Danny Ferry and the President of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans could soon be the same person.
Upon firing Dell Demps on the first day of the 2019 All-Star break, Gayle Benson and the rest of the top brass loudly signaled their eagerness to distance themselves from a front office that will forever be linked to the failed Anthony Davis era. As New Orleans looks to the future, the organization is expected to conduct a thorough search with the help of an outside consulting firm to fill the vacancy at the top. For the rest of this season though, Ferry has been handed the reins of the general manager duties on an interim basis, but few, if any, have given much thought to the idea that his interim tag could potentially flip to a much more permanent one while being upgraded to a higher standing within the organization in good time.
It’s impossible to discuss Ferry’s candidacy without first mentioning that ugly skeleton sitting in his closet — the racist comment made which was directed at Luol Deng. While the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, Ferry was on a conference call in 2014 where he read an insensitive remark from Deng’s general personality profile to listeners. Amid the ensuing backlash, he issued the following apology.
“I repeated those comments during a telephone conversation reviewing the draft and free agency process,” said Ferry. “Those words do not reflect my views, or words that I would use to describe an individual and I certainly regret it. I apologize to those I offended and to Luol, who I reached out to Monday morning.”
Before dismissing these words as sounding too hollow, realize that respected people within NBA circles quickly sprang to action and chimed in to say that Ferry is not a racist. That an in-house investigation by a local law firm absolved Ferry of racial bias. That a civil rights leader and former mayor of Atlanta called for Ferry to be reinstated after he took an indefinite leave of absence. Perhaps most pertinent of all, Luol Deng forgave Danny Ferry, who was a big proponent of signing this free agent just months earlier!
“I don’t think Danny’s racist,” Deng said.
Ferry repeated a few lines from a piece of paper that he obviously shouldn’t have and learned a hard lesson in life. It is also worth mentioning that he was caught in a bitter ownership struggle at the time, one in which a minority owner, Michael Gearon Jr., did little to hide his disdain for Ferry during his whole Atlanta tenure. Some who covered the team closely felt the Hawks should have done a more effective job of managing the situation better which would have allowed Ferry to continue on in Atlanta. After all, no other GM in their franchise history had ever managed to build a 60-win Hawks team previously.
This is a salient point when it comes to describing Ferry’s previous accomplishments — he produces winners. His first stint as the leader of a front office went incredibly well in Cleveland from 2005-2010.
Ferry’s five years saw the Cavs assemble a 272-138 record during the regular season and win eight playoff series, including a trip to The Finals in 2007. He twice made over the roster, once by signing free agents Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones in 2005. That group helped the Cavs break their eight-year playoff drought and reach the Finals a year later.
Then he executed four major trades from 2008 to 2010 to bring in Delonte West, Mo Williams, Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, players that helped the Cavs put together back-to-back 60-win seasons. James developed into a two-time Most Valuable Player with a strong supporting cast.
After leaving Cleveland right before LeBron James skipped town for Miami, Ferry assumed the post of Vice President of Basketball Operations for the San Antonio Spurs. General Manager RC Buford on the hire: “He has a great basketball mind and brings a vast amount of NBA experience and expertise to our program. It is a true pleasure to be able to welcome Danny and his wonderful family back to South Texas.”
Two short years later, the Hawks came calling and Bruce Levenson, the majority owner at the time, made an overwhelming offer to pry Ferry out of San Antonio.
Levenson addressed Ferry’s concerns with one of the most wide-ranging, demanding contracts ever scored by an NBA general manager: A six-year contract at more than $2 million per season, guarantees the ownership would invest tens of millions into both a D-League team and a new practice facility and, the big one, Ferry would report to only one man in the organization -- Levenson.
Executives around the league were taken aback. A six-year contract was unheard of outside the likes of Pat Riley or Gregg Popovich. The guarantees to invest in infrastructure were never before seen. The written assurance of one boss was an ideal but never a contracted item. Other general managers started referring to Ferry’s arrangement as the “Golden Ticket.”
This autonomy granted to Ferry by Levenson was primarily the reason for the falling out with Gearon. Nevertheless, the new general manager produced near immediate results, greatly assisting the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals in three short years.
Upon his arrival, Ferry shipped Joe Johnson’s mammoth contract to the Nets and exchanged Marvin Williams for Devin Harris with the Jazz. Days later he signed Lou Williams and received Kyle Korver for cash in a trade with the Bulls. A year later he hired Mike Budenholzer as head coach and then added two key free agents in Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll.
Many of these savvy moves were directly responsible for propelling the Hawks to a 60-22 record in 2014-15. After the franchise-setting season, Coach Bud threw support at Ferry for Executive of the Year.
“Anyone who has followed the Hawks for the last two or three years knows that Danny Ferry is the executive who is most responsible for the makeup of our team,” Budenholzer said Sunday before the Hawks played the Wizards. “Danny is responsible for me being here. Our team is in a good place. I’m very grateful to work with such good players and with such a great staff.”
Two months later, Ferry accepted a buyout from the Hawks, and many soon began to wonder if one of the most highly regarded basketball managers — one of Gregg Popovich’s brightest management products — would ever get another shot as the lead executive.
The next chapter came a year later when Ferry joined the Pelicans as a special advisor to Dell Demps. Yes, the move represented a step down from his previous three stops in Atlanta, San Antonio and Cleveland, but it was a necessary one to prove his worth in the league again. Now Ferry is in prime position to vault back to the top because there’s more than a few reasons to keep him beyond this current campaign in New Orleans.
In addition to bringing a successful track record to Atlanta, Ferry pushed for change across the entire Hawks organization, demanding millions of dollars be invested in a D-League team, training facility and analytics staff, and that the medical program be modernized. New Orleans will soon be the proud owners of a G-League team, but as every year has seemingly proven, the Pelicans medical side could use a healthy dose of upgrades. Their most promising versions under Dell Demps barely got a chance to get off the ground as injuries usually tore apart the rosters, keeping New Orleans mired in disappointing mediocrity year after year.
It is also important to not underscore Ferry’s connection to Duke University. Frank Jackson and Jahlil Okafor should remain under contract for next season, but the real catch sometime this coming offseason will be the trade return for Anthony Davis. The two biggest apples in all eyes are Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson — a former and current pupil under Mike Krzyzewski.
Any perceived deficiencies, such as perhaps on the scouting side of things — Ferry doesn’t have the most impressive draft resume, could be mitigated by hiring a general manager or a vice president of basketball operations who is strong in that field of expertise. Perhaps that role could be filled by Trajan Langdon, who helped Sean Marks rebuild the Brooklyn Nets, or another up-and-coming candidate.
Also, if Ferry decides to make a change at head coach and relieve Alvin Gentry of his duties, he could pluck another talent out of San Antonio like he did Budenholzer with say Becky Hammon or Ettore Messina.
An interesting final evaluation for Benson and her circle — if they are strongly considering of solidifying the role of their interim GM — is watching how Ferry handles the Anthony Davis saga for the rest of this regular season. It’s no secret the Pelicans organization is unhappy with how everything has transpired since Davis made his trade request public, but the most important thing now is that the team find a way to move forward. With Adam Silver admitting Davis is posing a distraction over the All-Star break, can Ferry appease the league office and keep the player’s union at bay, perhaps citing conduct detrimental to the team when referencing some of Davis’ recent behavior?
If he passes this AD pop quiz, we might already be looking at our soon-to-be President of Basketball Operations.
“We will immediately begin the process of restructuring our basketball operations department,” Gayle Benson said in a statement released by the team. “This will include a comprehensive, but confidential, search aided by outside consultants to identify a new leader of our basketball operations, directly reporting to me.”
Seriously, don’t be surprised if Danny Ferry emerges the victor over the rest of the candidates in due time.