I've followed the Pelicans for the better part of the last 14 years and can vividly recall the team drafting a diminutive point guard out of Wake Forest as their first lottery pick in the city of New Orleans to snatching a championship winning Wildcat with the first overall pick of the 2012 Draft.
While still a young organization, New Orleans has had it’s fair share of drama. From the peak of a magical 2007-08 season and winning 56 games (and a division title) to a troubling low and record-setting 58-point beatdown by the Denver Nuggets. Of course, who could forget the ''HOLY SH**" leaning, game-winning floater from Jarrett Jack in 2011 against the vaunted Kobe Bryant Lakers.
So I say this, knowing full well that there were big basketball moments in the franchise: this is undoubtedly the most important season for this fledgling franchise.
I say this knowing that the organization almost failed to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the prospect of Chris Paul’s free agency distracted the 2010-11 season into failure. Why you may I ask? Because four crucial questions loom over not just this season but the franchise itself.
Is Anthony Davis really a franchise player?
Three years ago, Anthony Davis was the next big thing. Three years later, and he still hasn’t fulfilled that promise.
After storming the league in 2014-15, becoming the youngest player to record a 30+ PER and leading his team to its first playoff appearance as the Pelicans, Davis and the franchise have stalled quite a bit. While Davis has continued to expand his game and transition into a full-fledged superstar, one that can carry an offense on his own, the franchise has stumbled to awful starts. This was largely due to injuries, and the front office’s questionable moves in the offseason of 2015-16.
And yet, Anthony Davis bore the brunt of the criticism on the court. Right or wrong, the question about him moved from “how far can he carry a team in the playoffs?” to “can he even get a team to the playoffs?”. This is despite the fact that Davis has became a better one-on-one scorer (an important aspect of “true superstardom”), has continued his defensive evolution, and is still a deadly off-ball scorer (rolls, pops, putbacks, etc...).
The excuse was always he didn’t have enough help. To a degree, this was true. The few dependable players the team had, were often injured (Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday), highlighting the team’s lack of depth. Even then, AD’s never really played with a true superstar.
That changes this season.
Whatever your opinions are of their potential together, you can’t deny the fact that DeMarcus Cousins is the best teammate he’s ever had, by a thousand miles. That's on top of the fact that Holiday will (hopefully) be entering the season, for the first time in a while, without questions about his health — he's been healthy for the better part of the last 2 seasons — or his personal life.
Right or wrong, Anthony Davis, and the fanbase, won’t be able to use the “no help” excuse. If the Pelicans miss the playoffs, AD's reputation will take a big hit. His trade value, and his actual on-court impact won't change. But reputations have a way of derailing a promising career, and a "can't carry a team to a playoffs” is a hard stigma to shake off.
This could be the referendum year for Anthony Davis, the superstar.
Was it Sacramento or Boogie?
AD's superstar teammate, DeMarcus Cousins is also entering a crucial year.
After years of turmoil and disarray, Boogie was extricated from the Kings when they traded him last February. For the longest time, writers and fans wondered who was at fault for the circus that was Sacramento: the front office or Boogie?
With this divorce, that question can finally be answered, to a degree.
Boogie has all the talent in the world. A bruising giant with a feathery touch, and ballerina footwork, Cousins’ talent, like AD's, is undeniable. Watching Boogie play is like viewing an elephant ride a bike. On one hand, how the heck can something so big look so elegant? On another, an elephant looks cuddly and huggable when it's calm, but it can tear through an entire forest when it's angry. He's power and finesse haphazardly wrapped into a package with newspaper and tape. His days in Sacramento felt like a delinquent’s days in high school — unstable, even with guidance, full of potential, when determined. Will his time in New Orleans be a redemption story or will it be more of the same?
So far, Boogie's looked laser focused. I cannot speak to his offseason time in Sacramento — since I really didn't follow that franchise all that much, but he appears healthy, ready, and motivated. He's fully embraced New Orleans (see: Instagram feed) and his teammates, although that could partially be a byproduct of his contract situation as he’s entering the final year of his rookie max.
Regardless, Cousin’s free agency, whether the Pelicans will admit to it or not, is a cloud hanging over the franchise. They’ll tiptoe around it, give platitudes, and pretend that it's not on anybody's mind, but make no mistake, it’s secretly on everybody’s mind. Remember: Boogie lost out on approximately $30 million when he got traded (disqualifying him from ever getting the DPE), betrayed by the only franchise he had known until then. The the time comes, expect Boogie to explore his options.
This could be the referendum year for Boogie Cousins, the not-a-distraction star.
Is this the end of Demps’ tenure in the Big Easy?
General Manager Dell Demps was plucked from the Spurs family tree in 2010 to weather the CP3 fiasco. And despite being a San Antonio disciple, Demps didn't follow his other Spurs colleagues who eventually managed other teams like Sam Presti, Dennis Lindsey and Rob Hennigan. All three of them built their teams on the draft, two of them (Presti, Lindsey) doing so successfully.
Meanwhile, with the exception of the 2012 NBA draft that yielded Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, Demps has traded every first round pick he’s ever owned outside of his superstar. He’s never depended on the draft to replenish the Pelicans’ depth, instead preferring to pluck international players and acquiring young vets by trading his picks.
Whether you think this was foolish or not, it’s a bold approach. From my piece for 16 Wins a Ring:
That’s a far cry from how the rest of the league operates. The league, in general, views first round picks, especially lottery picks, as valuable assets. They view first round picks as the “holy grail” of cheap labor. That’s largely thanks to the way rookie contracts are structured: the first 2 years are guaranteed followed by 2 team options (with the last year being a qualifying offer). The idea of a constrained contract — and that NBA players get better as they age — has made draft picks highly valued commodities, especially for non-contenders.
In reality, picks are much closer to cars than real estate: the moment they are drafted, they lose a lot of their luster and value. And just like someone who’s realized this inefficiency in the auto industry and decided to purchase 1–2 year old used car instead of splurging on brand new, Demps is realizing this too and he’s capitalizing. Instead of waiting for the pick to lose it’s luster after being traded, he’s selling it at its theoretical “peak” value and grabbing actual players who can contribute now, instead of possibly contributing somewhere down the line.
Injuries robbed the Pelicans of ever achieving close their best, particularly when the Pelicans had a solid 7-man rotation of Davis, Holiday, Evans, Gordon, Anderson, Asik and Pondexter.
Now, with almost seven years under his belt but just a lone playoff appearance, Demps definitely has one foot on his New Orleans grave. Sensing the end of his run, he throws one final Hail Mary in a classic Dealer Dell transaction: trading, yet again, his first round selection, Buddy Hield, and his 2017 first round pick for DeMarcus Cousins.
This upcoming season could spell the end of Demps’ controversial approach to team building, and if it ends badly, his standing in the NBA circle could become so bad that he might never climb to a position this high on the food chain again.
This could be the referendum year for Dell Demps, the Pelicans general manager.
Gentri-fication Part III
Hand in hand with Demps is Alvin Gentry, the only coach Demps has hired in New Orleans (remember, Monty Williams was hired before Demps). It was considered perfect. Coming off a championship year, helping re-structure the Warriors into the juggernaut organization that they are now, Gentry was supposed to unlock Davis’ latent potential. Remember this?
While the team’s pace of play has gone up under his influence, the Pelicans offensive rating has not. In fact, it’s dipped. The promise of 7SOL remains unfulfilled, and now armed with Twin Towers, Gentry enters an important and perhaps final crossroad in his storied coaching career.
- Is his coaching style flexible enough to accommodate a roster that does not resemble any of the teams he’s handled in the recent past?
- Can his happy-go-lucky personality be counted on to lead a team?
- Is his coaching acumen sharp enough to handle the pressures that’ll come with being in close games?
- Most importantly, can he actually win with two possible Hall-of-Fame talents?
These are only a handful of the questions surrounding Gentry. While he’s probable to land on his feet somewhere if this partnership fails, it’ll be a bad look on his resume that he couldn’t make two bigs, which fit the modern day definition of a big, work. This might be his last chance at a head coaching gig.
This could be the referendum year for Alvin Gentry, the head coach.
To say that this is a crucial year for the Pelicans is an understatement. Anything less than a solid season resulting in a playoff appearance — whether that means advancing to the 2nd round or not — would be bad.
There’s a chance that this could be a special year simply because of all these motivations coming together, coalescing into an exciting, winning season. But in the back of everyone’s mind, there’s a chance this could implode and mark the beginning of the end.
Let’s all hope it’s the former. #DoItBig