The Path Forward: Looking to the Past

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

What can the past tell us about the future?

Check out my article from last week, The Path Forward: Free Agent Market.

Dell Demps has set forth a clear modus operandi for the then-Hornets/now-Pelicans acquiring talent.  This pattern of behavior is something we can look to in order to predict what kinds of moves he may attempt to make in the future.  I have taken the time to plot out each move Demps has had a hand in since his arrival to the then-New Orleans Hornets on July 21st, 2010.

An Impossible Situation

Dell Demps was hired after the 2010 Free Agent rush.  "The Decision" headlined that Free Agent class but a number of free agents changed teams.  Carlos Boozer, Al Jefferson, and Amar'e Stoudemire all were signed to big contracts at new addresses.  The Hornets made no significant moves beyond firing their old GM and sitting out of the festivities.  This lack of action brought the Hornets a grade of 28th out of 30 teams from David Aldridge.  Take a look at the recap.

THE KEY MAN: Team president Hugh Weber.

The son-in-law of current owner George Shinn has put himself on the hot seat with his decision to fire the popular Bower and former head coach Byron Scott, and to hire rookies in Williams and Demps at the team's critical positions at the most critical stage for the franchise since Hurricane Katrina forced the team to move to Oklahoma City for two years. Chris Paul has leaked word to his favorite media outlets that he wants out of the Crescent City, and has helpfully provided a list of teams to whom he'd like to go. It will be up to Weber to keep Paul's powder dry while Demps figures out some way to dramatically improve the team without getting anywhere near the luxury tax.

THE SKINNY: Wasn't it just yesterday when Paul was throwing oops to Tyson Chandler, and New Orleans Arena was rocking, and the Hornets were the Next Big Thing in the Western Conference? Now New Orleans is facing doom, with Paul's trade demand. The only positive is that he can't contractually leave for two more years, and that gives the Hornets some time. They got two good pieces in the Draft with Brackins and Pondexter, but they need a superstar in country soon to keep Paul's feet from falling asleep. And nobody will take Emeka Okafor's huge contract off their hands.

Brackins was traded before he ever played a game in New Orleans to Philadelphia with Darius Songalia for Willie Green and Jason Smith. He played in just 17 NBA games in his career, compiling just 30 points.  You may notice that Brackins and Songalia logged just 192 minutes in Philadelphia after that trade and were never heard from in the NBA again.  Dell's first real trade, shipping off a draft pick selected by his predecessor and a journeyman big man who couldn't rebound, continues to be a rousing success.

As the above notes, Demps walked in the door to a trade demand from his star player (due in no part to his own actions), a terrible ownership situation, and a rookie head coach he did not hire.  In another pre-season trade Demps sent New Orleans 1st Round Pick to Portland for Jerryd Bayless.  That future pick would change hands two more times (first packaged in a trade to Charlotte, then after being used to draft Tobias Harris, traded to Milwaukee on draft day) before it ever became a player on the basketball court.  The value of a late first round draft pick was different before the lockout.

On November 20th, after the Hornets started the season 10-1, Demps traded Bayless and Peja Stojakovic for Jarrett Jack and some salary floatsam.  It was an obvious "win-now" move to attempt to placate Paul and had the added benefit of bringing in one of Paul's alleged best friends onto the team.  Just a month into his first season the then-Hornets were purchased by the NBA itself.  At the trade deadline Demps sent local hero Marcus Thornton to Sacramento for Carl Landry.

Succumb to a Superstar

After a lengthy lockout which shortened the NBA season by nearly two months (and 16 games) Demps came back with a renewal of Chris Paul's trade demand.  Under the new ownership (of the NBA) Demps first attempted to trade Paul to the Lakers in return for Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom, and Luis Scola.  The NBA owners and David Stern shot that deal down.  A superstar being traded to a marquee franchise for the entirety of a 7th seed was a bridge to far in the fall out of the lockout and apparent victory of the (small market) owners.

Again Demps was back on the phones with new marching orders.  This is important to understand, Demps made a deal that brought back the Hornets a bevy of competent NBA players and his boss told him that was not going to fly.  With his new directive Demps eventually sealed a deal to send Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, AL-Farouq Aminu, and Minnesota's completely unprotected first round pick.

The Minnesota pick was the crown jewel of this trade, then and now.  At the time Minnesota was projected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA, clocking in it at a 24.5-41.5 record according to Las Vegas, 7th worst in the NBA.  The Timberwolves exceeded those projections going 26-40 while a number of teams were terrible, led by the Charlotte Bobcats worst NBA season ever record of 7-59.  The Minnesota pick was ultimately 10th overall, and turned into Austin Rivers.

By season's end the Hornets were the third worst team in the NBA (21-45, .318), tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  In good news, the Hornets were finally sold by the NBA to Saints owner Tom Benson just before the end of the season and the team appeared locked into the New Orleans market long term.

Lottery Luck

Winning the NBA lottery is luck, pure and simple.  Even the Bobcats, who were worse than an NBA team had ever been, had a 75% chance of not winning the number one pick.  Keep that information in mind when the next Philadelphia comes along promising riches if the team will only bottom out.  The Hornets won the NBA lottery and with it the right to draft Anthony Davis.

The rest of the summer was very busy for Mr. Demps.  Before the draft itself he traded Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza to the Washington Wizards for Rashard Lewis and the 46th pick (Darius Miller).  This opened up a ton of salary cap space for future moves.  After the draft Demps traded Gustavo Ayon and some of that cap space in a sign-and-trade for Ryan Anderson.  In his second move, he matched the max offer (with the fourth year as a player option) from Phoenix to Eric Gordon.  The final move was another sign-and-trade, this time for Robin Lopez.

The key (and we will come back to this) is the sign-and-trade for Ryan Anderson.  The Orlando Magic were a team in transition.  They had fired both the coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith.  Later that summer they would also succumb to their superstar and trade Dwight Howard.  Dell Demps trades with a brand new front office for a solid player as the former team begins a rebuild.  Remember this theme.

Injury Luck

The 2012-2013 New Orleans Hornets did not have a lot of good luck.  Eric Gordon continued to struggle with injuries after leaving his heart in Phoenix.  Anthony Davis finished second in the rookie of the year vote largely on his inability to remain in the lineup.  The defensive tandem of Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez turned out to be disasterous and the Hornets finished the season 5th worst in the league (27-55, .329).  A minor improvement over the first year after trading away a superstar, but hardly earth shattering.  The lottery this time was unkind as the Washington Wizards leaped over the now New Orleans Pelicans, pushing their pick back to 6th overall.  Again Demps would return to his recipe for collecting talent.

On draft night the Pelicans selected Nerlens Noel with the 6th overall pick.  Noel was traded that night along with the Pelicans 2014 First Round Pick (top five protected) for Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson.  How is this related to the Demps theme?  Like Orlando before the Ryan Anderson sign-and-trade, Philadelphia lost their head coach, Doug Collins, who resigned after the 2013 season and hired a new GM, Sam Hinkie formerly of the Houston Rockets.  A brand new front office team is brought in and sweeps the decks of quality players in order to tank, Dell Demps is there to pick up those quality players.

Free Agency started with a bang for the Pelicans.  Dell Demps met with Tyreke Evans right at the opening bell, ultimately working out a three team sign and trade.  Like Orlando and Philadelphia, Sacramento was a franchise in transition.  First, the team had just been sold (and thankfully kept in Sacramento) to Vivek Ranadive.  One of the first things Ranadive did was bring on former Hornets assistant Mike Malone as the new head coach.  Topping off the makeover, the Kings brought in a new GM, Pete D'Alessandro, just weeks later.  New front office faces, old players are on there way out, Dell Demps is there looking for players on their way out.

Despite the influx of talent, injuries again greatly effected the New Orleans Pelicans.  Ryan Anderson played just 22 games.  Jrue Holiday played just 34 games.  Tyreke Evans did not start until February 27th and struggled without Ryan Anderson around.  Jason Smith needed knee surgery.  All in all, 15 different Pelicans started a game this season, including two (Alexis Ajinca and Luke Babbitt) who were not even on an NBA roster to begin the season.  The Pelican opening night starting lineup (this even excludes Ryan Anderson) missed 134 games (Holiday - 48, Gordon - 18, Aminu - 2, Davis - 15, Smith - 51).  Portland, to compare, lost just 13 games, all due to LaMarcus Aldridge missing games with a groin and back injury on two separate stints.  Turns out that losing starters 1030% (no, that's not a misprint) more than other teams in the conference has negative effects.

Rebuilding in the Western Conference

In the face of all these injuries New Orleans still found a way to improve to 34-48 (.415) in the third year of their rebuild. Comparing their progress to other famous rebuilds is enlightening. For this exercise I will use Western Conference teams who made the playoffs this season and had missed the playoffs at least three times in a row through some method of rebuilding (losing to win) in the last decade. Oklahoma City/Seattle, the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, and Memphis qualify.  San Antonio, Houston, Portland, and Dallas do not.

Franchise Year W L % Finish
NOLA 2011-12 21 45 0.318 28th
NOLA 2012-13 27 55 0.329 26th
NOLA 2013-14 34 48 0.415 21st
NOLA 2014-15 ?? ?? 0.??? ??
SEA 2005-06 35 47 0.427 21st
SEA 2006-07 31 51 0.378 26th
SEA 2007-08 20 62 0.244 29th
OKC 2008-09 22 60 0.268 27th
OKC 2009-10 50 32 0.610 12th
MEM 2006-07 22 60 0.268 30th
MEM 2007-08 22 60 0.268 28th
MEM 2008-09 24 58 0.298 26th
MEM 2009-10 40 42 0.488 19th
MEM 2010-11 46 36 0.561 12th
LAC 2007-08 23 59 0.280 25th
LAC 2008-09 19 63 0.232 28th
LAC 2009-10 29 53 0.354 23rd
LAC 2010-11 32 50 0.390 23rd
LAC 2011-12 40 26 0.606 8th
GSW 2008-09 29 53 0.354 24th
GSW 2009-10 26 56 0.317 26th
GSW 2010-11 36 46 0.439 20th
GSW 2011-12 23 43 0.348 24th
GSW 2012-13 47 35 0.573 10th

For New Orleans to miss the playoffs for just three years (2012, 2013, 2014) in the Western Conference and turn it around would be extraordinary. As we can see from the above, each rebuild took at least four years of lottery picks (and luck) to turn a losing franchise into a winner.  In addition each team got a significant shot in the arm in their "leap" season.  For Oklahoma City, it was drafting James Harden and Serge Ibaka along with the tremendous growth of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  For Memphis it was signing Tony Allen.  The Clippers traded for Chris Paul to get out of the lottery.  Golden State finally got healthy and traded Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut.  Rebuilding in the Western Conference is a tough road to hoe.  One made even tougher by Houston gaining both James Harden and Dwight Howard while San Antonio refuses to age.

Next week I will apply the Dell Demps plan to this summer; looking at what the past can tell us about the future.

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