How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

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NBC Sports

How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

The clock almost hit midnight on June 30, 2015 when Anthony Davis tweeted his contract announcement with the “#6MoreYears” hashtag. Davis had just inked a five-year, $145 million extension and posted a photo of him standing with his agent, Thad Foucher, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry and New Orleans GM Dell Demps. 

It was a moment of celebration for the Pelicans franchise. The future seemingly looked bright. They made the playoffs in Year 3 of The Brow era, improving each season in the win column. They had poached Gentry from the champion Golden State Warriors’ bench. Most importantly, Davis was in.

But that’s really when the clock began to tick on Demps and the Pelicans organization. This was their opportunity to prove that Davis, now 25, should spend his prime years and beyond in New Orleans. This coming summer, Davis will be eligible to sign a five-year, $239 million supermax extension with the Pelicans, if the Pelicans choose to offer it. But New Orleans’ financial advantage may not be an advantage at all.

“I’d take legacy over money,” Davis told Yahoo! Sports recently.

The sharks are circling. LeBron James made it known he’d love to play with him in Laker Land. The Boston Celtics have loads of assets to dangle (though a trade offer will have to wait until this summer due to a CBA quirk). The Golden State Warriors would “surely be interested,” per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, if he became available. And you can never count out Houston, who can put Clint Capela on the table starting Jan 15. As one general manager told NBC Sports, it “seems like 29 teams are in the AD chase.”

You can include the Pelicans on that list and make it 30. 

* * *

New Orleans got lucky on May 30, 2012. 

That night on national television, NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that New Orleans (then called the Hornets, now the Pelicans) won the draft lottery over the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets -- confusing, I know). 

It was a stunner. New Orleans had the fourth-best odds at winning the No. 1 overall pick and thanks to a fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls, it jumped the three teams ahead of it -- Washington, Cleveland and, most surprisingly, Charlotte, which went just 7-59 in a lockout-shortened season.

With just a 13.7 percent chance, New Orleans won the day.

"Obviously, we're very excited," Demps said that night. "This is a great day for the city of New Orleans, our fans. ... This is the start of a new beginning."

Demps and the rest of the NBA knew Davis was a game-changer, head and shoulders above the rest of his 2012 draft class. DraftExpress once described Davis as “the most impressive blend of athletic tools we've seen in a big man prospect in our nine years evaluating the NBA draft.” 

For a tiny city like New Orleans, this was hitting jackpot. New Orleans is the smallest of the NBA small markets, according to Nielsen TV designated market-area research, ranking 51st among United States cities. By pure market size, New Orleans shouldn’t have an NBA franchise. Albuquerque, NM., Grand Rapids, MI., and Harrisburg, PA., are more deserving of a franchise from a TV market standpoint. 

For the franchise in the smallest of small markets, the best big man of a generation fell into its lap. What did they do with that lottery ticket? 

Not much.

Let’s say you hopped into a time machine and traveled to the morning following that 2012 draft lottery and asked NBA fans to make a prediction: Who would have a better record over the next seven seasons, through the 2018 calendar year: New Orleans or Charlotte? 

Those fans would probably say New Orleans, right? Duh, they just landed the Brow. And Charlotte just went 7-and-freakin’-59!

But take it a step further. Guarantee that Davis stayed with the team through 2018. Guarantee those NBA fans that Davis would become everything they imagined and more. Tell them that Davis would average 23.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his NBA career before hitting his prime. Tell them that he would own the third-highest player-efficiency rating among all players since he entered the league -- only LeBron James and Kevin Durant rank higher

Tell them that, despite the occasional gripe that Davis is injury-prone, he’d play more games over the next seven seasons than other superstars like Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Don’t stop there. Tell those NBA fans that Charlotte, coming off the worst season ever, would select Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and he’d become a solid role player, who, by 2018, would be a full-time reserve. 

Now ask them: Knowing all that, which team through 2018 would have a better record? 

Imagine their faces when you tell them that Charlotte, not New Orleans, is the correct answer. Since that 2012 lottery, Charlotte has gone 235-293 (.445 win percentage), per Basketball-Reference.com and reached the playoffs twice. The Pelicans have gone 235-295 (.443) since lucking into Davis. They’ve reached the playoffs the same number of times and gotten past the first-round once. Charlotte is one of 20 teams with a better record than New Orleans since he entered the league. 

The question is, why?

* * *

The Pelicans swept the Blazers last postseason, but aside from that brief moment in the sun, the events over the past four months must be nauseating for Pelicans fans. 

In September, Davis fired his New Orleans-based agent Foucher and hired LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul. Then, in an October profile in Sports Illustrated, former NBA commissioner David Stern took a shot at Pelicans brass when discussing how the Chris Paul trade fell apart in 2011, calling Demps “a lousy general manager … and he may lose Anthony Davis.”

With Davis rumors swirling, the Pelicans swiped back at the former de facto owner of their franchise and defended their longtime decision-maker with a public statement:

"We are very disappointed to read the inappropriate and inaccurate comments from the former NBA Commissioner regarding the New Orleans Pelicans. Our organization has the utmost confidence in our General Manager, Dell Demps. He is part of our family, the NBA family. We are excited about the direction of our team, the 3-0 start of this season, building on the success of the 2017/18 playoffs.” 

(The statement concluded with a not-so-veiled line endorsing Stern’s successor, Adam Silver.)

But shortly after beating their chest about a 3-0 start, the Pelicans lost six straight and the season began to spiral. In one of the most important seasons in franchise history, the Pelicans are currently 16-21 and sitting 14th among 15 Western Conference teams. What’s in front of them is daunting: They’d have to leapfrog six teams just to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the four seasons since Davis signed his extension.

To top it all off, in the week leading up to the Christmas Day games, LeBron told ESPN “that would be amazing” if Davis joined him on the Lakers. 

James’ comments led to an outcry from small market teams about LeBron tampering with Davis, but the Pelicans’ problem has nothing to do with big markets bullying small markets, tampering or LeBron James. It has to do with a team stumbling upon a winning lottery ticket and having little to show for it.

* * *

The Pelicans have tried to put talent around Davis, starting with Eric Gordon in 2012. Gordon was supposed to be Davis’ first co-star before injuries and early disagreements with the front office marred his future in New Orleans.

Demps then acquired Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins. When healthy, Holiday has played at an All-Star level and Cousins flourished alongside Davis in 65 games as a Pelican. Demps also made a shrewd trade for Nikola Mirotic and added Julius Randle on a team-friendly deal this past summer. 

But as is so often the case in New Orleans, Davis’ supporting cast largely ended up sidelined for long stretches. These things can be subject to random variation. Some years, you’re healthy. Some years, you’re banged-up. The Pelicans have been routinely banged-up for years.

With Davis’ name churning through the rumor mill, the microscope is firmly on the Pelicans now. And the long collection of injuries -- coupled with the disagreements stemming from those injuries -- do not paint a rosy picture.

Last season, the Pelicans suffered the most player games lost due to injury, per an InStreetClothes.com analysis, costing the team nearly $30 million in lost salary. The season before that, they ranked third-last in games lost due to injury. The season before that, they ranked dead-last again. Over the last five seasons, the Pelicans have lost the second-most games due to injury or illness. Only the Sixers have fared worse over the last five seasons, which has been well-chronicled.

This pattern isn’t a total anomaly if you ask rival team executives, who have long chided the Pelicans’ medical team for being run by “football guys” instead of those who have experience in the NBA. Fair or not, the Pelicans are fighting against a league-wide perception.

“The organization only cares about the Saints,” one league exec told NBC Sports.

Run by the Benson family, the Pelicans are one of three NBA teams whose primary ownership group also owns an NFL franchise (the Allen family owns the Blazers/Seahawks and the Kroenke family owns the Nuggets/Rams). But the Pelicans are the only NBA team that shares both its staffing and practice facility grounds with the football team, which many around the league see as a “corporate synergy” cost-saving measure. In 2012, the late Tom Benson appointed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis to be president of basketball operations for the Pelicans, overseeing Demps in the org chart. While the Lakers have Magic Johnson and the Celtics have Danny Ainge, the Pelicans have a football executive.

The medical staff is also filled with football résumés. The Pelicans’ head trainer, Jon Ishop, was hired in 2010 after eight seasons with the Houston Texans. When Ishop left to go to the Pistons in 2016, Demps said “an organizational decision” was made to replace Ishop with Duane Brooks, who had been an assistant trainer with the Saints before being brought over to the NBA side (This summer, the Pelicans decided to part ways with Brooks after his contract expired, sources tell NBC Sports.).

In August 2017, the Saints made national headlines after firing two orthopedists following a misdiagnosis of cornerback Delvin Breaux’s broken leg as a bone bruise. One of those fired physicians, Dr. Misty Suri, was serving dual roles with the Saints and the Pelicans. 

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton explained the dismissal by saying, “I think it’s not one event, it probably builds up over a period of time. You’re not gonna bat a thousand here, but you’re just hoping that more often than not, you’re getting the right information.”
 
Despite being let go by the Saints, Dr. Suri maintained his position as the Director of Medical Services and Head Team Physician for the Pelicans. He has been there ever since, overseeing this rough spate of injuries.

The football-heavy influence on the training staff is something that has caught the eye of Davis’ longtime trainer, Marcell Scott, a New Orleans native who also works closely with Pelicans forward Jahlil Okafor.

“Let the Saints be the Saints,” Scott told NBC Sports. “They get all the recognition [in New Orleans] anyways. As a city, we need basketball guys with basketball guys and football guys with football guys. That’s how you get better as an organization moving forward.”

It’s not rare to see a player need multiple surgeries to correct an injury or problem area. But the Pelicans seem to deal with this more than most teams: Tyreke Evans’ three knee surgeries in 10 months; Quincy Pondexter’s multiple knee surgeries and scary battle with MRSA; two surgeries on a broken foot for 2017 No. 31 overall pick Frank Jackson; multiple knee procedures on both knees for Alexis Ajinca. 

Evans never panned out as a Pelican, and other clashes with the medical staff included players on the margins. New Orleans needed to protect players brought in to be co-stars next to Anthony Davis: Gordon, Holiday, and Cousins. Ultimately, they’ve failed in that regard. 

New Orleans fans will remember the Chris Paul trade and Gordon’s subsequent knee injury saga that kicked off his bumpy tenure with the organization. In 2012, Demps went against Gordon’s initial public wishes to leave New Orleans and matched Phoenix’s max offer for Gordon. The team physician and Gordon disagreed on the severity of a right knee injury that caused Gordon to miss training camp and the team forbade its max player from speaking to reporters, prompting Gordon to go straight to the national media himself and declare he’d be out four to six weeks. 

A series of stress fractures and stress reactions to Holiday’s right leg wiped out half his 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Stress fractures are not uncommon. But in 2015, Holiday’s long-time personal trainer Mike Guevara, in an interview with SB Nation, questioned the Pelicans’ return-to-play procedure and said that Holiday’s “minutes were not managed as well … his minutes were relatively high and in my opinion he was thrown into the fire too soon.” 

(The following season, in 2015-16, the Pelicans lowered Holiday’s minutes and Guevara was officially brought on as a sports-performance consultant by the Pelicans.)

Last season, Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon after an excessive workload just before the All-Star break. Playing on the fastest team in the NBA, Cousins also endured the most taxing month of his career from a minutes perspective, which included playing four overtimes in nine days and one game in which he played a career-high 52 minutes. His Achilles tendon snapped in the fourth quarter, his fourth game in seven days. 

In Cousins, Demps appeared to finally get his Davis co-star. But once again, the Pelicans seemed to mismanage a golden opportunity and run it into the ground.

* * *

The Pelicans have every right to be nervous about Davis’ future. 

It’s the smallest market in the NBA, which is no small thing for a global star like Davis. He fired his New Orleans-based agent and hired LeBron’s agent and then LeBron courted him, creating a media firestorm. His tenure with the organization has been marred by a poor track record with injuries and public disagreements about diagnoses. David Stern’s comment added insult to injury.

Ask any GM and they’ll rank their medical and training staff as above-average. Statistically, that can’t be true. The Pelicans internally believe they have a top-five practice facility, which is something that most teams would likely say about their own operation. A famous psychological study found that 93 percent of polled Americans believed themselves to be more skillful than the median driver. Same goes for the injury prevention industry.

Still, by the win-loss column, 20 teams, including Charlotte, have fared better than the Pelicans since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012. One can only wonder what the organization might look like if it hadn’t gotten so lucky on that 2012 draft lottery day. It’s becoming harder and harder to blame Davis if he decides to try his luck somewhere else.

Family focus: How the Currys are leading the second generation of NBA athletes

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NBC Sports

Family focus: How the Currys are leading the second generation of NBA athletes

This year’s All-Star Weekend in Charlotte will be a family affair, a celebration of House Curry, if you will.

Stephen Curry will participate in the 3-point contest with his brother, Seth, a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, marking the first time that brothers will compete together in the marquee event. Not only that, the Currys will let it fly in the same city where the two grew up. Their father Dell, currently an analyst for the Hornets broadcast team and a two-time 3-point shooting contest participant himself, was part of the original Charlotte Hornets team and retired as the franchise’s career scoring leader. On Sunday, before the All-Star Game, the NBA will honor Dell at an event for his contributions on and off the court.

Make no mistake about it, the Curry family is NBA royalty and this is their homecoming. Stephen is the two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion who currently leads the NBA in 3-pointers per game (5.1). Seth, now in his fifth season, leads the NBA in 3-point percentage, making a blistering 47.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. 

Fans are obsessed with their every move. Seth’s Instagram account has 1.7 million followers, more than any MLB or NHL star. Meanwhile, Steph led the league in jersey sales for a third-straight season and boasts more Instagram followers than the top-three most-followed NFL stars, Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady and Cam Newton, combined. 

While the Currys changed the game of basketball by weaponizing the 3-point shot like never before, they’re also the most prominent faces in a fascinating trend. A wave of second-generation NBA players has flooded the league in recent years. This season, there are 27 sons of NBA players, including Steph, Seth, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Devin Booker, Domantas Sabonis and Justise Winslow, among others.

The Currys are the patriarchs among a growing family of patriarchs. These days, the term “NBA family” takes on a new meaning.

* * *

As Stephen, Seth and Dell act as official and unofficial hosts this weekend in Charlotte, they’ll also serve as reminders of the father-son dynamic infiltrating the league’s elite.

In the All-Star Game itself, Stephen will be joined by fellow second-generation player Thompson (father Mychal won two titles with the Lakers). Booker, son of former NBAer Melvin, will join Seth and Stephen in the 3-point contest after winning last year’s event. Sabonis (the legendary Arvydas is his father) and Jaren Jackson Jr (father Jaren played 12 seasons in the NBA) will be featured in the Rising Stars game. Al Horford and Kevin Love, though not chosen to participate this year, are All-Star mainstays who are also second-generation NBA players. 

That doesn’t even illustrate the full scope of this familial phenomenon. That list of 27 does not count Rising Star participant and Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen and his father, Leonard, who was drafted 50th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 1985 but played professionally in Spain instead. JaVale McGee’s mother, Pamela, was the No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA’s 1997 draft and his father George Montgomery was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1985 draft but never played in the NBA. Also outside that 27: Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, whose fathers played pro basketball in Australia, and Luka Doncic, whose father, Sasa, played pro ball in Slovenia. 

Both of Lonzo Ball’s parents played college hoops and his father, LaVar Ball, once signed with the New York Jets as a defensive end. The Knicks’ Kevin Knox is actually Kevin Knox II; his father played in the NFL. Marvin Bagley III is the grandson of two-time All-Star (Jumping) Joe Caldwell and the son of Marvin Jr., who played pro football in the AFL. Lauri Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played pro hoops in Europe after playing for coach Roy Williams at University of Kansas. Lauri’s mother, Riika, played basketball for the Finnish national team. Dirk Nowitzki’s mother, Helga, once played basketball for the German national team while his father Jörg-Werner was an elite handball player. 

The Currys aren’t even the only active NBA brothers with a father who played in the league; Jerami and Jerian Grant are the sons of former NBAer Harvey Grant, who is the twin brother of All-Star and four-time champion Horace.

All these familial links may seem obvious. Height is the leading predictor of NBA players and that’s a genetically-linked trait passed on through DNA. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal found that nearly half of NBA players were related to current or former elite athletes. Giants tend to produce giants, after all. Not only that, but the pool of potential NBA fathers only gets larger over time.

But this latest boom seems extraordinary. The arrival of Curry in 2009 coincided with an influx of NBA sons. In 2008-09, the list was only 10 names long. During Stephen’s rookie season, in 2009-10, he led a group that grew to 16, the most the league had ever seen. The next season, two more. Another three the following year. By 2014-15, it ballooned to 27 players, where it currently stands.

There may be more on the horizon. Oregon center Bol Bol, son of the late Manute Bol, is one of the top prospects in the 2019 Draft. LeBron “Bronny” James Jr., is still in eighth grade, but he has reportedly received an offer from Duke University already and could reach the NBA right around the time his father turns 40 years. Dwyane Wade’s son, Zaire, has already been offered a scholarship by Nebraska as part of the class of 2020. Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille, is at UCLA but sitting out the season with a heart ailment. Cole Anthony, the son of Greg, is the No. 2 prospect of the 2019 class on ESPN’s 100 and Trayce Jackson-Davis (son of Dale Davis) checks in at No. 25.  Scotty Pippen Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr., DJ Rodman (short for Dennis Rodman Jr.) are all highly-touted prospects coming through the pipeline.

Nature is certainly a big part of the boom, but nurture could also play a pivotal role. More specifically: Follow the money. The NBA’s business skyrocketed in the 1990s with Michael Jordan and the globalization of the game. In Dell Curry’s first season, the NBA’s salary cap stood at $4.9 million. By the time he retired in 2001-02, it had grown to $42.5 million. It stands to reason that NBA players became substantially richer and therefore, able to provide more resources for their children -- access to trainers, gyms and specialists -- to pursue basketball as a profession. 

I asked Brent Barry, the vice president of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs who played 14 seasons in the NBA, if he could offer up any insight. He and his two brothers, Jon and Drew, both played in the NBA, following in the footsteps of his Hall-of-Fame-father Rick.

Brent first pointed out the fundamental role of genetics, but he also made a point to emphasize his mother, Pam. She is the daughter of NBA player Bruce Hale, which makes Brent a third-generation NBA player of sorts.

That’s when it hits: Does the rise of the father-son NBA combo have more to do with the mother’s side? The 1990s saw a boon for high-level female athletics. In 1991, the International Olympic Committee made a ruling that all new sports applying for Olympic recognition must include female competitors. Women’s soccer and softball became Olympic sports leading into the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The WNBA debuted in 1997, roughly around the same time as the current influx of NBA sons were born. 

David Epstein, author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Sports Gene,” is an expert on the role of nature vs. nurture in athletics. He agrees that genetics are the integral part of the rise of father-son NBA players. 

“You have the sons who have potential, the fathers with means and knowledge, and the high desire to follow in dad's footsteps,” Epstein says. “You have a perfect storm of convergence.”

Though he hasn’t studied this particular finding, he hypothesizes that there are more athletic parent couples than ever before. The athletic supercouples like the McGees, Nowitzkis and Markkanens are becoming more and more the norm.

"Women haven't really had many sports opportunities for very long at all,” Epstein said. “You could argue there's a lot more opportunity for elite athlete couples to form than in the past. I'd guess it will only become more common as women get more athletic opportunities."

Seth and Stephen’s father may have been an NBA sharpshooter, but their mother, Sonya, played collegiate volleyball at Virginia Tech and also led her high school basketball team to two state championships. Sydel Curry, Stephen and Seth’s sister, followed her mother’s footsteps and played Division I volleyball at Elon University. (Speaking of supercouples, she wedded Golden State Warriors reserve guard Damion Lee last year).  

The Plumlee brothers (Mason, Marshall and Miles) all reaching the NBA makes more sense when you find out their parents, Leslie and Perky, both played college basketball (Purdue and Tennessee Tech, respectively). Boris Diaw’s mother, Elisabeth, is in the French Basketball Hall of Fame while his father was a former Senegalese high-jump champion.

It’s tempting to focus on the father-son combos of NBA royalty, but the role of both parents, just like with the Currys, must be fully appreciated.

* * *

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Curry watched his father compete in the family’s first 3-point shooting contest. It was the 1992 NBA All-Star Weekend, Vanilla Ice was the halftime act, and Dell was a sharpshooter for the budding Charlotte Hornets, a franchise born the same year as Stephen. 

Stephen, just three years old at the time, was there on the sidelines with his father, getting a front-row view. He even sat on Dell’s lap during the contest and watched basketball greats like John Stockton and Drazen Petrovic compete against his father.

Nearly three decades later, Stephen continues to cement his family’s status as NBA royalty. 

In October, after Stephen scored 29 points, Stephen and Dell surpassed Donny and Dolph Schayes as the second-most points of any father/son combination in NBA history. The Currys (not counting Seth) now have 28,420 points between them and only Kobe and Joe Bryant’s total of 38,895 points stand in front of them.

One day, the Currys may well surpass the Bryants as the leading father-son combo. But even if they get there, the Currys might not hold that title for long. Their father-son successors could be in Charlotte, lurking on the All-Star sidelines, just like Stephen and Dell 27 years ago. 

With the Currys hosting the NBA, the All-Star Weekend in Charlotte is certainly a family affair. If current trends hold, the notion of Team LeBron, in time, may be more than an All-Star Weekend moniker.

Trade deadline winners and losers: Fultz is free; East contenders shine; Tough look for Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Trade deadline winners and losers: Fultz is free; East contenders shine; Tough look for Lakers

Anthony Davis is still a Pelican.

But just about everything else in the NBA changed this past week. 

Let’s dole out the winners and losers of a crazy trade deadline.

Winners

Philadelphia 76ers
This team is stacked. The Sixers had two needs going into the deadline: A backup center and, more importantly, adding shooting around their three stars. They filled both voids -- and may have picked up a fourth star in the process. Tobias Harris, as I wrote on Wednesday, is a lesser version of Kevin Durant -- a big wing with superb shooting touch. He’s an ideal No. 4, a rare player who can excel on and off the ball. 

They gave up a bunch of promising assets to get the deal done and owner Josh Harris will pay a stiff luxury tax bill soon, but it’s not like Tobias Harris is on the wrong side of 30. He’s just entering his prime. Finally, they needed to move on from the Markelle Fultz experiment. Netting two picks to replenish their draft assets was icing on the cake. This might be the team to beat out East.

Twitter
My thumb hurts. 

Milwaukee Bucks
Executives were all over the map on this one. Most agree that getting a player like Nikola Mirotic, a super-snug fit for the Mike Budenholzer spread offense, is a win. Getting him without giving up a first-round pick is even sweeter.

But the idea of Mirotic may be better than the reality. The impending free agent hasn’t played in two weeks because of a nagging calf strain, an injury likely related to a bad ankle in the same leg. Maybe the Pelicans put him on ice to preserve his trade value, but he has missed about half the season. 

He’ll have to be healthy to defend at a high level in the playoffs. The Celtics badly exploited him two postseasons ago, scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The Pelicans thrived with him there against Portland last postseason. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Bottom line, Mirotic has to get his wheels right. Do that, and a Finals trip may be in the cards.

Los Angeles Clippers
I loved the Harris trade for both sides. The Clippers did a superb job exchanging a four-month rental in Harris into valuable picks and loads of cap space. In Indiana, cap space is overrated. That’s not so in Los Angeles, especially with Steve Ballmer as your owner. The worst place to be in the NBA is stuck in the middle. After shedding salary and loading up on picks, the Clippers have drawn up a compelling blueprint to dodge the hamster wheel of mediocrity.

Toronto Raptors
There are real concerns here that 34-year-old Marc Gasol won’t be able to keep up in the loaded East. But he is so, so good when healthy and able. Stick Kawhi Leonard on the opposing star with Gasol as your backline, and you’re in good shape. That is, if Gasol still has gas left in the tank.

Gasol is a heady defender who may have been coasting the last couple months (or at least Toronto fans hope so). If Gasol isn’t mobile enough to hang with the East’s powers, they can always fall back on Serge Ibaka. The upside -- an elite passing big man who can stretch the floor and annoy the heck out of opponents -- is too good to pass up. Kyle Lowry’s bad back worries me, but they can play through Gasol when Lowry can’t zip around like he used to.

New Orleans Pelicans
Dell Demps could have panicked and thrown a last-ditch Hail Mary to try to save his job (it’s not even clear if it’s on the line). But all along, it made sense to hold onto Davis and play the long game. The Pelicans can slide for their own 2019 pick. Soon, they’ll have clarity on the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. And the Boston Celtics, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, can enter the fray July 1. Remember, the Lakers’ trade package won’t magically disappear at the deadline. Demps knew that and played his hand well. 

Boston Celtics
You know the saying, “one step forward, two steps back?” The Celtics took one step back and two steps forward at the trade deadline. The East royalty got better, but the larger outlook is far rosier than it looked a few days ago. Take a deep breath, Boston fans: Davis is still a Pelican. 

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens still have to walk a fine line going forward. Kyrie Irving needs to be happy. Tatum and Brown need to fully commit to winning despite the looming threat of being Pelicans bait this summer. This won’t be a cake walk, but they have the inside track to landing Davis and positioning themselves as the next superpower if Durant leaves Golden State. Big picture, that’s all that matters.

Golden State Warriors
Maybe Houston got a smidge better with Iman Shumpert. Perhaps Rodney Hood moves Portland’s needle a tad. But Denver, OKC, Portland, San Antonio and Utah basically sat on their hands. The end.

Washington Wizards
Look, there’s a real chance that the Wizards hand Bobby Portis another Otto Porter contract and we’re right back where we started. But until then, I’m going to applaud Ernie Grunfeld and the front office for being pragmatic about the situation. They moved off their hard stance on Porter and actually got under the tax. This feels like a step in the right direction. Check back in four months. A Portis overpay to justify the Porter deal may be on the horizon.

Dallas Mavericks
I recognize that I’m higher on the Kristaps Porzingis trade than most. To me, it’s simple: You need superstars to win championships and they have two players with a real chance to be All-NBA anchors. Doncic is still 19 years old and Porzingis is five months younger than his new teammate Justin Jackson, who was drafted in 2017. 

We don’t have many data points on 7-foot-3 All-Stars recovering from a torn ACL, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves that he was, when healthy, a 7-foot-3 All-Star. And the Mavs will be in no rush to bring him back with Doncic still a teenager. The cap space they created in the Harrison Barnes deal, which could be about $30 million this summer, is the cherry on top. The Mavericks could have a front line of Doncic, Porzingis and DeMarcus Cousins next season. Good thing there’s no salary cap on medical staffs.

Markelle Fultz
He gets a fresh start in Orlando, which may be the most under-the-radar team in the NBA. (They should be under the radar, because they’re not very good). Fultz can just get back to basketball and not deal with the microscope that is the Philadelphia sports scene.

The top two East seeds
Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Orlando and Washington made lateral moves or no moves at all. Those are five teams fighting for the last two playoffs spots. None of them are .500 or even a win away from that line. For the teams that get the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds at the top of the East, this is as close to a first-round bye as it gets.

Losers

Los Angeles Lakers
We’re about two months away from the Sacramento Kings taking LeBron James’ spot in the playoffs. That is a sentence I never dreamed I would type. Maybe if I was talking about his son, LeBron James Jr., in five years, but here we are. It’s a very real possibility.

I still wouldn’t bet against James going on a rampage and single-handedly earning the West’s final playoff spot. But James, after missing 17 games, is looking human. Kuzma is shooting 30.2 percent on 3s. Brandon Ingram won’t shoot 3s. Lonzo Ball is allergic to 1s. JaVale McGee is the only player on the Lakers’ roster not named LeBron James with an above-average player efficiency rating (which is 15.0). That is not a typo. Maybe Carmelo Anthony, who hasn’t played a pro basketball game in three months, is the answer. I’m not banking on it.

Fifthteenth guys on playoff teams
The buyout market appears to be more robust than ever. Contenders can choose from a lot that could include all of the following players: Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Robin Lopez, Zach Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Dewayne Dedmon, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Milos Teodosic, Michael Beasley, Shelvin Mack and Greg Monroe. Of that group, Lopez figures to have the biggest impact for contending teams.

Mike Conley
After fighting back from Achilles surgery, it would have been cool to see Conley find his way to a playoff team in Indiana or Utah. Heck, it’d be cool to see him in Detroit with Blake Griffin fighting for a playoff spot. Conley could go down as the best player never to make an All-Star team. By not going to an Eastern Conference team this week, those chances dwindled even further. I’d be stunned if Conley isn’t moved this summer as a free-agency backup plan.