Chris Ryan: A Loomis, a Benson, and a Demps walk into a bar, and that bar is about to get hit by an asteroid. Anyone with even a passing interest in the NBA is aware that Anthony Davis, via his agent Rich Paul, has informed the New Orleans Pelicans that he will not be re-signing with them when he can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2020 and that he has requested a trade. Justin, you used to cover the Pelicans in New Orleans, so let’s start with this: Is this an extinction-level event? Or has this franchise been preparing for this day?
Justin Verrier: I think it’s fair to say that this is the biggest moment for the franchise since Tom Benson took over as owner in 2012, because it is a chance to course-correct every institutional failure that has put them in this position with Davis. The franchise was gifted the most precious natural resource in the sport when it lucked into the no. 1 overall pick the season after trading Chris Paul—a generational talent under team control for almost a decade. But the organization squandered it through a parade of rash decisions and get-wins-quick schemes designed to energize a largely hoops-ambivalent fan base.
Dell Demps, their GM dating back to the previous ownership regime, deserves a lot of blame for that. But these problems go core-deep. Davis’s trade request is, on its face, a pretty routine small-market sob story (Star Player Wants Out of Small Market), but it begets a lot of other, more existential questions about this franchise and the NBA in New Orleans. The return they get for Davis, and the people current owner Gayle Benson chooses to make these decisions, will probably define the franchise for another seven years—and, perhaps, the rest of the league if New Orleans’s continued negligence of the basketball side of their local sports empire leads to a sale. Y’know, minor stuff.
Ryan: Can you tell me a little about Demps? In an era when front-office regimes are arguably more scrutinized than coaching staffs, I feel like he’s pretty anonymous. Is he a survivor? A guy who is working with what he has? Who would you compare him to as a GM? An old-guard guy like Ed Stefanski? A dealer like Neil Olshey? I feel like I don’t know enough about him, even though he’s going to be making one of the biggest decisions in NBA history.
Verrier: I think he prefers to remain anonymous too. He doesn’t like dealing with the media, and will often let head coach Alvin Gentry serve as the voice of the executive branch—even though Gentry, as he did on Monday, will usually shrug and tell reporters, “You have to ask Dell about that.” (Mickey Loomis, the GM of the Saints and the executive VP of the Pelicans, is a whole other story; he never did any basketball-related media while I was there, not even on background.) Part of it, I think, is that Demps hails from the Spurs system, which is known for being a bit secretive. I also don’t think he cares much for the niceties of the business—which, as multiple people have told me over the years, extends to his own employees and other teams. I think he has a good basketball mind that isn’t restricted to either an old-school or new-school approach, in a good way, and that’s probably why previous ownership plucked him out of San Antonio at the age of 40. He’s done some good work on the fringes, getting guys like Quincy Pondexter, Lance Thomas, and Darius Miller. The Pelicans don’t have a traditional assistant GM position, so Demps brought in Danny Ferry as a consultant at a time when Ferry was struggling to find a GM gig because of his unceremonious exit from the Hawks front office. So Demps basically got GM-level advice for a consultant fee, which is pretty shrewd. (The downside was Ferry instantly became the most respected voice in the room, according to multiple people.)
But I’ve often felt that Demps’s best attributes work against him. He’s known for being headstrong, and it will often result in irrational gut decisions—paying Solomon Hill way more than the get-out price the team set before free agency because he believed in Hill coming out of the draft, for instance—or worse. He clashed with Monty Williams, another former Spurs staffer, and eventually forced Williams out. He and Gentry clashed in Gentry’s first season in New Orleans, and Demps reportedly undermined him publicly. The thing you always hear about Demps—including on Monday, in the wake of the AD shit storm—is that his best skill is surviving. Despite just three winning seasons and a sub-.500 winning percentage overall, he has lasted in New Orleans for eight-plus seasons and through two different owners (three if we’re counting Gayle, Tom’s widow). We’ll see whether he’ll make it through the trade of another superstar; the last one didn’t go so well.
Ryan: OK, so Demps might have a light-years-ahead plan, he’s just not talking about it at the Wynn Tower Suite Bar at summer league. I think there are some assumptions being made by people outside the city that this franchise is basically on life support as it is, and that Davis leaving will kill whatever interest there is in a New Orleans pro basketball team. But … are we sure that’s the case? We could probably spend hours talking about why hoops hasn’t caught on in the Crescent City, whether the team is a relocation candidate, and whether folks in New Orleans would be that sad to see it go. But is Davis really going to be the Reaper here? LeBron left Cleveland TWICE, and the Cavs are still in the top 10 in attendance in the NBA (with all the caveats about how teams might goose those numbers). New Orleans may be struggling to maintain a team, but is Anthony Davis’s possible departure going to be the thing that seals the Pels’ future?
Verrier: So this is where the “learning from your mistakes” part comes in. Some might look at what’s happened and conclude that if they can’t generate interest around a future Hall of Famer, can they ever? I think the truth is we don’t know yet. Because while the franchise did have an MVP candidate in his prime—twice, if you want to throw Chris Paul in there—it never had the sort of sustained success that it needed to get fans involved. The heights were fun—this team was the scrappy, chic upstart as recently as 2015! But there were so many up-and-down seasons and injuries and different teammates. So while it’s a shame that locals missed out on seeing this once-in-a-generation talent, I also don’t blame them. The team is usually struggling to stay around .500, and the arena atmosphere reflected that.
I wonder whether getting a bunch of fun young guys into their fast-paced system and building from the ground up might be a blessing in disguise. Memphis is the most comparable market to New Orleans, and the Grizzlies are revered throughout the league not because they landed Marc Gasol, but because the Grit and Grind brand created a movement that galvanized that market base. (For what it’s worth, NOLA fans instantly embraced Boogie’s snarl from the moment he arrived. AD is great, but he’s not much of a personality.) And if the Young and Fun approach doesn’t work? Then I’m ready to have the doomsday conversation.
Ryan: Memphis is also similar to New Orleans in how opaque its decision-making can seem; you often wonder who is calling the shots. I think it’s fair to say that how we view the Pelicans going forward—as victims of shadow tampering by a Klutch-Lakers cabal or simply as a franchise that got butterfingers with the most talented player of his generation—will be tied up in what happens over the next few weeks and months. The conventional wisdom is that this request was made now so that the Lakers could get in on the bidding before the Celtics could make their offer in the summer. Davis has probably played his last game in a New Orleans uniform, either way. But there are a lot of things that can happen between now and the start of next season.
Could the NBA get involved? There was definitely some language in the Pelicans’ statement that suggested they were monitoring the possibility that Davis has been tapped up (to borrow a soccer phrase). And the league just fined Davis $50,000 for Rich Paul’s comments to reporters about Davis’s trade request. Could a third or fourth team—Golden State, New York, Brooklyn, or, hilariously, Milwaukee—throw their hat in the ring along with Boston and Los Angeles? Could Davis go to a non-Lakers quasi contender as a rental? Could that quasi contender be Toronto? My favorite tidbit so far has been the Stephen A. Smith report that Demps consulted with Gregg Popovich, who counseled him not to trade Davis to the Lakers. If Demps needs Pop to tell him that, we’re all screwed.
Verrier: Lakers schadenfreude is one of the great American pastimes, so the 29 other teams conspiring against the Lakers would be the chef’s kiss to this brazen-ass attempt to land every vulnerable star in the league. The league’s tampering investigation into L.A.’s overtures for Davis may still be ongoing, so I guess there’s a chance that they’ll get Joe Smith’d and Davis will have to go elsewhere.
My personal favorite dark horse team is Toronto, just because, in an era of pearl-clutching every draft pick, we don’t usually see a team go all in on one season in the way Masai Ujiri has with the Kawhi trade; why not keep going down the rabbit hole? Denver is another fun one, if only for the basketball porn of a Davis-Jokic frontcourt. I’d also love to see AD in a small market with a passionate fan base like Portland, just to A/B test my theory above. What about Philly? Or should we start coming up with AD-to-L.A. headline puns now?
Ryan: As a Sixers fan, and probably an atypical Sixers fan at this point, I’m almost more interested in Jrue Holiday than I am in Anthony Davis. I know I should probably be fired into the sun for that statement. Maybe the Doug Collins era made me damaged goods. I think, like we did with LeBron, we will spend a long time and a lot of energy trying to think of different places for Davis to go, and he will wind up with the Lakers.
The Holiday bit does lead me to my next question: Would Demps consider what I think would be an unprecedented teardown midseason? Holiday said Davis was 90 percent of the reason he re-signed with New Orleans. Is it worth considering a Davis deal in relation to a possible Holiday transaction as well?
Verrier: “Teams should actually be trying to trade for Jrue” is definitely a Ringer take. (Literally. I just talked to someone in the office about it.) But I’m here for it. Holiday is versatile enough to fit on almost any roster. And he’d be a great fit on a team like the Sixers, who need someone who can do a little bit of everything more than they need another mouth to feed on offense. Having said that, I would be surprised if the Pelicans were to move him. The team has been reluctant to bottom out since drafting Davis, and it probably doesn’t want to lose what little momentum the AD era created with fans. But bottoming out is clearly the most prudent approach. FiveThirtyEight has them at a 22 percent chance of making the playoffs—and that’s with a healthy and productive Davis. There appears to be a big advantage to selling in this trade market, and a lot of their rotation (Nikola Mirotic, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, etc.) can walk for nothing this summer. Backing into Zion Williamson would make for a nice time-is-a-flat-circle moment, I guess.
Ryan: I think I heard every Knicks fan I know start cutting Lone Star cans into Dell Demps figurines just now. If you had to guess, is there an institutional (meaning: Benson and Loomis) commitment to Demps being the person to oversee the likely complete transformation, if not rebuilding, of the franchise? Or could this be the most interesting, most complicated front-office job on the market come summer?
Verrier: I feel like Demps has been on the chopping block virtually every season since the Bensons took over. (Including last season, until the Pels went on that torrid second-half run and bought Demps a new contract.) But the same problem that existed then exists now: If not him, then who? All of the Pelicans’ top executives hail from the Saints’ side of the org chart, so I’m not sure whom they can turn to to come up with a list of candidates, let alone choose the next steward of the franchise. In years past, Joe Dumars was widely assumed by people outside of New Orleans to be next in line if Demps should go, but only because (a) he was (allegedly) the one telling everyone that and (b) he’s a New Orleans native.
Maybe they’ll turn operations over to Ferry. Or maybe they’ll hire outside consultants, the way a college football program would in this situation. Maybe, just maybe, their naivete will lead them to an outside-the-box candidate with big ideas and they’ll end up with Sam Hinkie. I highly doubt it, considering how conservative they’ve been with things like the luxury tax and their scouting budget, but they need more creative thinking up and down the organization. Otherwise, this vicious cycle may keep repeating itself.