Take a Bow

By:
Published: December 21, 2019

It’s been around eight months since the New Orleans Pelicans hired David Griffin to be the Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. His hiring was part of a major transformation of the franchise than included restructuring Basketball Operations, trading Anthony Davis, filling out the roster for this season and beyond including the draft of Zion Williamson, all while trying to pave the way for basketball and business success here in New Orleans. 

This is no easy task, and it’s not done by a sight. I’m going to give a glimpse into all this and discuss what has and has not worked. I’ll share up-front, in the spirit of the holidays, that I’m thankful for all the great things that have happened here in 2019, and the most important of those things may just turn out to be David Griffin. He does not play, and maybe people are forgetting that Griffin, not Zion, was the best acquisition 2019.

I’ll address these topics and some of the more controversial decisions Griffin has made. Before the losing streak, criticism of Griffin and the team has been veiled to non-existent, and now it’s been indirect in most cases. Don’t expect vitriol or a rant, but I definitely think there’s been a mistake, though I think many of the gripes about him are misplaced.

Basketball Operations

I laid out what needed to happen with the franchise in terms of restructuring, and it all came to pass and more. Danny Ferry steered the ship when long-time executive Dell Demps parted ways with the Pelicans, but he did not get the job despite his prior relationship with the team. David Griffin came in with a boatload of demands, and that boat was certainly not just a little pirogue. The NBA and G-League teams both have significant staffing changes with increased headcount and budget to boot.

I’m not here to talk about the specific additions, but the addition of Aaron Nelson as Vice President of Player Care and Performance is worth a mention. Nelson was the Head Athletic Trainer for the Suns when he was hired for this role. Nelson was regarded as the best in the business continually for years. It was not that there was no debate, there was simply no variance. This franchise was not regarded as having the “the best” of anything in Basketball Operations. Now they have the best. That’s a difference that makes a difference, and not just in that one department.

Trading Davis

The Anthony Davis trade worked out about as well as possible. His public trade demand, for the most part, forced the issue and virtually guaranteed that Davis would not have the opportunity to sign a third contract in New Orleans, something that clearly those that orchestrated the trade feared. The fear was not because New Orleans is a prime destination, but because Davis is simply not that strong of a personality. The deal they got spreads picks out over years and gave good value in the short term in terms of rookies with NBA promise. This haul included Brandon Ingram, whose stock is rising and plays a position of need across the NBA. The deal also left the Pelicans with financial flexibility to make some moves to bolster their rebuild. The deal left New Orleans with a myriad of options to react to how the NBA changes over the next couple of seasons. The long view is important, as there is a lease discussion that will be coming up sooner than later.

Roster Building

The drafting of Zion Williamson was not quite as a no-brainer as some might think. He certainly seemed a favorite to be drafted at the top spot, a privilege that came to them in part from their disaster of a season and in part through plain luck. Bringing in Zion the right way, laying the foundation for someone to sign that third contract is more important than holding onto someone who might go before the real value of the pick is realized. Trading picks and players to bring in a nice stable of young players while adding Favors, Redick, and Melli is a great use of resources with a good vision for the future. The team also resisted caving to the fourth year of Horford, and who knows what other crippling deals. 

Building for Success

Griffin is not in charge of the business side of the house, but his position and role means he absolutely affects those aspects of the franchise. He’s far more public than Dennis Lauscha, for instance. He has been involved in community outreach, season ticket relations, giving interviews, and some of the branding. I don’t personally resonate with “Won’t Bow Down,” but I get it. I applaud the attempt, and there really aren’t many slogans that would do much for me . . . that’s just me. I know others were high on this to start, as is to be expected from Pelicans Pravda and Pelicans Pravda Posers, but this has come down to Earth, and some are perhaps too harsh on it. If being publicly involved makes people feel better about him and his other decisions, fine.

He’s so public that Trajan Langon, the General Manager of the team, is rarely discussed. He’s managed the messaging for the team. The recent “racism” allegations coming out of Los Angeles not only failed to land, but a prompt retraction followed. It was a poor attempt at distraction, at best, but he still managed the situation well.

Injuries

Let’s start with the places where people are having some questions, and the injury situation will be up first. Every team has injuries, and some are to critical players. The Pelicans have objectively been among the most affected by injury over the past several years. This has caused people to point to “the medical staff.” While this is reasonable, it is not reasonable for the finger to point only to some vague generic staff. This was further complicated by parting the New Orleans Saints had with Dr. Misty Suri while the Pelicans retained his services. He is currently Director of Medical Services for the Pelicans.

The season started off the rails with Zion needing surgery. He was injured in Summer League before that. Many players have missed games due to injury on top of those missed for personal reasons or illness. The natural gripe is, “Wasn’t Nelson supposed to fix this?” 

Yes. He is, to some extent. Robin Lopez was not healthy in Phoenix, played 82 games in New Orleans, and has really been fine since, so he’s not magical. 

So why is this happening? Well, I think this is happening because the team is now dealing with issues early and in the right way. We’ve seen evidence that the culture is becoming more of “speak-up” about injury. They then decide what to play through, what to take a break from, etc. Burying the issues often prolongs the issue and worsens it, all with reduced performance in the meantime. This is the cost of doing things the right way. It’s an investment in the long-term. The injuries are not encouraging, but the reactions are. The real benefits are not going to be seen this season. Patience. Let the transition happen, and be ready to unleash rhetorical hell if it does not work.

Also, if you think it’s best to risk Zion so you can see another win this season, just stop reading, run away from this article, and never come back. You will never resonate with good sense.

Coaching

As soon as the losses mount, the calls come for the Head Coach’s head. This is simplistic, unrealistic, and just reactionary. Gentry can not and should not be judged apart from his staff. Changes were needed and changes were made, the most notable being the replacement of Darren Erman with Jeff Bzdelik. The record this season can not be separated from the injuries, but some point to what they see as obvious evidence that the coaching is substandard, particularly on defense.

I find this to be shallow. I’m more worried about the offense. I think the defense is on track, even if it’s not great now. I also think cake batter isn’t cake but realize that it’s a step; not everyone is blessed with such baking knowledge. The lack of “that guy” who can go score 50% of the time when the defense has its back against the wall is simply not on this team. Jrue might be, but not when he’s first banana. The defense has been simplified to ease implementation, but it will be deployed in full in time. Expect problems. If you don’t set your expectations correctly, that’s on you. 

Yes, I see the points given up. I also see the pace. There are efficiency issues, there are offensive issues that lead to bad defense (see: certain turnovers). I see personnel issues that are not permanent. I see a new system. The number of possessions amplifies the sense of sticker shock. There are issues everywhere, but I am more worried about the offense. 

There is also the question about if Gentry should have been retained. It was reported that Gentry staying was a pre-condition, but I find this farcical. It may have been said, but it’s not clear to me that this  would have held up under pressure, not from a guy like Griffin with the list of demands he had. I do think Gentry was the best option for a few reasons, not the least of which is the lack of good options. The situation did not lend itself to attracting a top coach. Taking a year to get things together under Gentry gives him an interview, but it also gives the team a year of “shine” to help attract the next coach. The rough year, should it come to pass, would be tied to Gentry, not the new coach. This is perfectly reasonable.

Gentry is not the guy, and they knew this the whole time. He’s a placeholder, and he’s performing admirably. How many others would make the honest effort he is under those circumstances? These aren’t the results people want, but if they were 13-17, people would be complaining about too many wins, calling for a “tanking.” So, spare me the analysis based on the pure nonsense that someone believes Gentry has a place here next season.

Setting the Tone

I don’t mind a tone-setting executive. This is a business, and they are supposed to sell the product. They are leaders. None of this is easy, and perfection is not the standard. Griffin did a great job of setting the tone, in my opinion. Some people have focused on isolated statements and say they feel misled. I’m sure they feel that way, but it’s not like Griffin failed to say that Zion is not going to save us or that fans should block out time for the Playoffs. Every team really believes they can optimize and that luck just might come in with an assist. Fans believe this, too. Griffin didn’t make anyone believe this team was going to be competing to go deep into the playoffs or walk away with awards. Griffin talked about Jrue being the MVP. This is clearly an emotive statement about the team and the city and the circumstances. Jrue is key here, and I want Griffin saying it because of the job he has. If he was an analyst saying that, I would have blocked him immediately.

Fans are going to complain after a loss, as they should, and pat everyone on the back after a win, as they should. Writers have to attract attention, so they will do that. None of this output has anything to do with facts or evidence or logic, really, but people treat like it does. I ignore this. Watching this collection of people become a team is a treat. Yes, it is tough at times, but this is what you all wanted. This is the draft picks. This is the youth. It’s not without a cost. That cost is now. Griffin is pointing to future we all believe is potentially there. He’s got the additional job of making it happen. Hold him to that.

Davis Tribute

This is a place where I’m going to come down squarely against Griffin. The organization absolutely should have given Davis a tribute video upon his return to New Orleans. The point here is not show appreciation to Davis, though you certainly need to do that. The point is to show class to others across the NBA. The point is to play the long game in changing the perception of the organization, especially after allegations that the situation was handled unprofessionally in many ways.

I understand the choice not to do. This game was quite early in the season, and fans have been consistently outspoken for nearly a year on the matter. Fans have booed images of Davis. A tribute video gone wrong is something that could be worse than no video. I get that. I respect the choice. It’s a choice that puts the dignity of Anthony Davis first. In that, I might be wrong to say that this is not the best choice, just a good one.

People also did not seem terribly upset by the lack of tribute, so perhaps my fear will turn out to be unfounded. It’s too early to tell, and really it’s hard to ever know. I just think you keep your eye on the long game, and you keep the most important messages aimed at the NBA, not local fans. 

Similarly, I don’t think bowing down to local fans is the right move in any case. The organization has a history of trying to control the message through a tight grip, all while they are actually reacting to the local sentiment, as opposed to the best choice for the franchise’s long-term health. For the most part, I think Griffin is handling this well, but I think people around him are not as versed in this brand of crowd control. Keep up the Won’t Bow Down stuff. Don’t do the not-announce-Gentry thing because of some fan reaction.

How can we believe the Won’t Bow Down thing, or any choice, when you bow to us? Isn’t this the single worst choice?

Everyone bows to someone. Choose wisely.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    December 22, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    I agree with everything you said

  2. Randy Buchert

    December 22, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    I agree with everything you said and hope that the pelicans have a bright future especially with these draft picks

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