Building Gayle Benson

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Published: February 18, 2019

Intro

The moment Anthony Davis made his desires for greener pastures known to management, Dell Demps was on borrowed time. Seven years of team building came crashing down with a single WOJbomb. But even before Rich Paul and Davis set their plan in motion, there were rumbles in local media circles that owner Gayle Benson was considering a “clean house” at the end of the season. The idea behind this strategy was to get a fresh GM to make a final pitch to Davis in an effort to secure his extension before owning the inevitable trade. Well life rarely works out the way you want it to. Davis and Paul threw a wrench in everyone’s plans by going public with a trade request two weeks before the trade deadline and trying to strongarm their way to Los Angeles. What resulted was a “dumpster fire” of a media circus that is somehow still on-going. The Pelicans and Dell Demps, however, did not back down, choosing to respond with force in wildly public negotiations. The Pelicans did not stop there. You see, a superstar trade request is a foundation shaking event. The Pelicans organization was forced into an early and comprehensive self reflection. They were acutely aware of the league-wide perception of a disinterested ownership which prioritizes football and cuts corners when it comes to the billion dollar basketball franchise it also owns. Despite emphatic internal claims that such a notion is completely false, the Pelicans organization knew that status quo was no longer an option. Thus another plan set in motion, concurrent with the trade handlings. This was the plan to build Gayle Benson.

The Strategy

Amid the chaos, the Pelicans ownership cohort saw an opportunity to not only overhaul the operations department, but to reshape the image that has become associated with the organization during the Davis era. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read this masterful article by Jason Calmes, take some time to digest it, as it painstakingly outlines the roles and responsibilities of those in the ownership trust. In the article, Jason suggests that the departure of a manager can be a way of empowering the successor. What Jason didn’t see, however, was the organization using the ousting of Dell Demps as the foundation to build the mythos of Gayle Benson. Every media release since the trade request, public or sourced, has generally done one of two things: associate Dell Demps with an unpopular position or frame Benson as a deeply committed and decisive owner.

From the start, the messaging form the Pelicans camp insinuated that this trade decision was not Demps’s to make. Nevermind that league sources tell Bourbon Street Shots that Demps never wanted the Lakers trade, period – he would not be owning the decision. It would be Gayle Benson “enthusiastically carrying the small-market banner, pushing back on any planned superstar union of James and Davis in the NBA’s glamour market.”  After the trade deadline passed and the Pelicans were faced with the decision to play or sit Davis, the organization deliberately attached Demps’s name to the press release declaring Davis will finish out the season as normal. It painted the decision as Demps’s and the organization was cognizant on possible lashback from the fanbase. Only later did reports surface that the NBA itself applied pressure on the organization to play Davis – to the tune of $100,000 per game if Davis and his agent were to succeed in the grievance they were threatening to file. I can’t say if the Pelicans organization foresaw the situation playing out in this fashion, but the pushback from the league and ensuing awkwardness set up the next sequence of events rather perfectly. Davis has played in 3 home games since the trade deadline, each accompanied with an orchestra of boos.  Fans watch in anger as the team appears largely listless each possession Davis is on the court. The spectacle precipitated this past Thursday when Davis ignominiously walked out of the Smoothie King Center mid-game, trailing agent, Rich Paul. Alvin Gentry was caught unaware in the postgame media scrum and rightfully livid. Ownership was as well, and by the next morning Dell Demps had been dismissed.

The series of statements around Dell Demps’s dismissal congeal to iterate a singular message – Gayle Benson is taking control. Once again, the Pelicans took to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN to relay their message.


“Ownership was livid with an injured Anthony Davis leaving arena during Thursday night’s game, sources say. Gayle Benson is telling associates she wants an overhaul of Pelicans and a search for a GM to take command of Davis trade talks and the reshaping of team’s future…Ownership’s plan with a new GM will be continuing to push back on Anthony Davis preferred trade destinations if they don’t make sense for Pels — especially with a full year left on his contract, per sources…Her mandate has been to “take back control from outside forces,” one league source told ESPN. Benson has been adamant with the organization about finding a pathway to sustainable winning in one of the league’s smallest markets and plans to be aggressive in pursuing the best available candidates to oversee basketball operations, league sources said.”

 

The official statement released by Greg Bensel (Senior Vice President of Communications and Broadcasting for the Pelicans) emphasized a similar sentiment, with this being a key focal point –

“We will immediately begin the process of restructuring our basketball operations department,” stated Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson. “This will include a comprehensive, but confidential, search aided by outside consultants to identify a new leader of our basketball operations, directly reporting to me.”

 

Emphasis mine. Can you see the picture now? A livid owner, heavily invested in the success of her franchise is pulling out all the stops to protect the future of her team. Meanwhile, there is a clear effort to scrub the Pelicans of the “football” image that has tainted them in the past. The previous organizational structure had Demps reporting directly to Mickey Loomis (Executive Vice President and General Manager of the New Orleans Saints). The Pelicans statement illustrates a clear departure from the previous structure to one that is directly headed by Gayle Benson. The new head of basketball operations is expected to have full authority to execute their vision (with normal ownership checks), and Loomis is expected to resume presiding over a football only role. That is the public message at least.

Operationally, there will probably be little change on a day to day basis. Why? Because Gayle Benson was always involved from the beginning. Mickey Loomis has always been more of an ownership figure largely away from basketball decisions than a guy checking Dell’s every move. It’s part of why the organization is incensed at the notion they care about football more and have emphatically denied any such accusations. But they saw the opportunity to correct the narrative and seized it. Gayle Benson’s name will be attached to every major release going forward. The organization will likely make her more front-facing than ever before in an effort to pull back the curtain. Yet behind the curtain, Benson will rely on her trusted advisers, Lauscha, Loomis, and Bensel, to oversee the day to day for both franchises – as is natural for any owner. The football boogeyman was always misguided in their eyes and this is their attempt to bury it. When the franchise is back on stable footing and trending in the right direction, Benson will scale back from the public and the new leader of basketball operations will grow into their own entity.  

Making The Mark

The organization is not out of the weeds yet. Two major decisions still loom outside of the Davis trade itself: what to do with Davis for the remainder of season, and who to hire as the lead decision maker for the Pelicans. The stage is set for Benson to put her stamp on the franchise as each owner before her has done. George Shinn brought the Hornets to New Orleans. David Stern commandeered the team from Shinn and vetoed the Chris Paul trade. Tom Benson stepped into fray by purchasing the team from the league and ushered in the Pelicans era. Gayle now has the opportunity to define the next era, and it starts with Davis. Demps has been set up as the fall guy quite nicely and the Pelicans have a chance to push back against any pressure from the league by decisively removing Davis from team activities. Force Davis and his representation to carry out their threat of a grievance after they made a total mockery of the Pelicans by leaving mid-game only to end up playing in Sunday night’s All-Star exhibition. Even if the Pelicans eventually end up losing the contest on legal standing, Benson will be seen as the owner who went to war for her team.

Next, the organization has to nail the next hire. This means not only selecting the right candidate, but enabling them with the financial resources to build a powerful operations team. Whether this structure comes under the common president – general manager organizational tree, or a simpler manager – assistant manager arrangement, the budget allotted to them will drive future success. How it is dressed up does not matter from a functional standpoint. A fleshed out staff is simply a meaningful way to overcome the handicap of being the smallest market in the NBA. In fact, one league source tells Bourbon Street Shots that a large budget will be a prerequisite for potential candidate, David Griffin, in conjunction with total control of personnel decisions. Benson has the chance to leave a long term imprint here and early reports suggest she has every plan of doing so.

All eyes will be on Benson over the next several months as they watch her navigate these difficult decisions. The fanbase is primed to buy into Benson as a cult hero, stepping in and erasing the mistakes of the past decade. Hope of a brighter future is easy to sell. It’s no coincidence that Demps was fired with season ticket renewals around the corner (and with All-Star Weekend to steal the attention). Demps dutifully did his job in the weeks leading to his dismissal,  and now ownership is up to bat. To the Pelicans credit, they have played the media game flawlessly over the past month. But it’s now time to execute. Everyone is watching – the Davis saga is the best show in the NBA.

 

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