort to build this team into a championship contender. He acquired DeMarcus Cousins in February of 2017, with the idea of zigging while everyone else zagged. As small ball became the norm, the idea of pairing the two best bigs in the league was intriguing. And it was starting to work.

But again, the dice turned up craps and Cousins was lost for the season. On the fly, Dell rebounded and acquired Nikola Mirotic to take his place. What ensued was a terrific run at the end of the season and an ideal first round matchup that led to the franchise’s second ever playoff series win. That was enough for Dell to secure more years on his contract and take his 4th shot at putting together a championship roster.

He doubled down on his philosophy of young vets, as he added three former lottery picks under the age of 25, to the roster to team up with Davis, Holiday, and Mirotic. In theory, Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton will allow the team to increase the already blistering pace that they played at last season. Demps has the roster he wants (minus a wing, which he is determined to acquire in the coming months), he has the coaches he wants, and they are running the systems he wants.

Maybe he is right. Maybe he is wrong. It’s possible he has put together a front court that will decimate the league and that he has found value in guys the league discarded like Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor like he once did with Marco Belinelli and Jason Smith. Or, maybe he is wrong and he has loaded up on bigs and non-shooters in a league that has moved to the perimeter more and more every season.

The truth is that nobody knows whether Dell’s vision can work or not. Just like we didn’t know on the second or third iteration, because injuries deprived us of seeing how it would all play out. The results have been poor, to be honest. Three playoff seasons out of 8, with just one series victory, despite having a likely top-20 all-time player in 7 of those 8 years. But results are often dependent on circumstance and luck. And so far, Dell has had nothing but bad luck outside of that magical night when the lotto balls went his way.

So, the NBA gods owe it to him. Not necessarily to smile upon him and give him good luck. Just don’t give him any bad luck. Stay out of his way. Let his roster get through a training camp together. Then, a regular season. Then, let them take their best shot in the playoffs. If they succeed, awesome. If they fail, I am sure Dell can live with that, and we can all grade him honestly. But no more incompletes. Let the man earn a passing or failing grade without any interference.

After all he has been through, he has earned that much at least.

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