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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.