LOS ANGELES -- They represent a city that takes pride in being quirky, mysterious and wonderfully peculiar -- although none of these traits quite make sense for basketball. The New Orleans Pelicans are different than most NBA teams right now, that’s for sure, and not for all the right reasons.
The Pelicans are caught in the crossroads as the regular season begins its lurch toward the end, dropping Wednesday's game to the Los Angeles Lakers, 125-119.
New Orleans' best player, a top-five NBA talent, doesn’t want to be there. They can’t -- or either won’t -- play him more than 20 or so minutes a night, if he plays at all. The Pelicans are headed for a losing season, there’s a long-term vacancy at general manager, questions about ownership exist, and there are limited assets on the roster to create a drastic makeover.
These are not normal or healthy signs for an NBA team, and potentially troublesome for one located in a small market. Yet the Pelicans have no choice but to steer the rocky ship until solutions can be found in the offseason, starting with what to do with Anthony Davis.
The team and the player are trying to make the best of an uncomfortable (though not unprecedented) situation. Last month, when Davis informed the Pelicans through his agency (which also represents LeBron James) that he wanted to be traded, neither side imagined they’d be in this situation heading into March: stuck with each other for another two months. Yet, here they are.
“We had discussions and this is what we’re doing,” said Davis, referencing an arrangement that has him on a minutes restriction, mainly to protect him and the team. If Davis gets injured, that could affect his trade value this summer, which serves no one any good -- not him, not the Pelicans and not any team interested in acquiring him.
Also, the league frowns upon healthy players being stashed at home, especially if they’re considered box-office types, so everyone’s satisfied with Davis in uniform ... sort of.
In truth, the Pelicans and Davis can’t wait for this season to end. It’s not an especially good look, both sides putting on a good face through a tough situation. The Pelicans have begun plans for life after Davis, except there’s no permanent general manager in place yet, with Danny Ferry serving in the interim since the firing of Dell Demps two weeks ago.
Whomever gets the job must bring sturdy boots and rolled-up sleeves. This will be a chore, and the Pelicans can’t afford to miss. That means the Draft (where they’ll likely select a lottery pick), in any trade proposal for Davis, and in deciding what, if anything, to do with coach Alvin Gentry (whose status beyond this season is also unclear).
A series of bad moves could put the franchise in peril. The Pelicans aren’t considered a destination for A-list free agents -- and their franchise player wants out, which raises red flags -- making it imperative that they avoid big mistakes. That could have a rippling effect on a team that isn’t exactly one of the league’s big earners and already dealing with the perception that ownership, which also owns the NFL's New Orleans Saints, leans football.
Gayle Benson, widow of Tom Benson, now controls the Pelicans and in her statement announcing the dismissal of Demps, she dismissed any notion of the basketball team as a lower priority. She used strong words -- “I am prepared to provide any and all resources to compete for championships” -- to reassure wavering fans about the immediate and long-term future of the club.
Proof is in the production, however, and Benson’s pledge will be tested by the upcoming decisions that will help or hurt the reshaping of the team.
With the right move, the Davis trade could greatly help put bounce in the franchise. They could try to follow the same manner as the Indiana Pacers did in trading Paul George (and Indiana wasn't holding great leverage in its trade with Oklahoma City). Once the Draft order is determined in on May 14, teams holding lottery picks will begin putting together packages for Davis.
A savvy GM will essentially hold an auction and use the incoming assets to keep or deal for players who can refresh the team and build toward the future. There’s an urgency to draft correctly and find young players to develop and maybe even draft the next … Davis?
Their costly blunder, and the reason they’re in this situation, was a failure to maximize Davis’ prime years. Crummy luck with injuries have also doomed the Pelicans the last four seasons, with none more damaging than DeMarcus Cousins rupturing his Achilles' tendon 13 months ago. To get Cousins from the Kings, the Pelicans dealt Buddy Hield, now a deadly shooter who might be reaching the All-Star fringes. Cousins, meanwhile, has since joined the Warriors, meaning the Pelicans have zilch to show for the trade.
Each big face-palm, especially with a lottery selection, can set a team back a few years. After winning only one playoff series with Davis, the Pelicans can’t afford to start from the bottom again, or else risk the sight of empty sections throughout their arena.
In the meantime, there’s a season to be played between now and any potential deal, a season that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose with Davis simply biding his time and only halfway invested.
“We just have to continue to play basketball,” said Gentry, sounding trapped and resigned to this fate. “At the end of the day, that’s all we can do.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.