Dell Demps faces possibly the most grueling two weeks of his general managing career. DeMarcus Cousins is out for the remainder of the season. A playoff berth is possible but the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers are easily within striking distance to put the New Orleans Pelicans on the outside looking in. Cousins is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and despite his injury, will draw substantial interest from teams looking for a superstar.
In a way, this can be constructed and discussed as a Kobayashi Maru scenario: an infamous Star Trek training exercise designed to test potential leaders in a no-win scenario. Yet, that description is insufficient because Dell Demps himself is responsible for all of the handcuffs limiting his flexibility. Demps has been the general manager in New Orleans for nearly eight years. There are no inherited mistakes on the cap sheet. He owns every single one.
None of that is to insinuate that ownership is without fault. Allowing Demps to continue digging created the cage of bad, difficult-to-move contracts now constraining him. Providing a win-now mandate created additional incentive to think short term. Now the hard cap and contracts of Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca bind this team to making difficult choices.
Demps and ownership could stay the course and continue to chase 10-day contracts and other small moves like the buyout market. Piecing it together could work without utilizing much needed future assets to create necessary flexibility beyond this season. As the team adjusts without Boogie anchoring the team, coaches should expect some natural improvement with additional familiarity. Solomon Hill and Tony Allen could bolster the rotation, and Hill playing more of his minutes as a small ball power forward may maximize his talents in the short turn.
This is not going to be a terribly popular strategy if pursued, and given Dell’s track record, I would be surprised if it came to pass. Every trade needs two sides to agree though so do not assume that no “big” trades means the effort was not extended. On the plus side, it keeps as many future assets on the board as possible for big moves after this season whether Demps is the general manager or not. However, failing to give maximum effort for the playoff push could resonate negatively with Anthony Davis so every single transaction should be judged in part through that microscope.
Alternatively, ownership and Dell Demps could push their chips into the middle of the table. Depending on the route they take there, it could be to bolster the short term or create flexibility in the long term. Ideally a combination of both. Perhaps taking on a shorter “big” contract and shipping out Asik and more along with necessary draft capital. In such a scenario New Orleans gains an immediate contributor for this year’s playoff run and future cap space to build next season’s team. From my perspective that’s the ideal outcome, but obtaining such a return is dependent on both Dell’s negotiating prowess — I feel more confident when he negotiates with other GM’s than when he negotiates with his own free agents — and what those other GM’s around the NBA are trying to do with their teams.
Worst case would be if the Pelicans chase only the short term and fail to make the playoffs all the same. The Clippers are just two games behind the Pelicans despite Blake Griffin missing 16 games this season along with a variety of injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Austin Rivers. New Orleans has a minuscule margin for error in the final 33 games; any significant slippage may spell doom.
Ownership can mitigate some of this by committing to Demps beyond this season. Let Dell know that the 48 games with Boogie-Brow was enough evidence to commit to Demps until the Davis decision. Implore him that he is not GM’ing for his job security and to focus his efforts on building the Pelicans of 2018-19 and beyond.
(Note: No, I haven’t discussed tanking here. It makes no sense with the Pelicans position. If they play their way out of playoff contention, we can revisit.)
There are no obvious good answers here. Dell Demps is in a prison created by himself and ownership. The hard cap, luxury tax (primarily beyond this season), and potential departure of DeMarcus Cousins in free agency this summer — or Anthony Davis in a season or two — all loom forebodingly upon the horizon. Does Dell Demps have a miracle trade up his sleeve? Will ownership think beyond one playoff run?
Let’s all hope so.