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2020 NBA Executive of the Year: David Griffin deserves fair amount of recognition for putting Pelicans on enviable path

Since assuming the helm, Griff’s made a series of smart decisions that indicate a bright future in New Orleans

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

There may be 88 regular “seeding” games remaining in the 2019-20 season, but the NBA has announced those contests will not count towards the annual performance awards, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

There’s a fair argument for this decision considering eight teams won’t be participating in Disney’s Campus tournament.

“The decision to exclude seeding games from awards voting ensures a fair process in which players and coaches from all 30 teams will have the same opportunity to be honored,” Shams tweeted.

On Saturday night, I laid out why Brandon Ingram should be a heavy favorite for the NBA’s Most Improved Award, but what are the odds of someone else taking home hardware?

Monday, I assessed why Jrue Holiday should be a lock for his third consecutive place on the All-Defensive Team.

Now, let’s make a case for executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin.

After propelling the Cleveland Cavaliers to four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals — including the 2016 Championship — during his tenure, Griffin left Cleveland once extension talks failed in the summer of 2017.

Following two seasons as an analyst with NBA TV, governor Gayle Benson and the New Orleans Pelicans appointed him to his current role and they immediately reaped the benefits.

Player Turnover

Let’s start with one of the two most important considerations when assessing this award. (The other being wins and losses.) Griffin lucked into Zion Williamson, but the other moves around the fringes that built the bedrock for hopeful future success should never be overlooked. The Pelicans have had franchise players before, after all, but never the foundation to keep them.

We, of course, begin with All-Star and Most Improved favorite Brandon Ingram, who was acquired via the Anthony Davis trade. After a less than impressive start to his Pelicans career, Lonzo Ball emerged as a two-way threat and one of the most versatile playmakers on both ends.

Griffin also added Josh Hart and three first round picks in the AD haul, including the fourth overall selection in 2019 which was then broken apart into Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Didi Louzada. In addition, Griffin was able to move on from Solomon Hill in that transaction which gave the Pelicans the wiggle room to add 13-year veteran JJ Redick.

Building a culture upon the premise of blossoming blue-chip caliber youth with veteran leadership in Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Redick and Derrick Favors (whom the Pelicans acquired from the Utah Jazz for two second round picks) was equally important. Griffin was able to sway these veterans on the culture he was preparing for them in New Orleans.

However, as critical as the moves that he did pull off are, we shouldn’t forget about the ones that he decided to not make.

Though the Pelicans were noticeably heavy in the backcourt, Griffin opted not to deal Josh Hart. Multiple teams expressed interest, offering first round picks as part of a package to pry him away, but Griffin refused.

Perhaps more interesting and following the Pelicans ragged 6-22 start, the biggest piece of chum in the pre-trade deadline waters was Jrue Holiday; however, Griffin didn’t budge, even going on Fox Sports New Orleans to make his position crystal clear.

On-Court Contributions

David Griffin will not win this award, but the fault is not entirely his or the play of his Pelicans. Griffin aptly practiced patience and may have reaped the benefits had the season not halted abruptly due to the horrifying and understandable circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.

After enduring the league’s most difficult schedule, the Pelicans were looking forward to closing out the regular season in early March with the easiest slate ahead. The starting unit had the best net rating of any five-man group that had played 180 minutes or more. The Memphis Grizzlies were walking wounded as were the Portland Trail Blazers.

Had the Pelicans managed to defy the odds and prove 538’s projections right, the case for Griffin may have become incredibly interesting. Alas, fate intervened.

Off-Court Benefits

While this award is primarily measured by a team’s on-court production, Griffin’s work off the court has been just as critical.

He immediately grabbed the attention of both local and national media with the hiring of Aaron Nelson, the Pelicans new vice president of player care and performance.

That wouldn’t be his only strategic hire. Griffin added Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Trajan Langdon, appointing him as New Orleans general manager. Next, he filled in his vice president of basketball operations position with Hall of Famer Swin Cash. Griffin rounded out his impressive hires with Jeff Bdzelik, Teresa Witherspoon, Ryan Pannone, Mery Andrade, Jamelle McMillan and others.

The state-of-the-art renovations of the practice facility also garnered attention and altered some of the perceptions that the Pelicans would always sit in the Saints’ shadow.

The Case Against

This one’s rather obvious and Griffin would probably be the first to tell you that he’s not going to win the 2020 Exec of the Year Award. The Pelicans unceremonious 6-22 start and ultimate 28-36 record all but eliminates him from winning the award over other executives such as Lawrence Frank or Sam Presti.

In addition to wins and losses, the Pelicans roster displayed a few glaring holes. For instance, they desperately needed stronger depth in the front court as evidenced by the cataclysmic failures that occurred without Derrick Favors and Zion Williamson.

Christian Wood emerged as a Most Improved candidate in Detroit, scoring 22 points and 10.6 rebounds (per-36) while shooting an outrageous 56.7 percent from the floor and 38.6% from three. Forget his individual impact, can you imagine a 4/5 combination of Wood and Zion?! Wood was a member of the Pelicans as late as last summer, but they opted to waive him despite his breakout numbers at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Why? We may never know.

Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker balled out in summer league one year ago and I’ll be the first to mention Hayes’ ceiling as a rim-running aeriel menace. However, Griffin did miss on prospects like Tyler Herro, PJ Washington, Brandon Clarke and Matisse Thybulle, who look like sure-fire big minute rotation players through the small sample size lens.

But as Sam Hinkie often remarked, even the greatest of executives don’t hit on every acquisition, and Griffin has plenty to be proud of with savvy moves that have positioned the New Orleans franchise to be a perennial Finals contender in the near future.

Lonzo Ball appears the perfect partner to Zion, and Ingram is the best secondary playmaker that any team could ask for. If Griffin and Langdon can keep this talented young core together by locking up Ball, Ingram and Hart, while correctly figuring out Holiday’s future, the Pelicans may soon bear a resemblance to the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder which featured the explosive youthful group of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

Although Presti failed to reach the top with his dynamic group, perhaps Griffin will with his current nucleus in New Orleans. And if that occurs, there will likely ensure plenty of future EOY discussions involving David Griffin.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.