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The Pelicans Long Game: Restarting a Franchise

When "winning now" is not "win now."

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans are in "win now" mode, in case you missed various basketball pundits in the last four months. This diagnosis of course means that the Pelicans somehow either see themselves on the same footing as the Heat, Bulls, Thunder, and Spurs or we need to reassess exactly what "win now" means. I, instead, would posit that the Pelicans are concerned with "winning now" (specifically more often than they lose) rather than "win now" (necessitating a legitimate run at the championship this year). While this appears to be nuanced, it is quite straightforward. Allow me to explain...

First, go read this piece. "Winning now" is important to the Pelicans right now. Not because Tom Benson is in his eighties. Not because it finally settled into a home nest for a decade. "Winning now" is important because it increases the value of nearly everything attached to the franchise. In the process of winning it is the hope that the franchise can secure the services of Anthony Davis until he retires from the NBA. Something that the franchise failed to do with Chris Paul and suffered greatly thanks to those mistakes.

"Win now" led to the then Hornets committing $64 Million to 29 year old Peja Stojakovic in 2006. "Win now" is signing 32 year old James Posey for $25 Million in 2008. "Win now" is expecting Trevor Ariza to be a scorer in 2010. Bringing in players on the back end of their NBA career or expecting a sudden revelation of basketball ability to occur. That's "win now".

"Winning now" is different. Instead, it is acquiring known NBA commodities (draft picks are unknown commodities, the equivalent to lottery tickets in a quite literal sense) as they enter their athletic peak. And it is asking them to do what they have already done in the NBA, or to be tasked with an even lighter load. GM Dell Demps incessantly refers to his desire to bring "young veterans" to the roster. The current average age is 24.3. The oldest player is Anthony Morrow at 28. The core of the rotation (Davis, Anderson, Evans, Gordon, Holiday) is locked up for the next three seasons.

It is difficult to see the long game when everyone is concerned with the here and now. But what the Pelicans are doing is not about winning a championship this year, or even next year. Their window is not opening for a while. The Daquiri Drive-Thru Window won't even serve Anthony Davis yet for goodness sake! It is about those three and five year plans that you hear about from guidance counselors at school, career mentors at work, or your parents wondering if you and your significant other are going to pop out a grandchild or two already.

Did I hit everyone? I think so... Unless you're on the "being the parent" end. But at that point I shouldn't have to explain in detail a five year plan...

The Daquiri Drive-Thru Window won't even serve Anthony Davis yet for goodness sake!

Everything about this franchise is screaming "we are going to get better this year, get on at the ground floor now." The team motto they use on their twitter feed and printed on tickets (I have mine for the Indiana game!) is #TakeFlight. That isn't "Now arriving at your destination", that is "Please proceed to the New Orleans Arena to board". Even still, it is not only about selling tickets or building a fan base.

The Long Game

I am confident that the Pelicans front office looked at their roster this year going into the draft and determined two concrete things. One, the team would be better this year. Two, other franchises in the NBA are going to get worse on purpose. In the face of that information tanking is ruled out immediately. I look at DraftExpress and cannot get myself excited about having the 10-14 pick next summer. A lot is made that the Pelicans traded Nerlens Noel, but it could have easily have been Oladipo or Bennett. I guarantee you if it was Bennett and next year's first round pick for Holiday the reaction would not have been nearly as negative. That 15 minute window of "Block City" captivated many hoop heads. Oh, and then there is this to consider...

Other factors also must be considered. As I have written previously, all cap space is not equal. The Pelicans could have had $20 Million in cap space next year. And LeBron James still isn't signing in New Orleans. Dallas is a perfect example of the gamble that is stockpiling cap space. Dallas had "Max Contract" cap space two years in a row, an NBA Finals MVP, a dedicated owner, and amazing facilities. Look at that roster. Really look deep into their sorrow. Every player making more than $5 Million this season is 27 or older. The average age of the starting lineup (Calderon, Carter, Marion, Nowitski, Wright) is 32.8!

But it goes beyond the perils of cap space. The Pelicans are in one of the most competitive divisions in all of sports. Every opponent finished .500 or better. And the landscape of that division is going to change dramatically in three years. Nowitski will be 38, Duncan 40, Ginobli 39, Randolph 35. The Pelicans need to be ready to strike when the time is right. Those four individuals personify their respective franchises (Randolph likely the least) and their departure will create opportunities. Before you ask, yes I realize that Houston is also in the division.

A franchise cannot #TakeFlight with a roster of capable bench contributors, one potentially transcendent superstar, and the promise of draft picks or cap space in the future. Maybe if that franchise is moving to a new location with a rabid fan base (see OKC, circa 2008) but one staying in place. It can risk alienating its best player with promises of draft picks (see Kyrie Irving comments at the end of last season) and a lack of on court progress.

Understand the Destination

This is going to be unpopular with some fans (especially if things break our way as Pelican fans and the team really meshes) but I must bear the bad news. The Pelicans, as currently constructed, will not win an NBA Championship. Furthermore, if Anthony Davis becomes a top 5 NBA player like most anticipate, it is unlikely that the core of this team will be intact to raise the banner. Some might call this a waste or stopgap. I disagree, it is the reality of the NBA. If everyone really clicks one of the core will likely price themselves out of New Orleans.

We can enjoy the ride though. The goal of players (and fans) is to win championships. Following Jim Irsay recently it appears even owners have the ultimate goal of winning championships. I disagree at the macro-level. Owners and GMs cannot determine who wins or loses a championship. They can put their franchise in a position to compete year in and year out. But ultimately it is up to the players, and beyond that truly decided by execution, match ups, and luck.

If Patrick Beverly doesn't run over Russell Westbrook do the Grizzlies even get to the Western Conference Finals? Do the Spurs make it to the Finals? How many ill-advised step back three pointers can J.R. Smith miss in one game? How many times out of 100 does Ray Allen make that three pointer in Game 6? Can Manu Ginobli play any worse than that? How many times does Tim Duncan miss that running hook over Shane Battier in Game 7? These questions (and many more) determined who eventually won the NBA Finals.

Ok, I might have thrown an extra one in there...

There is so much chance and luck involved in winning just one championship. No GM can create a scenario where a championship is a foregone conclusion in sports. Even this year the Heat face a number of question marks this year after winning twice in a row. The Pelicans have to set themselves up for continuous success and then hope a move is unrealistically successful or a significant break or two goes their way.

Success is measured differently by different people. I would think the San Antonio Spurs season, given time to reflect and not react on emotion, was tremendously successful if I were a Spurs fan. Even with the complete sucker punch that was the Ray Allen three, LeBron hitting nearly every mid-range jumper, and Timmy missing a baby hook. It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was gut-wrenching. That is sports.

Please take your seat and fasten your seat belt. And also, make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their upright and locked position. We will be taking flight shortly.