For all the dealmaking, recruitment and asset management that go into building a winner in the NBA, the most reliable way to engineer a contender is by the sheer luck of the draft. More specifically, landing the top pick when a surefire superstar is on the board.
In the spring of 2012, six months after Chris Paul departed for Los Angeles, the Pelicans lucked their way into Anthony Davis. They didn’t have an owner at the time, nor more than 650,000 television households in their market, but they had the No. 1 pick.
Davis has lived up to it thus far. He ranks fifth in the NBA in player efficiency rating (PER) at 26.72, nearly a five-point uptick from last season. He’s an intuitive pick-and-roll player with good hands and good timing. He’s a gazelle in transition and a lethal cutter in the half court. He drains 43 percent of his midrange shots, and few in the NBA gets to the line at a greater rate than Davis, who converts 76.6 percent of his shots when he’s there. So long as he maintains his health, he’s poised to be one of the five most efficient offensive players in the game for the next dozen years.
That’s just the appetizer because defense projects to be Davis’ greatest long-term asset. At 20, he isn’t yet the quickest decision-maker on the floor, but he’s just getting started on a team that can’t keep a healthy lineup together. When it comes to basic pick-and-roll stuff, matching up with a perimeter ball handler off a switch and shot-blocking instincts, he’s already proficient and getting better.
“A.D. is a phenom in a different realm,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams says. “Everyone wants to compare him to Tim [Duncan]. I see him more like LaMarcus [Aldridge], but with a better handle. And what A.D. does that throws you off is he’ll get two steals and five blocks. He does it a different way. He can do more from a [ballhandling] standpoint.”
Davis’ presence alone puts the Pelicans at a sizeable advantage over the overwhelming majority of the league. For at least the next five years, they get the chance to construct something special with Davis, and it doesn’t matter that they play in a tiny television market that’s expressed a longtime indifference toward NBA basketball. Bring them a dynamic top-five superstar and they’ll start following.
A cornerstone like Davis provides a firm foundation, but plenty of organizations have botched the task of building up from there. Cleveland was never able to develop the right combination of parts around LeBron James and is currently stuck in the mud trying to do the same around Kyrie Irving. Orlando got close with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard but never cracked the code. The head start provides a huge opportunity, but it’s fraught with difficult choices, without much time to deliberate. Management must quickly identify who they are and where they want to go.
“We knew we were going to get Anthony [Davis], so what do we want to do with him?” Pelicans general manager Dell Demps says. “Do we want to keep this veteran group? Or do we want to kind of start over? Or -- and it was the route we chose -- do we want to build through a combination of free agency and the draft?”
Early on in the process, Demps identified a couple of features that were important to him when he went surveying the league for available players.
“We really were targeting guys between the ages of 23 and 25, what we call ‘young veterans.’” Demps says. “We were trying to say, ‘Let’s get a bunch of guys who have already been through the ringer a little bit, had some ups and downs, know the league, but are still young and in their athletic prime.'”
In addition to youth, Demps values certain skill sets. In his vision of an NBA offense, dribble penetration is the most effective way to generate the highest-percentage shots, and he wants perimeter players who can attack defenses off the dribble.
Eric Gordon fit both. After a game of chicken with the Clippers (for whom keeping Eric Bledsoe out of the deal was their prime objective), New Orleans landed Gordon as their consolation prize in the Paul deal. Seven months later, much to Gordon’s chagrin and despite his playing only nine of 66 games in New Orleans, the Pelicans made him their first max player of the post-Paul era.
Right about the same time, Demps nabbed Ryan Anderson, another player in the Pels’ coveted 23-to-25 demographic. Anderson wasn’t a conventional big and, like Davis, power forward is his natural spot, but the Pelicans wanted some stretch alongside their prized draft pick, who is devastating when he has ample space to work.
From the Pelicans’ perspective, things looked promising: A future superstar in Davis, a prototypical modern-day stretch-4 on an affordable contract and a shooting guard with two-way capabilities. Gordon made too much and wasn’t the perkiest guy in the office, but the Pelicans would still have in the neighborhood of $18 million in cap space and a decent first-round pick when Summer 2013 rolled around.
Late last spring, Demps started hearing rumors that Jrue Holiday might be available. After being initially rebuffed, the Pelicans struck a deal with Philadelphia on draft night 2013, sending the Sixers the No. 6 pick (Nerlens Noel) and their top-five protected pick in the 2014 draft.
“It all kind of went back to our plan,” Demps says of Holiday, referring to his target demo and ideal skill set. “Jrue was the perfect guy. He’s injured now, but when you look at his injury history before he went down, he’d played 96 percent of his games. Defensive-minded, can guard the other team’s point guard, can score, make plays and can become an elite-level point guard in the NBA. We also wanted to pair someone with Anthony and they could grow together. The two picks -- maybe we could’ve drafted guys like that. But with Jrue, we got that guy and he’s proven and getting better.”
A week later, Operation 23-to-25-Year-Old continued when Demps showed up on the doorstep of Tyreke Evans at midnight on July 1. Evans’ approval ratings as a player waned after winning Rookie of the Year 2010. But even though he’s missed a bundle of games over the past few seasons, he’s been efficient offensively when on the court.
From Demps’ standpoint, Evans was miscast in Sacramento. Rather than think of him as a point guard with the occasional bout of tunnel vision, Demps saw Evans as a scoring wing who passes the ball at a healthy rate and still had some upside. Demps promptly put an offer sheet of four years and $44 million in front of Evans, who soon arrived in New Orleans as part of a three-team deal, with New Orleans’ starting center Robin Lopez headed to Portland.
“That was a tough one,” Demps says about shipping out Lopez to Portland. With Davis, Anderson and Lopez, the Pelicans had a reliable and diverse three-man frontcourt rotation -- the do-it-all power forward, the stretch big and the 7-footer who can protect the rim and doesn’t need the ball. On top of that, Lopez carried a favorable deal: two years and $10.5 million, a bargain for a competent starting big man with a PER of 19.
Demps felt as if it would be easier to find a stopgap center who could give them some defense than land a dynamic scorer like Evans -- and because of cap restraints, the Pelicans couldn’t acquire the latter without casting off the former. Even if you have a charitable view of Evans’ game, it’s a reach to appraise four years and $44 million of Evans as a more valuable asset than two years $10.5 million of Lopez.
Sources around the league say the Pelicans’ intention was to unload Gordon to generate the space to pay Lopez, but no reasonable offers surfaced. The Pelicans deny they’ve ever actively shopped Gordon, but multiple team executives say that Gordon has never vacated the display window since last summer.
It’s ironic that the service Lopez provided inside are now cited by both Demps and Williams as the team’s most pressing need, all the while they’ll shell out $78 million for the Gordon-Evans duo over the next three seasons. Lopez might not be Roy Hibbert, but cutting an affordable starting center loose then lamenting the lack of interior defense six months later is the equivalent of setting a perfectly good couch on the curb, then complaining there’s nowhere in the den to sit.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to have a monster big who commands attention,” Williams says. “To me, that’s the biggest thing we have to address -- to get somebody like that next to A.D.”
When a team desperately needs a conventional center, chances are there’s a top-shelf power forward in close proximity who’d rather have his jaw wired shut than deal with Marc Gasol, Howard and company every night as a 5 (see Aldridge, LaMarcus; Garnett, Kevin in Minnesota). As a general policy, organizations do everything they can to keep that guy happy.
Demps says that bringing in a bruiser wouldn’t compromise the Davis-Anderson frontcourt pairing, which has destroyed the league offensively (115.4 points per 100 possessions in the 324 minutes they’ve shared the floor and a plus-6.0 differential). He pointed to last season’s rotation as proof.
There’s a popular sentiment around the league that with the max commitment to Gordon, the acquisition of Evans and the drafting of Austin Rivers in 2012 (and to a lesser extent, the trade for the scoring point guard Holiday), Demps has constructed a glorified AAU team of ball dominators. In an era when most NBA offenses are predicated on spacing, what a team really needs are wings who can shoot from distance, something Evans can’t do. And if these wings are playing with a rarified talent like Davis, they need to be expert pick-and-roll practitioners. Neither Evans, Gordon nor even Holiday can list that as a strong suit.
Demps confidently backs his vision, and his arguments aren’t without merit. He points to the lineup data: The Pelicans’ desired closing unit -- Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, Davis -- dominated the league offensively this season before its members started dropping like flies, scoring an ungodly 123.5 points per 100 possessions. The assist rate for that lineup is over 20 percent, well above the league average. Even when the three ball dominators share the floor, their assist rate is a respectable 16.8, about the league average.
“One of the goals was to make sure we had a team that’s deep and hard to guard,” Demps says. “We wanted to be hard to match up against, and we were before the injuries happened. At times, we were unguardable.”
This isn’t an unfair characterization. The night Holiday fractured his right tibia, the Pelicans were ranked seventh in offensive efficiency. That gangbusters unit gives the Pelicans a slew of options in the half court Have Davis and Anderson run a stagger screen up top for Holiday or Evans. Davis rolls, while Anderson pops -- both lethal in that context. Gordon spaces the floor on the weakside. Holiday can too, if Evans is the ball-handler. And if Holiday mans the point, Evans can be ready and waiting to cut or start the second-side action if he gets the pass. With the collective offensive skill set on the floor, there’s plenty more where this came from.
Sitting behind his desk at the Pelicans’ new training facility in Metairie, La., Williams is in no mood to discuss the Pelicans’ offensive potential. Williams is a serious guy, Eeyore to Demps’ Tigger, and as the coach of a team occupying the 12-spot in the West, the prospect of such a conversation is unseemly.
“I’m so tired of talking about offense,” Williams says. “I don’t care how many offensive guys you have -- from Ryan, to Tyreke to Eric to A.D. to Jrue, the bottom line is you have to defend. ... Our defense is horrible and you just can’t play offensive basketball all the time. All the top teams? Their defense is sound. Our defensive mindset has got to get better.”
While Williams is disgusted with the current state of his 26th-ranked defense, he believes there’s precedent from his first season on the job for vast improvement -- so long as the Pels can keep bodies on the floor. New Orleans has strong bookends with Holiday at the point and Davis up front and it’s difficult to believe that with those two guys accounting for the ball and the rim, the Pelicans can’t have at least a league-average defense.
Our defense is horrible and you just can’t play offensive basketball all the time. All the top teams? Their defense is sound. Our defensive mindset has got to get better.
”-- Pelicans coach Monty Williams
New owners often like to redecorate the front office when they buy the place, but Pelicans owner Tom Benson pledged his support for both Demps and Williams. Almost immediately after the completion of the sale, new Pelicans executive vice president Mickey Loomis extended Williams a contract extension. A few months later, one was extended to Demps. Along with the new deals, Demps and Williams were given an imperative -- win sooner than later.
The injuries that have decimated the Pelicans have rendered that nearly impossible. Holiday and Anderson are sidelined indefinitely, as is starting center Jason Smith. The Pelicans now start Brian Roberts and Alexis Ajinca at point guard and center, respectively.
“The injuries make it hard to evaluate our plan on the court,” Demps says. “But we have a young core and we want to keep adding to it.”
The investments in Gordon, Evans and Holiday will make that process difficult. Demps will have the mid-level exception to work with, but little else. Unless it lands in the top five, the Pelicans’ first-round draft pick this season will go to Philadelphia to complete the Holiday deal. In retrospect, the Gordon contract was excessive for a player who looks increasingly like a third option and doesn’t feel comfortable playing at much less than 100 percent. Evans has his attributes, but a deal more akin to Paul Millsap’s two-year $19 million contract in Atlanta would leave the Pelicans less hamstrung when it’s time to pony up for Davis’ max extension.
The errors in planning are easy to enumerate and Demps tacitly admits some of his primary goals are cleaning up his own mistakes. Fortunately for the Pelicans, a single truth lies beneath the spreadsheets:
When you have a budding star like Anthony Davis, you can afford to make mistakes.
Still, if you wander off into the woods, you still need to be able to see the trail. When the Pelicans heal, we’ll have a better gauge of their navigational skills.