No title winner was built in a day, but one afternoon in New York fretting over pingpong balls was all it took to course-correct the then-New Orleans Hornets from a long search for a post-Chris Paul identity to the path toward contention.
Just 45 days into owner Tom Benson’s reign, his basketball team didn’t yet have a new name, new jerseys or new facilities. But after cashing out of the 2012 draft lottery with the right to select Anthony Davis first overall, it did have the most important building block of all: a new face of the franchise.
"Just a first step for us to winning it all," Benson proudly proclaimed that day.
Now, four years later, the organization is still figuring out the other steps.
An injury-marred 30-win season sent New Orleans back to the lottery for the fourth time in five years. And despite Davis’ one-emoji prayer just before Tuesday’s lottery, the Pelicans ultimately stayed put at sixth overall. It won’t bring them another transformative talent, but at the very least, they’ll have a chance to add some athleticism, shooting and/or defense to a team in sore need of all three.
But draft picks haven’t been part of the plan since Davis arrived. Tasked with pairing their superstar-in-the-making with another certified All-Star, general manager Dell Demps forked over two lottery picks for Jrue Holiday. A first-rounder last year was used to procure Omer Asik. The team went as far as unloading its only pick last year, No. 56 overall, for cash considerations.
Other than Davis, the Pelicans don’t have a single player drafted by Demps, now in his sixth season, on the roster. Davis, 23, also remains their youngest player.
The Pelicans were able to force their way into the playoffs last year with Davis and an accompaniment of young veterans, but this season’s near-historic injury total not only derailed the encore but also shined a light on a bench that had gone gaunt after years of artificially accelerating the building process by swapping cheap young players on team-friendly contracts for above-average talent taxed with eight-figure salaries. Long before the offense was running through Luke Babbitt, Quincy Pondexter’s injury forced rotation players and specialists like Alonzo Gee and Dante Cunningham into big minutes on the wing. (Watching Austin Rivers and Al-Farouq Aminu emerge this postseason has been a particularly galling sight for local fans.)
The results have essentially reset the Pelicans’ essential question back to the one they faced after Davis’ breakthrough rookie season: Do they build through the draft or do they play for now?
From the outside, the ledger would seem to tilt heavily toward patience. Not only has ownership witnessed the pitfalls of a get-rich-quick approach firsthand, but Davis is locked into a second contract with paychecks, and thus a salary-cap number, that reflect his star status. Even if the deal remains a bargain at 25 percent of the league’s cap -- and not the 30 they’d be on the hook for if Davis makes an All-NBA team and triggers the Rose Rule clause -- the need for inexpensive talent to join the likes of Tim Frazier and James Ennis now increases.
The team will have cash to throw around this summer regardless -- likely $22.4 million, based on pre-draft estimates -- but with a cap spike expected to turn free agency into a money booth, with a roster full of needs, and without a history of success to make up for its small market, it’s hard to envision the Pelicans signing the sort of high-end second option who could set the franchise up for years to come. Utilizing the draft for a change, even if it means remaining stationary for another season or two, could be a prudent way to stockpile talent and, more importantly, avoid a fate similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010.
But with all signs currently pointing to Demps returning for another season -- even after the now-infamous cancellation of a season-ending news conference a day after it was scheduled -- the pressure to win next season is expected to have a heavy influence on the team’s maneuvering. Which means this year’s lottery pick could very well end up on the trade market just like virtually all of the rest in recent history.
There’s nothing wrong with building for the present, especially as the team hemorrhages support from its largely ambivalent local fan base. The Pelicans transmuted into League Pass darlings during their 2014-15 playoff push, and with a clean bill of health next season, the fun only figures to keep on rolling in an Alvin Gentry offense that finished just outside the top 10 in pace this season.
But until the Pelicans prioritize the future, it’s hard to see any step toward winning a title not being followed soon by two steps backward.