After drafting Anthony Davis the New Orleans Pelicans abandoned building slowly. In came Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez in the summer of 2012. Both were 24 years old. Eric Gordon was retained when Dell Demps matched the Phoenix Suns offer sheet; Gordon was 23 at the time. Young veterans. In 2013 more young veterans arrived. Out were the 2013 (Nerlens Noel) and 2014 (eventually Elfird Payton) first round picks for Jrue Holiday. Holiday was 23 years old. On July 1st Dell Demps met Tyreke Evans the moment free agency began and signed the shooting guard; Evans was also 23 years old. The cost of acquisition meant Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez were sent out in a sign-and-trade.
All these players were expected to peak right around now; the 2015-16 season as they reach 25 (Holiday) to 27 (Gordon and Anderson) years old. The plan "worked" because the Pelicans made the playoffs in 2015 and Anthony Davis signed his five year extension at the first possible moment. Mission accomplished.
Now for the hard part, keeping Anthony Davis in New Orleans beyond the the 2019-20 season. Davis has a player option for the 2020-21 season but in all likelihood will opt-out by then to exercise full control of his career and maximize his earning potential. The question for the Pelicans is how do they best convince Anthony Davis, four years from now, that he should stick around?
Take the long view
The target date here is of utmost importance. If the Pelicans scratch their way into the 2016 playoffs do you think that has a larger bearing on his decision in 2020 or the quality and trajectory of the franchise in 2020? The answer is simple. The Pelicans must build with the future in mind, not commit the same mistakes of past franchises with superstars.
This means building the New Orleans Pelicans of 2018-19 and 2019-20 should be the target years for contention. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will be in their early 30's. Why should the Pelicans be clamoring to trade these expiring contracts now? The possibility either is helping retain Anthony Davis (and therefore sustaining this franchise's chances at a championship) are absurdly slim by 2019. Do you see either getting better defensively between now and then as age begins to take its toll?
Jrue Holiday, on the other hand, will turn 28 before the 2018-19 season. Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and Jeff Teague are 27 right now. Mike Conley is 28, and Kyle Lowry is 29. Late 20's is when it all starts to come together for the very best point guards in the league and Holiday is outperforming many of them at the same age. Between now and then the Pelicans would need to re-sign Jrue, which is possibly expensive. But two-way point guards are rare and valuable.
How, then, do the Pelicans fill out around these two building blocks?
More poker chips
Building a contending NBA team is a high risk proposition. Draft pick, trade, or free agent any player can bust. Injuries happen. Young players fail to plan out. Veterans can begin a precipitous decline. Bad contracts happen and sap flexibility.
The cost of missing in free agency projects to be quite high. The salary cap exploding means there are more buyers around the league with cap space to burn. Greater demand will increase the cost of talent as the supply is not increasing at nearly the same rate. The cap will be higher, the salaries will be higher, and bad contracts are going to happen. They always do.
Draft picks offer hope, especially in 2016. The new CBA could arrive before the 2017 draft and the rookie scale, rookie contract extensions, and the like could all be changed. Finding trade partners to extract more picks is going to be difficult. I completely understand that draft picks usually don't hit. These specific picks in this draft should cost the Pelicans Ryan Anderson and/or Eric Gordon.
Ideally New Orleans gets two picks, but I suspect it might just be one. The cost is Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon for next season. The return is that poker chip (or two) AND $25-30+ million in cap space annually for the next two to four seasons. That cap space can be used to get more draft picks (the Philadelphia route) or in free agency or trades for actual players.
Flexibility would be nice to have when there is time to grow.
Draft picks take time
Even the best lottery picks rarely move the needle as rookies. Davis posted an impressive 21.7 PER as a 19 year old rookie. The then-Hornets were better with Davis on the bench than on the court that season. Rookies and lottery picks are not a panacea to immediate wins. Developing NBA players out of NBA prospects is a process that takes time, quality coaching, organizational patience, and hours upon hours in the gym by the player himself.
It will take some time before the rookies selected this June contribute to wins. The clock is ticking, but time is not running out immediately. New Orleans has Anthony Davis under contract through 2020. The goal is to be a franchise ascending with a future to sell Anthony Davis in 2019 and 2020. Those draft picks, if they develop, with be in their third and fourth years.
Sound familiar? Klay Thompson (fourth) and Draymond Green (third) were also still on their rookie deals last season for the Golden State Warriors. Kawhi Leonard was in his third season when he won the Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs. Rookies are not likely to make a big difference in victories for the 2016-17 version of the New Orleans Pelicans. That's fine! The timeline to shoot for real contention is longer than just next season.
Consider age and development
Recent rumors indicate the Pelicans have turned down a possible offer centered around Ryan Anderson and Rudy Gay. This news should be cheered in New Orleans. Gay turns 30 this summer and costs over $13 million next season. He does not fit the profile the Pelicans should be seeking. That does not mean that Dell Demps isn't taking calls as Marc Spears reported for Yahoo Sports yesterday afternoon.
With the Pelicans’ season not going as planned, the franchise has begun exploring the possibility of change. Shooting guard Eric Gordon and forward-center Ryan Anderson, both in the last years of their contracts, and Evans have been discussed in potential trade scenarios, but nothing is imminent, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 18.
It should be no surprise those three names are in discussions, as I pointed out on Monday it makes sense. The age and expected development of players needs to be taken into account if the Pelicans trade their assets for current NBA players instead of draft picks. My infatuation with Jared Sullinger is based on more than my 2012 draft analysis and Ohio State fandom. Sullinger will turn 24 on March 4th; Anthony Davis turns 23 the following week.
LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 is often cited as the concern for superstars in small markets. Look at the Cavs roster his last season. LeBron was 25 years old. Half of the rotation was going to be at least 30 the next season. Antawn Jamison (33), Anthony Parker (34), and Shaquille O'Neal (37) were starters in the playoffs. It's one thing to fail to win a championship; it is another to lack a future. Cleveland failed to hit in the draft and practically rolled out the red carpet for LeBron's exit to South Beach in the process.
Selling Anthony Davis on the future
Davis has stated his love for the city and franchise previously. In 2019 an older and wiser Anthony Davis will be 26 years old, one season from unrestricted free agency, and about to embark on the prime of his athletic career. Love will not be enough. The additional money the Pelicans will be able to offer will not be enough. That third contract is about his legacy.
This franchise will have to sell something more in 2019. Contention. Championships. A great roster with room to grow needs to be the sales pitch. Building that roster begins now. The New Orleans Pelicans cannot delay.