DELL DEMPS HAS the four-digit lottery combination that landed Anthony Davis committed to memory.
The New Orleans Pelicans' general manager was the team's representative in the secured room where the 2012 draft lottery took place. When the fourth pingpong ball was drawn -- No. 7 -- Demps didn't instantly remember whether 4-9-6-7 was among the New Orleans' 137 combinations. It wasn't until he heard Jeff Cohen, the Cleveland Cavaliers' vice chair, groan that Demps realized the physics of those particular celluloid orbs on this particular day in this particular room had just handed his embattled franchise the kind of generational talent who could end its malaise.
Chance is a powerful force in sports, and it fell into Demps' lap that evening in May 2012. Four weeks later, the Hornets selected Davis No. 1 overall. If Davis blossomed into the transcendent talent the league was nearly certain he was, Demps would likely have at least seven seasons to build a case that his young superstar should spend his prime playing years vying for a championship in New Orleans.
This marks that seventh season of the Pelicans' suspense drama. In eight months Davis will be eligible for a five-year, $235 million supermax extension, at which point the Pelicans will know whether Davis will continue his career in New Orleans or a team representative will be returning very soon to the beggars casino that is the lottery room.
The 7-6 Pelicans come into Wednesday's game at Minnesota fresh off a convincing win over the Toronto Raptors. After enduring a rash of injuries and a six-game losing streak, there has never been more optimism during Davis' tenure about the team's potential. There's a firm conviction that "When Healthy" -- truly a slogan fit for the limited edition New Orleans city jersey -- this is even a better team than the one that swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of last season's playoffs.
"This team is being very unselfish and playing beautiful basketball," Pelicans big man Nikola Mirotic said during the team's recent losing streak. "We've struggled the last few games -- the injuries, AD has been in and out -- but we're going to be fine."
In fairness, not everyone was so sanguine during the losing streak that followed a 4-0 start. The day after an ugly loss to San Antonio earlier this month, Davis said, "We're all pissed off. We're playing bad. We're not defending. We're not moving the basketball. We're not playing together."
Davis then reaffirmed that his frustration with the recent results was an expression of a belief that they can play so much better, that they had played so much better.
The Pelicans had opened the season with a beautiful combination of organized chaos and brutal efficiency. That returned during this three-game win streak, culminating in the 16-point rout of the Raptors. The entire operation looked like a facsimile of the Portland series, another impressive reminder -- to the league and, more importantly, to the Pelicans' star player -- that When Healthy, New Orleans has a legitimate claim as a contender in the Western Conference.
THE WINTER NIGHT DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles tendon and was lost for the season, the Pelicans were in the midst of a 12-5 streak and poised for a playoff berth. A week later, Demps made a move that has elevated the franchise's ceiling. He flipped a protected first-round pick and filler for Mirotic, a player management had long identified as a smart fit for Davis and head coach Alvin Gentry's up-tempo style.
Mirotic was boarding the Chicago Bulls' team bus in Portland when he learned he was traded to New Orleans. He was presented with some paperwork, took a flight to O'Hare to pick up his stuff, then promptly met the Pelicans in Minneapolis.
"It was crazy," Mirotic says. "There was nothing. Nothing! We didn't even have a walk-through. They had a back-to-back in Oklahoma the night before. Coach met with me in the morning and said, 'Be ready, you're going to play a lot of minutes.' I was like, 'OK, but I don't know any plays.' He said, 'Don't worry. Just play free.'"
Still a stranger to his teammates and their system, Mirotic played 35 minutes, scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
"[Davis is] a leadership guy, a great guy," Mirotic says. "I've played [with] a lot of superstars and he's one of the best I ever had. He said, 'Niko, we want you here. Shoot the ball. Don't overthink, and enjoy the basketball.'"
For several months, Mirotic was mortified by the circumstances that got him to New Orleans. Last October, his jaw was fractured during an altercation with Bobby Portis at Bulls practice. The hot war turned cold for a couple of months, as Mirotic wasn't eligible to be traded until Jan. 15.
"When that s--- happened, I was down," Mirotic says. "Looking at it now, it was not a good experience. But it happened. Maybe it did happen, maybe for a reason. I ended up here, playing great, playing with AD, Jrue Holiday, having fun, finally finding myself. This is the best basketball I've ever played."
The success that followed Cousins' injury is a touchy subject for the Pelicans, even as they're coming off the most successful season of the Davis era while Boogie rehabs with the Golden State Warriors. For instance, there's collective belief that the Pelicans have their best locker room ever -- "We have not just a good locker room, but a great locker room. Everyone is fluent. Nobody has an ego problem," says forward Solomon Hill -- but declarations like this are often followed with a qualifier that things were perfectly fine last season as well.
Likewise, any notion that the Pelicans found their true identity with the arrival of Mirotic is quickly countered.
"People fail to realize now we had just won eight out of 10 with DeMarcus," Gentry says. "The minute he went down, we had just beaten Houston, and had won at Boston. And the pace that we played with when he was on our team, we were still a top-10-pace team."
Still, however indomitable Cousins could be in the half court as an offensive threat, the Pelicans ratcheted up their defense with the new rotations during their final 30 games. They became more difficult to exploit in transition and unpredictable on offense -- an up-tempo exhibition that continues to display all of Davis' gifts this season. Now, he whizzes around the floor, collects dribble-handoffs, then attacks the rim mercilessly.
For the first time, New Orleans has assumed the shape and speed of an Anthony Davis team.
SOON AFTER THE Pelicans inserted Mirotic to play alongside Davis in the frontcourt, Gentry had a conversation with the game operations crew at the Smoothie King Center about player introductions.
"I just said to the guy, 'Mirotic is the center and AD is the forward,'" Gentry says.
This distinction served as a dominant theme in the first several seasons of Davis' career. It's not an unusual thing: As the league came to look at guys with the physical profile of Davis or, say, LaMarcus Aldridge as centers rather than power forwards, those players had to grow comfortable with the implication of this new designation -- specifically the physical demands of banging with opposing centers.
Davis says he was unaware of the annual NBA general manager survey that named him both the league's best center and power forward. But he has noticed that with the NBA's multilateral disarmament at the center position, the center versus power forward label is not only less important than ever, but can actually work to his benefit.
"Yeah, I have to guard [5s] on one end, but then they have to guard me on the other end," Davis says. "From the 5 standpoint, there's just a lot less physicality [than there used to be]."
When pressed whether position matters at all in a New Orleans system that everyone from Gentry to (point, shooting, combo?) guard Jrue Holiday calls "positionless," Davis pauses for a second.
"I still would rather play the 4," Davis says. "It's comfortable."
So many of his fellow superstars cultivate their personal brand based on a combination of talent, podium-wear, social media presence and the rest of it. But for a quiet player who avoids attention, Davis' on-court abilities are the primary expression of his identity. Gentry has wondered if the skill associated with power forwards over centers is what matters to Davis in this internal debate.
Yet Davis' response still sounds different than it did four years ago when we had this conversation. Back then, playing the 5 alongside Ryan Anderson or the 4 alongside Omer Asik offered a major contrast. Now it approaches a rounding error. Davis has established himself as his own brand of monster -- the quintessential, modern-day big man who can pressure a defense from any spot in the half court, then terrorize them in the open floor. He's one of the three most versatile defenders in the game -- an intuitive, hyper-mobile menace who can cover all five positions and protect the rim.
It matters less than ever what position you designate for such a player, which is good news for New Orleans.
IN MOST CONTEXTS, a 7-6 record for a team with ambitious expectations would be a source of anxiety rather than optimism. But the Pelicans carry themselves with self-assurance. The players now have a significant sample size of what real success looks like. Demps and Gentry have survived hot seat after hot seat. In a league in which risk aversion governs the behavior, each decided to go all-in on their respective visions. By doing so, Davis is now surrounded by the best collection of talent during his seven years in New Orleans.
The Pelicans had considerably more money to offer Holiday than the rest of the field in 2017 free agency, but he gave the Dallas Mavericks legitimate consideration. Dallas had a reputation as a posh franchise whose infrastructure was first class. Holiday says players are acutely aware of the competing reputations of NBA teams with regard to amenities. "It appeals," he says.
But the Pelicans had gradually made strides to upgrade -- a full-time team doctor, the training facility in suburban Metairie. They hired Holiday's personal performance coach, Mike Guevara, to come aboard the staff. The five-year, $126 million contract offer in a relatively tight market was the decisive factor -- and it was also a strong signal to Anthony Davis: The Pelicans would pay full freight to retain professional, two-way players of Holiday's caliber who vibed with their superstar's understated style.
Holiday put together the most complete season of his career in 2017-18, operating in multiple capacities -- as point guard, second-side playmaker, and the guy who confronts the toughest defensive perimeter assignment (the "who's going to guard Kevin Durant" role). Holiday has many good attributes as a defender, but none better than his ability to play directly up in an opponent's body, yet still unleash the quickness and anticipation to beat that opponent to his desired spot.
"I ended up here, playing great, playing with AD, Jrue Holiday, having fun, finally finding myself. This is the best basketball I've ever played."Nikola Mirotic
In July, the Pelicans added Julius Randle as their third big. Randle is averaging 17.9 points and 8.2 rebounds in 26 minutes per game with an outrageous true shooting percentage of 62.2. He has effectively answered the question, What if Lou Williams were a power forward? Asked if he likes a little less structure to his basketball, Randle answers decisively, "Oh, definitely." When the Pelicans are playing at their best, the big-man dynamic has a brilliant simplicity to it.
"Whoever gets the rebound, the other big runs the floor. AD and I, it's an attacking lineup -- beast, crash-the-glass kind of stuff," Randle says. "With Niko, he'll run out to the line, and there's more spacing. But there's not one single key."
Mirotic eats this up. When asked if he likes the fit in New Orleans, his face beams. "You can see my smile," he says. In addition to being Davis' running mate in the frontcourt, Mirotic is also his tenant, as he rents his current residence from Davis. "He gave me a good price," says Mirotic, who has a particular fondness for the large screening room.
New Orleans needs Holiday, Mirotic, Randle, Elfrid Payton and the rest of the supporting cast to perform at the upper reaches of their potential -- and stay healthy. Their production means every bit as much to the Pelicans' present success as Davis' happiness means to their future success.
AFTER THEIR SIXTH consecutive loss last week in Oklahoma City, Davis sits at his locker in conversation with forward Wesley Johnson, acquired on the eve of the season. Davis doesn't have the gift of natural charisma, but with his teammates he's engaging, measured and, at moments like these during a losing streak, serious. Johnson, a nine-year vet who has been starting during the latest rash of injuries, listens. The pair nod and smile in unison. At one point, Davis' phone chimes, but he doesn't look away from Johnson to attend to it.
A few minutes later as Davis heads to the shower, Johnson is asked to share his thoughts on the recent beef between his former teammate, Chris Paul, and Davis' former teammate, Rajon Rondo. Johnson rejects the notion that there is any truth to Rondo's claim that Paul is a "horrible teammate." Johnson says that while he liked playing with Paul, some others clearly don't and this is no great judgment on Paul.
"Some guys liked playing with Kobe [Bryant], some didn't," Johnson says. "Some guys like playing with LeBron [James], some guys don't. Not everyone likes playing with everyone else. People are different."
When he's told that everyone seemingly likes to play with Anthony Davis, Johnson smiles slightly. "That's true," he says. "We need to work on that."
Is his teammate suggesting that Davis needs be more ... exacting?
Davis is a unanimous top-five player in the NBA, which is why the Pelicans are desperate to sign him to the largest contract in league history. They've spent years trying to cultivate his trust, trying to furnish him with better teammates, trying to upgrade their infrastructure. While Davis has reciprocated with All-NBA production, it's possible that the Pelicans might need just a little more. Achieving the success they aspire to sometimes requires superstars of Davis' magnitude to brandish the sharpest of edges.
Johnson doesn't answer, but just holds his faint smile knowingly.