Anthony Davis made the New Orleans Pelicans a destination franchise, or so I thought in the hours after he agreed to a massive five year, $145 million contract. The Pelicans, coming off a promising playoff berth, were expected by fans and writers alike to take off under the direction of new head coach Alvin Gentry. Another playoff appearance and the promise of pairing with a legitimate superstar in Anthony Davis would serve as the sales pitch in July 2016.
Unfortunately, it appears we counted our chickens before they hatched. The 2015-16 season was a disaster for the New Orleans Pelicans. Injuries ran rampant through the roster and real questions continue to linger on the competence of the medical staff. Rather than taking another step forward Anthony Davis regressed ever so slightly while distancing himself from the basket. The defense plummeted into the depths of the league and the offense, Alvin Gentry's strongest area, looked discombobulated with regular NBA rotation players at the controls.
Recent success lacking
Selling free agents without success to lean on is a difficult job for Dell Demps. Two separate stories on ESPN regarding free agency function as a warning for the hill New Orleans must climb. First, consider this recent piece on Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Kevin Arnovitz wrote;
There's an old adage that's usually credited to former Clippers president Andy Roeser: "In the NBA, you can sell hope or you can sell success." And it's largely true that you can sell hope if the target audience is season-ticket holders, sponsors or even broadcast partners. But with free agents, you must sell success.
Portland, with three consecutive postseason berths and a vast amount (up to $42.2 million) of cap space, could be a surprise factor on the free agent market. Their starting lineup Monday night against the Golden State Warriors featured five players 26 years old and under. Just one, Maurice Harkless, is a pending (restricted) free agent. That team could use more help on the wing and will target many of the same players as New Orleans.
Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics lurk as a legitimate threat to make a big move with a treasure trove of assets to make trades for stars suddenly available. Their biggest selling point according to head coach Brad Stevens? Past success.
"I’ll play an active role. I’ll do anything I can as far as meeting with guys, calling guys, whatever I can after the July 1 time frame when we’re given the go-ahead to meet with those guys," Stevens told the "Dale and Holley" program. "The best selling point, I would say that I’m probably not near that. I think that the tradition, the history, the city, the way that the city embrace[s] the Celtics, the way that our players feel about being Celtics, the amount of pride they’ve taken in that and, this group in particular, how thankful they’ve been to get a chance to play in front of these fans and in this place where, again, those banners hang above you. To me, that’s the top of the list."
If you've been to the Smoothie King Center you might notice the rafters are rather barren. Just one banner, for the 2007-08 Southwest Division champions, exists. The Pelicans have made the playoffs just twice in the last seven seasons, both short stays in the first round. The franchise has won one playoff series since moving from Charlotte to New Orleans.
Stability instead of success?
Sadly, the Pelicans cannot sell stability either. Tom Benson is almost through the courtroom challenges to his succession plan but below ownership the ground is wobbly. Dell Demps, while he continues to act as general manager, cancelled an expected press conference that would have cleared the air on his status. Alvin Gentry is under contract for two more seasons and he will begin the year on the hot seat.
If Demps is retained (which is still a very slight favorite in my mind), there is not much organizational stability to be sold to free agents. This organization clearly isn't committed to either Demps or Gentry long term and the paltry sum it would cost to fire Gentry (less than $3.5 million) after next season increases the heat on his seat. As the franchise demonstrated with the removal of Monty Williams, simply making the playoffs is not necessarily enough.
Anthony Davis is under contract for at least four more years. The remaining Pelicans under contract beyond next year are uninspiring; Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham (player option), and Bryce Dejean-Jones. One (or more shockingly both) of those big men could find a new address this summer. That's not a championship contending roster.
Anthony Davis, free agent recruiter?
Without success or stability to sell, the Pelicans must lean on Anthony Davis alone. Davis has already said recruiting free agents is not in his job description.
So even if, say, New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, who just signed the most lucrative contract extension in league history and is perceived as a transformative, generational talent, were to casually mention something to Durant about possibly joining forces in New Orleans, would Durant listen, his tempestuous OKC teammate notwithstanding?
And if you can believe Davis, such a conversation won't take place. "No," Davis said, adding he has never been around, or engaged in such a conversation, though he might have been a target of speculation last summer as he competed on the U.S. team that participated in the FIBA World Cup. "It's not my job to go out and do that.
"That's up to the front office. And they do what they have to do. My job is to go out and play basketball. I don't get into any of that."
We would all love if the Pelicans nailed free agency this summer. It's important to be realistic about the odds they do, and those odds appear quite low.