From the second that Rich Paul made it clear that Anthony Davis wanted out of New Orleans on the first thing smoking, the question was not whether Dell Demps would be fired from his post as general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, but when. The answer: just before noon ET on Friday, on the eve of an All-Star Weekend in which the man who no longer wants to be the Pelicans’ cornerstone may or may not participate. And, man, is that when fascinating.
Davis’s trade demand might not have resulted in any movement before last week’s trade deadline, but it did create all manner of melodrama. You could credibly argue that it was at the root of potentially league-shaking developments, including, but not necessarily limited to: the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Kyrie Irving’s reconsideration of what he owes, Kevin Durant’s silence and subsequent eyebrow-raising breaking of that silence, the introduction of trolling as an accepted negotiating tactic, the Lakers decimating the confidence and trade value of their young core, the Celtics dangling their young core to add to the melancholy in Mudville, the NBA rediscovering its “you can’t rest healthy players” rule, and a franchise being threatened with millions of dollars in fines for doing what it perceived to be in its best interest, should that action be evaluated as running contrary to the “integrity” of the sport. (It’s been a pretty busy two and a half weeks.)
For the Pelicans, though, the last straw came Thursday night. That’s when a national audience tuning in on TNT for the NBA’s final game before the All-Star break watched Davis—back in the New Orleans lineup, ostensibly per league mandate—collide with Thunder center Nerlens Noel and suffer what’s been reported as a muscle contusion in his left shoulder. More to the point: That’s when they saw Davis leave the arena in the middle of the game, in street clothes, flanked by Paul, the Klutch Sports power broker at the center of the saga:
That, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, incensed Pelicans owner Gayle Benson to the point that she decided to make a change in leadership. That Demps didn’t step out in front of the press after the Pelicans’ 131-122 win over the Thunder to discuss Davis’s early exit, instead leaving that task to head coach Alvin Gentry, probably didn’t help.
It was a continuation of the way Demps handled the bulk of the drama surrounding the Davis situation: engage in whatever power plays the Pelicans were running against the Lakers behind the scenes, then trot out Gentry to clean up the mess with reporters during his daily media briefings. Gentry could shed only so much light on negotiations he wasn’t running, and in the absence of transparency, the situation got more and more chaotic. Along the way, Gentry got more and more frustrated, resulting in Thursday’s colorful postgame presser, which ended in the coach calling the whole Davis affair “a dumpster fire” and storming off rather than answer a follow-up question. Not exactly the picture of organizational calm you’d hope to project in the midst of a high-pressure situation involving nothing less than the future of the franchise.
To be clear: Demps was always going to take the fall for all of this, and to some degree deservedly so, as the lead basketball operations executive who helped create the conditions that led AD to want out in the first place. After getting a second chance at building a championship contender following the Chris Paul trade and New Orleans’s 2012 draft lottery win, Demps repeatedly pulled the trigger on later-for-now moves targeting “young veterans” who could propel the Pelicans to contention around Davis. Some of those moves, like landing Jrue Holiday for what was essentially a pair of lottery picks, wound up panning out. Most of the others, though … woof.
Demps traded Robin Lopez, still a valuable load-bearing center who could’ve done Davis’s dirty work, for the right to sign Tyreke Evans. That ripped open a hole in the middle, which Demps sought to fill first by trading a first-round pick for Omer Asik, and then by spending a combined $80 million to retain Asik and Alexis Ajinca—not the best use of resources with the league on the verge of a pace-and-space boom. During the 2016 salary cap spike, Demps spent New Orleans’s tax refund on Solomon Hill, who has never even grasped at the hem of being productive enough to justify his $52 million deal.
All the while, Demps allowed the players he’d imported who still retained value around the league—guys like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Al-Farouq Aminu—to walk in free agency for nothing, rather than finding ways to flip them for young talent or draft capital. That the Pelicans wasted Davis’s first six seasons in New Orleans can be traced, in large part, back to Demps’s inability to build a sustainably competitive roster around him. You can certainly quibble with how Davis has handled his attempt to leave town. The why, though, is pretty understandable.
Firing Demps now—with two months left in the 2018-19 season, and four and a half months to go before the 2019 NBA draft and the start of free agency—suggests that the Pelicans want to have a firm plan and determined direction in place before summer hits. (That direction, according to Woj, will likely include Gentry.) It also trains a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes uncertainty over how exactly the Pelicans have operated under Benson family ownership.
Technically, Mickey Loomis—the general manager of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, which Gayle Benson also owns—has served as the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations for six seasons. Practically, as he said two years ago, Loomis’s role with the team has been “overblown.” There have always been rumblings that the Pelicans were resigned to “little brother” status in the organization’s portfolio, getting resources and attention only after the Saints had already eaten. Friday’s move indicates, if nothing else, that the untenable situation at Smoothie King Center has Benson’s attention.
New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan confirmed Friday that Demps’s firing was Benson’s call, the first major move of her stewardship of the Pelicans, which began after her husband, Tom Benson, died last March. Woj reported that Benson is “telling associates she wants an overhaul” of the franchise, one helmed by a GM with the sand to “push back” on trade proposals that don’t return enough value for a superstar who’s still under contract until 2020—an executive who can “take command of [...] the reshaping of [the] team’s future.” That kind of experienced and steely “high-level basketball executive,” though, will likely require assurances that he/she will be afforded total control of basketball operations without running things up the Saints flagpole.
Now that Benson has taken her stand—and, it must be said, authored an awfully bold statement in response to all those in the media who have questioned her experience and bona fides as an NBA owner—will she and the family’s longtime lieutenants be willing to cede that kind of control to a newcomer? Early reports suggesting that Loomis is on board with an arrangement that allows him to focus on the Saints offer cause for optimism. So does the fact the first two names to surface in connection with the opening—former Suns VP and Cavaliers GM David Griffin and longtime Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren—rank among the most respected execs in the sport. Identifying talented candidates is only part of the job, though; it remains to be seen whether Benson and a famously football-first organization can land them.
And, of course, there’s the gigantic question facing whoever it is that takes the job: What kind of offers can you gin up for Davis now?
Whether they were doing it in the best interest of the franchise or to make a statement that glamour-market teams like the Lakers can’t just rook small-market franchises, the Pelicans held fast at the trade deadline. They turned down L.A.’s offer (which reportedly included Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and at least two future first-round picks) to wait until a summer during which they could field bids from the Celtics (who will no longer be restricted from pairing Davis with Kyrie Irving by the Rose Rule) and whichever team winds up winning the 2019 NBA draft lottery (which would allow them to dangle the right to draft Zion Williamson). Now, though, the Pelicans come face-to-face with the biggest risk they ran by not pulling the trigger before February 7: What if the offers awaiting them this summer aren’t that good?
What if Danny Ainge, believing a new Pelicans front office can’t afford to let the Davis debacle carry over into another season, decides that he’s actually not going to put Jayson Tatum on the table after all? What if the team that lands the no. 1 pick decides that, come to think of it, they’d rather keep the electric Williamson for the duration of his rookie contract and his post-rookie-deal extension than ship him out for the right to hand Davis and Klutch a mammoth, nine-figure pact? What if, after all of this, they wind up choosing between packages that could amount to less than what the Lakers put forward in the first place? (Whatever happens, the Lakers’ own pursuit could be well and truly screwed; if Paul walking Davis out of the arena Thursday night was Benson’s last straw, it’s tough to see her giving the green light to anything that winds up landing AD in L.A. now.)
Friday’s firing marks the end of the line for Demps. But it’s just the beginning of what promises to be a fascinating few months for a Pelicans franchise on the precipice of either doom or a new dawn, a 25-year-old superstar whose Q rating keeps plummeting by the day, and a league waiting with bated breath for the next shoe to drop in the pursuit of one of the most transcendent talents to hit the trade market in decades. All we know about what will happen next is that Dell Demps won’t be the one making it happen. Beyond that, just about anything is possible.