This off-season, the Pelicans’ front office made a series of franchise altering decisions. These decisions, like most involving NBA personnel, were a series of calculated gambles, successive judgments based on the estimated value of unknown quantities. Surrendering Nerlens Noel and a first round pick for Jrue Holiday, acquiring Tyreke Evans, and keeping Eric Gordon (for now), all pivotal decisions, are the product of a consistent ideology. Exactly what this ideology is, however, remains to be seen.
Several theories have emerged attempting to explain the Pelicans’ interesting, divisive offseason. In acquiring Holiday and Evans and retaining Gordon, the Pelicans gambled on three players similar in ways beyond their positions and playing styles. All three, unlike the assets surrendered in exchange, have proven to be valuable NBA contributors, yet still have significant upside. Rather than endure the developmental process of Noel and the future pick, the Pelicans pursued players capable of immediate production. Though the future value of this production may not exceed the potential value of Noel and a high pick in a supposedly loaded draft, there is far less risk of continued failure.
Though some teams are able to maintain profits in down years (Notably, the Miami Heat, despite all the criticism their fans receive, generated 99.3 percent attendance during 2007-08, the year they went 15-67), the Pelicans occupy the league’s smallest TV market and likely have to maintain a modicum of success to attract the attention required to fill a stadium, purchase merchandise, and merit more profitable TV deals. According to Forbes, the Pelicans, valued at $340 million, generated only $3.3 million in pre-tax profits last season. “Sports are a business,” or so he cliché goes. Though the front office, repeatedly adding guaranteed salary, is by no means treating the Pelicans like the cash cow the Maloofs attempted to create in Sacramento, perhaps their decisions were influenced by financial goals.
It has been rumored that the decision to pursue immediate value was promoted by new owner Tom Benson, the 87 year old whose tenure may not last through an extended rebuild. With Holiday, Evans, and Gordon joining Anthony Davis, the Pelicans appear prepared to be immediately competitive while retaining loftier long-term goals.
Equally possible is the suggestion that recent decisions were simply an intelligent personnel move, the product of player evaluations and risk analysis. Dell Demps, Monty Williams, and the Pelicans front office may simply have decided that Jrue Holiday is highly likely to be better than both Noel and the future pick. This is not an unforeseeable conclusion. Holiday has displayed significant talent on both offense and defense, and rated well statistically before a post-all star crash.
However, one potential facet in the Pelicans’ decision-making process has remained generally unacknowledged. The effects of these transactions, though often analyzed a single events, are a part of a process towards success. This process consists of several steps beyond player acquisition. The relationship between the new additions and the incumbent roster is as important in determining the merit of the decisions as the relationship between assets gained and lost.
When judging the estimated value of a transaction it is important to regard team performance given each circumstance in addition to the prospective individual production.
Despite all their recent activity, the Pelicans ceiling remains on the shoulders of Anthony Davis. It would take a man of Davis’s wingspan to display the lengths of his enormous potential. If the inconceivably young star (at least for people who cannot fathom the existence of numbers past 19) can reach his potential, the Pelicans may aspire to heights never before attained in franchise history.
In a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Grantland NBA analyst Zach Lowe mentioned conversing with executives around the league who believe that the Pelicans are gambling on Anthony Davis becoming an elite player. In addition to bringing their individual production, the Pelicans’ acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans and the decision to retain Eric Gordon may be an attempt to assist the development of Anthony Davis.
Greivis Vasquez, for all his passing ability, never drew much attention as a pick and roll partner. Jrue Holiday, who scored a decent 0.78 points per possession in the pick and roll last season, will consistently attract more defensive attention than Vasquez. With Gordon and Evans prepared for secondary pick and rolls, Anthony Davis will likely be the screen-setting fulcrum of a fast paced pick and roll heavy offense. Though these judgements cannot be certain, it is possible that the front office deemed a well spaced offense requiring constant action from Davis more beneficial to his development. With Holiday, Gordon, or Evans as a creator, Davis may be able to receive the ball more often in a pick and roll, as defenses will no longer view him as the primary threat.
Working as Jrue Holiday’s pick and roll/pop partner, Thaddeus Young has developed into a significant offensive weapon. Holiday’s ability to make passes to various locations on the move while drawing the defense, a trait not replicated by Vasquez, should help add variety to Davis’ game as he is exposed to a variety of situations.
In his years of off ball work in Sacramento, Tyreke Evans developed his ability to time and execute key off ball actions. Though he may not consistently play wing in New Orleans, he adds a degree of off and on ball creativity not previously present. Playing along side wings such as Al-Faroq Aminu and Darius Miller does not necessitate the variety of quick reads necessary to take advantage of off ball cuts and flares that Evans provides.
Defensively, forcing Davis to take increased long term responsibility in the absence of Noel may also create long term benefits. As the sole rim protector, Davis will have to hone the rotation and timing skills not necessarily required with Noel as backup.
This is mere postulation, but Anthony Davis is the future of the New Orleans Pelicans. The front office most definitely realizes this, and I expect that they consider his development the top priority. This off-season’s series of significant decisions was likely a product of various goals, judgments, and agendas. However, their relationship to the franchise’s true determinant should not go unnoticed.