Chaos A.D.: Timelines

Published: June 14, 2019

The New Orleans Pelicans find themselves in a strangely familiar position. Armed with the top pick in a draft with a atypically interesting top talent, the franchise is dealing with ownership and management changes while the current talent is in the process of bolting. The details differ from the 2011-2012 time frame and the actual figures are different, obviously, but the similarity is noteworthy.

It’s exactly this similarity that should give fans and critics of the team cause to worry, but it precisely the differences where the hope for a better turn of events springs forth.

In the end, what the franchise needs more than anything is humility. More than Zion, more than cap assets, more than luck . . . humility.

What Went Wrong

Was it “young vets”? No. There’s nothing wrong with “young vets.” There’s nothing wrong with trading picks for known quantities. Cost control matters, especially when you operate with room, but most teams do not as a matter of course. As long as you are willing to spend, the cost does not matter. The Pelicans have not been particularly cost-conscious. Some writers, some respected and some that should not be respected will disagree here and spout rumor or actual reports from the disgruntled, but the fact is the Pelicans spent a ton, overpaid, and were often bumping against the hard cap. You can call their spending unwise, but lack of spending has not been the issue. There were certain times when their mechanisms to add players were limited, and that is a valid criticism, but it is a different criticism.

Was it Davis not being a leader or not good enough? No. There’s nothing wrong with that. Davis, as I said so many years ago, should have been the basis for every single decision the franchise made, including how to account for his shortcomings (every player has shortcomings). His game developed over time, he worked. He’s not perfect, he’s not above or immune from criticism, but this is not where you point to find the problem.

Was it any particular deal, like Asik or Gordon? No. Teams overpay and survive. Teams deal with injuries and survive. Teams acquire those contracts or worse and shed them and survive. These did not help, but they did not pull the thread that unraveled the sweater.

Was it luck? Well, yes, some . . . but what can be done about that? Regarding injuries, one might say, “Invest in the right staff, and look, we did that now.” Ok, maybe that helps some, but what about all the other injuries around the NBA? Is that some deficiency in the staffs of those teams? Are the Warriors some podunk franchise that does not care about players or invest in them? That’s ludicrous, and I’m not regarding luck as a plan. Everything is “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

What Went Wrong

What went wrong was this Icarian chase to get Davis to sign the third contract. This was the proper goal, of course, as I’ve said consistently for years. The problem was the chaser. The franchise simply was not prepared to undertake the chase. They tried and found themselves simply lacking in the end. They did not take the hard road of developing themselves in hopes of being able to get that third contract inked.

Let me be explicit: This is not a criticism of Dell Demps. Dell Demps did the job that was asked of him by his bosses, and that’s why his bosses rewarded him with multiple extensions during his time here. He is far from mistake-free, but he was a good GM and will be again.

This is a criticism of ownership and their inabilty to grow the organization internally. The Benson organization runs on trust in much the same way a family does. I think, in the end, people will see just how true these words are. They are more true than you can imagine at this time, I do believe. When an organization runs on trust so much more than expertise, decision-making becomes difficult when expertise is lacking, but growth becomes even more so. If you want to make a change, how to do you know when the time is right? How do you know you are making a positive change? The best change? If you go to get advice, how do you know you can trust the adviser? These questions inevitably lead to substandard decisions that get reinforced when they work “enough.” This is a vicious cycle that is extremely hard to break.

This is what went wrong: the organization simply could not recognize what was not working, made poor decisions, and had them executed effectively. The staff had a little turnover given their record, and the same for management. Consultants and advisers were added, but these were at low levels, at the Demps level at best. Ownership had nothing.

I’m not painting a picture here of a haughty “fat cat” trying to grab control and damn the torpedoes against all the best advice.

The Benson organization saved this franchise and did their best. As an objective, if grateful, analyst of the team, I have to call it like it is, and their valiant and well-intention efforts at the dawn of their reign simply were not at the level of super-experienced teams. This is an explanation only intended to show cause-effect, not blame.

How to Get Right

Well, to some extent, the organization is on the right path. They hired David Griffin, a talented, experienced, and sought-after NBA mind. They gave him the keys to the castle and the safe. This is the kind of move needed. It’s perhaps a shame that the time is now, not earlier, but maybe this all works out anyway. Let’s see how the movie ends before we judge the ending.

This is one change of many, but it reflects the real change that was necessary: humility.

The organization has to recognize that it can not recognize its own flaws, at least not yet. This is amazingly difficult to do for experts, but it may be that this is being addressed by bringing in some outside perspective. This is by far the most exciting aspect of the Griffin hire to me. Once you identify problems, good owners will address them. Truly addressing them will take more than money and talent. It will take time for results, then more for NBA-opinion to change, and NBA-opinion matters more than the ability to offer a max contract.

It may be that this Davis situation precipitated the change. It may be Mrs. Gayle stepping into the spotlight. I think it’s a combination of a few necessary things, but I think the real key here is Adam Silver.

Mrs. Gayle has said she and Silver have talked, but I think Silver has a special interest in this situation. It’s clear the NBA wanted and got the Benson organization into its ownership group, and the value of New Orleans has proved its value time and again, notably with their All-Star Games. Silver was involved in the “New Orleans situation” from nearly the beginning, becoming Deputy Commissioner in July 2006, and the endorsement to become Commissioner came about just a few months after the Bensons purchased the franchise. Her relationship with Adam Silver is, therefore, at least as long as her formal relationship with the NBA. Given the way he carries himself, which is as a top-shelf leader of business and of people, he would be the person she trusts the most in the wider NBA circle.

So we have NBA interest in New Orleans, trust from New Orleans back to Silver and the NBA. Let’s add one more thing: this little Davis situation. This little Davis situation has got to the the top issue for the NBA owners. No, not because blah blah star blah blah market. That’s stupid.

Here’s the issue. A star under contract to “Team X” decides he wants a trade. He and his agent make a public demand to be traded to “Team Y.” It does not really matter, but let’s say that Team X has been doing things “the wrong way,” whatever that is, losing, etc., and Team Y has been doing things “the right way,” whatever that is, winning or playing in a way that writers believe they’ll win one day (e.g. Thunder Model . . . whoops!). So what happens? Team X loses some games, their fans get mad, etc . . . and Team Y implodes and explodes at the same time, which is insulting and injurious particularly if it’s because they are doing things the right way, and it is in part because of franchises doing things the wrong way.

Since any of the 29 teams could be pointed to without their consent and destroyed potentially because they did a good job, owners should be lined up, ready to stop this from ever happening again. Agents should align with them as well, as that kind of tactic is not something they would all employ, and destabilizing franchises makes their job harder and the majority of their clients unhappy. Davis can leave NOLA, as him leaving is not the issue. Players and agents randomly destroying franchises that player is not under contract to is. Now, I do not know how much the Lakers’ brass, including Ms. Buss knew about this public trade demand, but in the end, the issue is that it can happen without ownership involvement.

The Davis situation is not only an opportunity for the Pelicans to grow, it is a prompt for the NBA to take advantage of that opportunity to try to put its thumb on the scale a bit to make sure that the trade demanded happens in a way that is not “gun to the head.” Davis can go to the Lakers or anywhere else, but it is best for the NBA as a whole if that Klutch tactic is never used again. The best way is to ensure that it does not work as-intended. A fair trade is fine. Better is if he waits to go or is traded elsewhere, or signs an extension.

So, I can see Silver giving Mrs. Gayle and the ownership-level people (Lauscha, Loomis, Bensel) the playbook of how to improve. I can also see Silver playing a role in Griffin ending up in New Orleans, gaining assurances that Griffin’s demands would be met and that he would have time to deal with this situation, then get the rest of his people in once he knows what the post-Davis team looks like, and then build.

So, I’m very encouraged, and Zion is but a detail. Getting Zion does not matter if he does not stay. Getting him to stay will be the issue, just like with Davis. I think the humility that was needed is showing, but it needs to remain. I do not want to see some jump-started team focused on winning. I want to see a team that is focused on developing Zion, trying to develop or acquire players that will complement him, and winning as much as possible while that is happening. I’m not using “development” as code for tanking or just flat out being a bad team. I need to see a franchise developing itself and not pretending it has “arrived.”

I want to see three years of Zion developing, of finding out the kind of game he needs to play, what his weaknesses are, the kinds of players he needs around him. Take a year to find the right coach . . . maybe head coach, maybe not. Take time to find the players to support and elevate him or develop them. Bring in overpriced, good vets with future draft picks or young players to help build the future and the asset bag while you have guys who can play and teach Zion how to be a champion, not a player, on and off the court. I do not want to subordinate these important Zion-focused goals to those of vets whose championship timelines as top-three players on a team do not line up with Zion’s arc. Wins matter, and we need them, but as much as Zion . . . on a third contract.

If we have the humility, great, now give me three years of patience.

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