By Cameron Jay Crain
“That’s all Folks,” read the t-shirt worn by Anthony Davis on the final day of the 2019 NBA regular season, likely the last day that he will be a member of the New Orleans Pelicans. The t-shirt capped off a season long embarrassment that tarnished the reputation of who many considered to be one of the best young players in the league just a year ago. Davis’s explanation that he does not pick out his own wardrobe was met with ridicule by Pelicans fans and the national media alike and assured his immature reputation. The fallout extended to the New Orleans Pelicans organization as well. On January 28th, through an article published by Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN.com, Anthony Davis informed the New Orleans Pelicans and the public that he would not resign with the Pelicans once his current contract ends in 2020. The league rules prohibit any player or his agent from making his trade request known publicly, and due to the activity of Davis’s agent Rich Paul, Davis was personally fined 25,000 dollars by the NBA league office.
The date of the trade request is noticeable for two reasons. It occurred less than two weeks before the trade deadline for the 2018-2019 season on February 7th. Additionally, Davis, through his agent, communicated with the Pelicans and other organizations in order to inform teams of which organizations he would be willing to resign for. By doing so, Davis effectively could control his own trade market. It became clear quickly that his intent was an immediate trade to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Many Pelicans fans struggled to reconcile the trade request with the five year maximum contract Davis signed just three years ago. However, some find it difficult to blame him for wanting out. “At the end of the day, the team just was not very competitive. You can’t really blame the guy for looking at the team and saying at best, we’re making the second round of the playoffs,” said William Wei, a Chalmette native and Pelicans fan. The recently fired general manager of the Pelicans, Dell Demps, spent the last few years pursuing acquisitions in order to create a contender with the ultimate goal of securing Anthony Davis as part of the organization’s future. The achilles rupture suffered by Demarcus Cousins during last regular season was the nail in the coffin.
Upon the trade request, Pelicans fans were called back to the Chris Paul trade debacle in 2011 that threatened the continuity of New Orleans basketball. Today, there is debate among those in the Pelicans community as to whether there should be concern about a potential move to Seattle or Las Vegas for the Pelicans. “If the team is really bad for five years-maybe not even five, let’s say three years-the attendance will be so low. There will be nobody at these games. I’d be pretty worried about the team moving,” said William Wei. It’s true that Pelicans attendance ranks near dead-last every year, and national media outlets often question the viability of a professional basketball team in a relatively small market dominated by the Saints and LSU football. Preston Ellis of “The Bird Writes” disagreed. “Teams don’t move because of bad performance. They move because the owner wants to move or sell the team.”
Gayle Benson, the current New Orleans Pelicans owner, inherited the team along with the Saints when her husband, Tom, passed. In 2015, Tom Benson entered a legal battle with his children from his first wife in which his children claimed he was mentally unfit to run his estate and was being influenced unduly by Gayle. In May, the court ruled against the Benson children, and in July, Tom Benson signed a will that left the Pelicans and Saints in a trust with Gayle as the sole beneficiary. Her tenure as an owner has been brief, and there is speculation in the national media regarding her commitment to the basketball organization. In fairness to Gayle Benson, the Benson family has long been committed to the New Orleans community, and the late Tom’s original purchase of the Pelicans was in an effort to save basketball in New Orleans.
A common theme in the national media coverage of the trade situation is the lack of awareness for the opinions of those who follow the Pelicans closely. It’s no secret that the Pelicans have the least media coverage of any NBA team, and the articles surrounding the best potential trade packages for the Pelicans reflect the ignorance of the national media to the desires of Pelicans fans. Much of the national media suggests packages surrounding big name talent such as Jayson Tatum or Ben Simmons. Many of these articles support their assertions by proclaiming that these packages are the favorites of Pelicans fans due to the increased chances that the Pelicans would remain in New Orleans if they have a star player.
National media outlets also refer to the role of Mickey Loomis, the Saints general manager, with the Pelicans to demonstrate the incompetence of the franchise. Often this dig is coupled with the rumor that the Pelicans and the Saints share a training staff. Andrew Lopez, a
New Orleans Pelicans beat writer for the Times-Picayune, says, “Loomis’s role with the Pelicans is overblown. He’s more of a figurehead than anything else. He doesn’t have anything to do with player movement but Benson has already gone on the record said Loomis is shifting out of any role and the new GM/President will answer directly to her.” With the recent hire of David Griffin, the former General manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers who won a championship at that position, it’s clear that Lopez is correct in his assessment on the Loomis situation.
The removal of Dell Demps from his longstanding position as the general manager of the Pelicans is a refreshing moment for fans of the franchise. It also legitimizes the franchise in the eyes of the national landscape and establishes the beginning of the Gayle Benson era in New Orleans. The choice of David Griffin has been a welcome one among Pelican fans due to his success navigating the drama of being Lebron James’s general manager. As James is closely linked to Klutch Sports and Rich Paul, Griffin has experience dealing with Paul in the past. As Chris Paul and Anthony Davis have both demanded trades to get out of New Orleans, questions have long swirled about the potential for success in a market as small as New Orleans. However, Griffin was an integral part of bringing a championship to Cleveland, and in his introductory press conference in New Orleans, Griffin expressed confidence that there would be no issues building a consistent contender in New Orleans. Griffin also has expressed confidence that his relationship with Rich Paul could help mend the divide between the Pelicans and Anthony Davis. Pelicans fans are right to doubt that Davis would be open to returning to the team next season, but even despite his antics on the final night of the season, he would be welcomed back.
In the wake of the trade request, many national media members such as The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and former NBA players questioned Anthony Davis’s on court value. They wondered if he was truly a top five player in the league considering he could not bring his team to the playoffs. However, Pelicans fans, who have watched Davis develop into a superstar during his tenure, disagree. Andrew Lopez of the Times-Picayune pushed back on the idea that Davis is overrated, “He’s still a top-five NBA player who can impact both ends of the floor like no other player in the NBA when he’s fully engaged. He’s been dealt some bad cards with the teams around him. Jrue Holiday was only really healthy the last three seasons. The failed experiments from his first 5 years are well documented.”
Although David Griffin has expressed an interest in trying to mend the relationship between the Pelicans organization and Davis, it seems likely that Davis will be traded after the draft lottery, when the draft order is set in stone and the Pelicans can be assured of the value of the pick they trade for.
Although Pelicans fans are aware that the lack of a star would be dangerous for the organization, many see downsides to this approach as well. “Why would I want to trade AD for a star player who in two or three years is just going to leave anyway?” Wei asked. When pressed for answers about what type of package he would like to see, Wei answered “I want a package centered around draft picks-hopefully, a top 3 pick this year and a couple more picks. That way, we can build a team up.” This attitude reflects a willingness and desire from Pelicans fans for the franchise to operate as any other.
Instead of worrying about whether or not the Pelicans are going to relocate, Pelicans fans think about building a competitive team. In talks with beat writers familiar with the franchise and fans alike, it is clear that the top priority for the Pelicans should be the accumulation of draft picks. In particular, fans are clamoring for a top two pick in this years draft in order to draft Ja Morant or Zion Williamson. By drafting those players, they will be team-controlled for the first seven years of their career. Alleviating the anxiety of another star player forcing his way out of New Orleans soon. Benson’s recent comments have eased the worries of New Orleans basketball fans about relocation, and with the introduction of a new general manager, one that has championship experience in another small market, there is a glimmer of hope for the future of the Pelicans. Through all his worries about the direction of the franchise, Wei expressed a trust in Gayle Benson. “More than anything her goal is to keep the team here. Honestly, I think she cares more about keeping the Pelicans in New Orleans than actually having a good team.”