The New Orleans Pelicans have Anthony Davis, which means they're in the rare, envied and vastly advantageous position of constructing their team around a 21-year-old whose ceiling is no stronger than a wall of dusty cob webs.
The Orlando Magic had Shaquille O'Neal. The San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan. The Cleveland Cavaliers had LeBron James. The Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant. There aren't many other can't miss prospects who entered the NBA with unanimous belief that they'd eventually become the best player in the world. Davis belongs in that group.
It's a situation where, barring injury, New Orleans knows they have a franchise player in the throat-clearing stage of his career. A championship is far from guaranteed, but the Pelicans have a weapon in their closet no team can match; if utilized properly, they can own the league. If not, Davis could spend his tenure as a 20-megaton bomb with no detonator. And then, sadly, he'd skip town.
Right now, it's time for incubation and delicate forethought. The Pelicans don't even know what to expect from Davis next season, or how much better he'll be than his hellacious sophomore campaign, but regardless they and he won't be good enough to win a championship. All New Orleans can do is lay tracks for the future, and make sure when Davis comes into his own, the pieces around him are prepared to push forward instead of hold him back. The team will need depth, and, if history tells us anything, at least one -- but probably two -- more All-Star-caliber player by his side.
Davis is most assured to eventually win a shelf's worth of Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year trophies, but the entire league has never been filled with more talent, and that talent is constantly growing. Winning a championship calls for a capable supporting cast, and the new CBA (which will likely be amended, in one direction or the other, by the time Davis hits his prime) makes sustainable continuity difficult.
Are the Pelicans positioning themselves as the place for Davis to thrive, or throwing their lottery ticket in the washing machine? This brings us to the team's most recent deal, where Dell Demps made the latest and most glaring "make the playoffs or you're fired" transaction of his tenure.
By trading a protected 2015 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Omer Asik, Demps and his boss, Pelicans owner Tom Benson, grabbed organic growth by the scruff of its neck and stuffed it with dynamite. Acquiring the NBA's version of Paul Bunyan for rim protection and Grade A rebounding is smart. Asik and Davis can easily be the NBA's most tenacious starting frontcourt on defense next season, and the trade clearly makes New Orleans better in 2015. If someone informed Demps that the world was going to end in 2015, and that all he had to worry about (besides the end of humanity) was making the playoffs, this would be genius. But Asik turns 28 on July 4, and will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
As the Earth continues to spin, the Turkish mountain man will have plenty of suitors lined up to increase his salary with a multi-year deal, leaving the Pelicans with either one year of service, or an offensively inept center beside Davis for the rest of his rookie contract. We've known for some time this was the road New Orleans wanted to drive down. And for various reasons it makes sense. But for many others it's dangerous, and could potentially lead them right off a cliff. Let's take a look at how we got here.
The first thing New Orleans did after selecting Davis in the 2012 NBA draft was coerce a sign-and-trade for Ryan Anderson, who'd spent the early years of his career with the Orlando Magic as Dwight Howard's side kick. There is of course nothing inherently "wrong" with this move, and Anderson (when healthy) is a fine player who's become the go-to face for stretch fours across the league. His role is important, and he can play heavy minutes on a very good team.
Soon after, Demps acquired Robin Lopez, a vacuum cleaner on the offensive glass. This was starting to look like a real foundation! But things got wonky soon after that. Lopez spent one year in New Orleans before Demps shipped him to Portland in a three-team trade that brought back Jeff Withey and Tyreke Evans. This move was pivotal, and pulled back the curtain on New Orleans' way of thinking. Evans is talented, but trading for him was a mistake, and the trickle down effect isn't anything to be happy about. With Lopez still in tow, the Pelicans might still have their 2015 first-round pick.
The most controversial deal to date came during last year's draft, when the promise of a Nerlens Noel-Davis frontcourt was dashed for Jrue Holiday, a spectacularly average starting point guard who'll make about $31 million over the next three years. It's too early to definitively grade this trade -- especially after Holiday's debut season was ruined by an injury -- but Pelicans fans loudly defend it anyway. Doing so denigrates the value of the draft pick they sent to Philadelphia, whether it was spent on Noel, Ben McLemore, Michael Carter-Williams or whoever. Holiday is not a trade asset. Whoever they selected with that pick would be. Benson wants a steak dinner, but he's using a microwave to cook the meat.
Again, the goal here should be to content for a title, not an eight-seed. Let's take a look at how New Orleans' strategy compares to what the Cavaliers did with LeBron, and what the Thunder are doing with Durant.
Cleveland's Jim Paxson only had a few years to make things work before he got the ax, and his moves were all over the place. First, he expunged uncontrollable bonfires like Ricky Davis and Darius Miles. In 2004, he traded a 2007 first-round pick for Sasha Pavlovic one day before drafting Luke Jackson with the 10th overall pick. One month later, he traded for a 31-year-old Eric Snow -- whose jump shot inspired Lars von Trier's Antichrist -- and a 23-year-old Drew Gooden. Paxson's final straw was shipping out another 2007 first-round pick for 192 glorious minutes of Jiri Welsch.
In came Danny Ferry, who signed a barrel of below-average veterans. Mo Williams was his pièce de résistance. Unwanted guest appearances by Shaq and Antawn Jamison were made. The aftermath, as we all know, was "The Decision."
With Durant, the first thing Sam Presti did was clear the deck and purchase his own easel. Established veterans (most famously Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) were dealt for draft picks and a valuable trade exception. Kurt Thomas was obtained then flipped. Russell Westbrook and James Harden were taken with high picks that could've instead been dealt for veteran assistance. If there's one adjective to describe Presti's process building around Durant, it's "patient."
When Davis was drafted by the Pelicans, Benson and Demps were in perfect position to replicate the dreamy strategy Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder carried out with Durant.
The Pelicans were even worse than they are now, and much younger. They had draft picks and cap flexibility, and seemed like the most logical fit to slide into Oklahoma City's natural spot as the NBA's "team of tomorrow."
The sample size here is two players in different financial situations, with most of their team's respective moves made under a different CBA, with different value placed in different areas. There's no "right" way to build a team, and context obviously matters, but New Orleans strategy teeters much closer to the 2.0 version of what Cleveland did, and is the exact opposite of what Oklahoma City has done with Durant. That's not a good thing.
Other teams throughout the league are rushing into a "win-now" process when they'd be far better off drizzling draft-pick marinade on their roster. They're also probably making a mistake. But none have Davis. With him comes unbearable pressure and unmatchable hope. So far, New Orleans is limiting its long-term flexibility with shortsighted moves. This isn't optimal.