The Super-Max has failed – the importance of small market teams recognizing why

The failure of the super-max


       New Orleans lost Anthony Davis, San Antonio lost Kawhi Leonard. These players left remarkably different situations for the same reason, they weren’t happy – one decided to leave a heralded franchise where he had won a championship, and finals MVP, the other decided to leave one of the NBA’s youngest franchises after 7 years of personal disappointment. Whatever their reasons were, they wanted out. Even though both the Pelicans and Spurs could offer Davis and Leonard one thing no other team could – The designated player exception (the supermax). Leonard lost money twice, from getting traded to Toronto, to then leaving Toronto, he took monetary hits each time. Davis lost the ability to sign the 5 year 240 million dollar extension the second he exchanged the Crescent City for the City of Angels. Rachel Nichols on the Lowe Post podcast described this as teams no longer being able to “bribe” players. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a recent conference when the NBA shortened contracts they knew it would increase player movement. These astronomically important decisions by the league have now combined to create a tumultuous whirlwind where something unprecedented hits the NBA landscape every few months. 


        Anthony Davis asked for a trade mid season with a year and a half left on his contract, he is than traded to exactly where he wanted to go – The Los Angeles Lakers. Kawhi Leonard won a championship with the Toronto Raptors and a few weeks later he strikes a deal with The Los Angeles Clippers, not only that, he convinced Paul George to ask for a trade to the clippers with THREE years left on his deal – and he succeeded. Yes, both of these teams share the fact that they are in the same market, but they are vastly different franchises. Davis wanted to go play with one of the two greatest players ever in Lebron James on the Lakers. Leonard and George probably just wanted to go home, and play with each other. The fact is players are giving up money for personal happiness, while also being able to earn near equal revenue they give up from the league elsewhere via endorsements. The next evolution in retaining a franchises star talent is not being able to pay them the most, it’s being able to give that player personal fulfillment, happiness. Location might always play a factor in these situations as players often want to play in New York and California, but if you have an ownership group and front office executives that recognize this new wave, where money is one of the last things of importance to a player, and can strive to make a franchise a place players want to come – it is possible for success. The New Orleans Pelicans have this – In David Griffin and Gayle Benson.


Recognizing the move.


        David Griffin not only recognizes why supermax eligible players are changing teams, he understands it. During a recent episode of “The Woj Pod” he elaborates that “in most cases of supermax players that have been moving, they are signature shoe guys, have their own shoe, brand line, they make enough money they can take risks players didn’t use to take.” There is so much money being made off the court, incentivizing the upper echelon of the NBA to stay via money is no longer a viable option. Since league earnings are no longer enough to incentivize players to stay long term, how do you do it? Is there a right answer? Probably not. There might not be a right answer, but there is an effort. Being able to show an NBA player that you as a franchise are about the right things, openness, winning, community, and trust is the first step. In a rare move and a league so often filled with misdirection, Griffin has been open and honest about plans for the franchise and how he wants to build a family environment. 


Keeping the Stars. 


        If we’re speaking about the theme of openness and honesty, David Griffin told us exactly his plans for free agency, and not only that, he was able to execute it. He told us he wants veteran players who are outstanding people and it’s an extra bonus if they can play, and play well. He told us we needed shooting and defense. Saying he wants to lead the league in pace, but also be the first team ever to defend just as well as they run. The Pelicans actually might be able to accomplish this. He’s preached about being able to have a clear vision and executing that vision, it’s starting to come into focus. In free agency he put his money where is mouth is, signing JJ Redick, Nicolo Melli, and trading for Derrick Favors. Griffin and GM Trajan Langdon appear to have a vision of allowing the team to compete in the short term and yet maintain long-term flexibility while Zion Williamson learns the ways of the NBA and Jrue Holiday is able to lead the team. Redick is a 35 year old sharpshooting veteran and probably one of the two best free agents New Orleans has ever signed, he happens to be an alumnus of Duke, much like Zion Williamson, Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, and Brandon Ingram, they refer to it as a “brotherhood” not a bad look for a veteran mentor who can still play. Derrick Favors is a tough big man who plays defense, and excels in the mid court game. Melli is an unknown commodity but extensively scouted by Langdon, and a few NBA teams have tried to bring over in the past, In theory Melli should be able to space the floor and facilitate as a big man. 


         Incoming incumbent star and number one overall pick Zion Williamson will be entering a situation where the pressure won’t be all on him, there won’t be 3 years of tanking and 19-25 win seasons while just trudging along hoping to one day field a good team. Griffin and GM Trajan Langdon have made sure that the second Zion steps onto the floor, the Pelicans will be competing. Rookies need good veterans, New Orleans has provided the incoming rookie class with some of the best in Favors, Holiday, and Redick. The Pelicans should be able to compete for a playoff spot immediately. 


         On to competing –  the other star in New Orleans, Jrue Holiday has to be shown that this is a place he can win or you risk losing him too. Griffin has said that this is Jrue’s team and the team is built around him, while Zion can learn the ins and outs of the NBA. That is pressure off the number 1 pick immediately, however you look at it. He’s told Jrue “Do you want to keep being the most underrated guard, or do you want to be the MVP?” competitors like to be challenged, and that is a hefty one. 


        The Pelicans franchise is on the right path, the team has a ton of talent even if there are questions around that talent from the Anthony Davis package, they have a veteran star in Jrue Holiday, they have a rookie Phenom in Zion, the right veterans are here. But even the best laid plans go awry, what this has to be from top to bottom is something this franchise has never been before – a place players want to be. A family environment, where it’s enjoyable to go to work everyday, where you can trust the front office to take the necessary steps it takes to win basketball games. If the franchise can provide these things, the splendor of Los Angeles or New York might not call so fervently like the past stars of the Crescent City. It’s not possible to know exactly what makes people happy, but you can identify the things that are important to them and strive to fulfill what they need, to hell with the supermax contract, be a place deserving of the talent. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the first bricks have been laid, and that’s all you can ask for.

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