The New Orleans Pelicans have won four of their last six games. As a Pelicans fan, rooting on a team that wins is fundamentally more enjoyable than one that loses. Those wins, especially the most recent ones, have come with significant costs. Costs that question the direction of the franchise and the ability of those at the top to lead it.
Dell Demps invested the Pelicans first (used) lottery pick since Austin Rivers on Buddy Hield and a substantial sum of cap space to acquire Solomon Hill in free agency. Yet, both players have found their roles greatly diminished. Hill has lost his starting spot to Dante Cunningham. In the past six games Cunningham has started Solomon Hill has been a net positive on the court (+11.4) while Cunningham has been a net negative (-1.1). Guess which player has logged more minutes along with six starts?
Hill appears to be struggling with confidence. Nothing helps build that confidence more than a benching due to shooting woes despite providing more on the court, right? Remember how well that treatment worked with Al-Farouq Aminu?
Yet, Hill’s troubles are nothing compared to Buddy Hield vanishing from the rotation. Hield is a net negative on the court, only Alexis Ajinca has done worse for the Pelicans. This should be expected, Buddy Hield is a rookie and this is common for rookies. Even Anthony Davis was a net negative as a rookie. While Hield’s ceiling is certainly lower than AD’s failing to invest minutes in his development stunts his potential.
This is even more damning considering the rationalization Dell Demps provided for selecting Buddy Hield in the first place. His advanced age and development meant the Pelicans expected him to contribute sooner than younger alternatives. Accepting a more “ready” player to try to reduce risks of a bust. This is not to say Hield is a bust at all. But, isn’t playing through Hield’s typical rookie problems supposed to be part of the process?
The process is certainly the biggest casualty as both Gentry and Demps seek to hold onto their jobs. Hill is not permitted to play through, even for him, an unusually cold stretch to begin the season. For a player who may be suffering from issues of confidence, nothing says “we believe in you” from the Pelicans staff like moving him out of the starting lineup with a massive decrease in minutes. Hield’s development is put on the back burner to get wins in the short term.
What about the long term costs? Buddy Hield is one of the best prospects on the roster to become an above average starter outside of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Will he find minutes at all once Tyreke Evans returns? Surely Tyreke’s return will be spun as a showcase to build his trade value. Another rationalization to try to explain why the Pelicans abandon the process.
Solomon Hill’s contract could become another dead weight on the salary cap. Dante Cunningham, his replacement in the starting lineup, can opt-out of his contract after this season. What if he asked for a raise in July? Dell Demps outbidding himself to maintain “continuity” is a thread behind his other massive contractual mistake, Omer Asik. Thus, not just two (Asik and Hill) but three (possibly Cunningham) awful contracts could loom on the horizon.
You can see the edges of this potential future mistakes starting to take shape. Tyreke Evans is featured to build his trade value at the cost of minutes for Buddy Hield. However, alone an expiring contract is not enough to trade for a difference maker so Demps is willing to add the Pelicans 2017 1st round pick into the mix. Hello, and welcome to player who isn’t actually the difference maker we hoped. Goodbye to another lottery ticket.
But wait, there’s more! Solomon Hill’s confidence continues to be an issue as he is yanked in and out of the starting lineup to chase wins now. His contract becomes increasingly toxic and his production less consistent. Meanwhile, Buddy Hield’s potential is stunted as he cannot find minutes behind Jrue Holiday, Tim Frazier, E’Twaun Moore, and Langston Galloway.
The future of the franchise, the ideal result of the process, is the sacrificial lamb to Dell Demps and Alvin Gentry getting wins now to maintain their employment. Even so, the Pelicans could be successful (in the short term) if Anthony Davis continues to be amazing and Jrue Holiday becomes a legitimate top ten point guard. They can be so good that the franchise will be successful in spite of, not due to, the actions of the coaching staff and management.
Good enough to keep Davis beyond his current contract? A different question. Davis is saying all the right things about his commitment to the franchise. The same things Kevin Durant said about Oklahoma City before he left for Golden State. This part of the story, a superstar with multiple years left on his contract (four including this year in the case of Davis), follows a familiar script. Dedication to winning here. Not thinking about the future yet. Focused on what said superstar can do right now to get his teammates to win.
When that decision finally comes, all of those promises appear undone. They are not. Remember, Anthony Davis is in a New Orleans uniform thanks to four ping pong balls and a CBA designed to keep a rookie with the team that drafted him in their second contract. Davis is, rightly, dedicated to making his current situation as good as possible. In 2020 when Davis becomes a free agent he will have far more freedom to create the best possible situation. It is on the front office to provide the argument that remaining in New Orleans is in his best interests.
If the history of this franchise and front office tells us anything, it is that the future is the victim in favor of the present. And, when Davis finally arrives to make his own decision about his NBA address, it will be the future crafted by all these decisions in the present, that form the foundation of the Pelicans argument to stay.
Winning now, 40 or 45 or even 50 (probably not this year, but maybe next) games I will thoroughly enjoy. When the Pelicans win it is far more fun to cover this team. But, let’s not kid ourselves. That’s not going to be enough to keep Anthony Davis if he behaves like almost every other superstar who understands what determines his legacy. For better or for worse, that means championship rings.
The process is dead. Long live the process.