It’s early, but the 2016-17 New Orleans Pelicans appear to be a dreadful basketball team. They are one of two teams without a win this season — the other team is Philadelphia 76ers who may or may not be as bad as their record.
The biggest difference between these two teams is that Philadelphia has made it clear that they’re rebuilding still rebuilding; The Process continues. New Orleans was supposed to be climbing back towards competitiveness. That’s why they hired former Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry to help Pelicans general manager Dell Demps right the ship.
Two years ago, the Pelicans were swept in the first round by the eventual the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. The New Orleans brass fired former head coach Monty Williams after that first-round exit, selecting Warriors top assistant Alvin Gentry as his successor. With Gentry at the helm, the Pelicans have nose-dived into being one of the worst teams in basketball.
New Orleans is 29th in offensive efficiency and a somewhat respectable 14th on the defensive side. They were 18th and 27th in those two categories, respectively, last season. They’ve been beset by injuries but this team has regressed under Gentry more than anything. The Pelicans do have an incredible talent in Anthony Davis, but they have struggled to surround him with quality NBA players. Rampant injuries and short-sighted roster moves have often forced the Pelicans to fill out their lineups with D-Leaguers by mid-season. They might get better this year but right now, they’re painfully uncompetitive.
By Forbes’ estimation, New Orleans is the least valuable team in the NBA. The Pelicans have one iconic player, but play in an NFL city. Ferry was brought in to make a ton of front office moves to get this team back on track. The organization took a slow burn approach this summer, picking up low-cost complementary pieces to help their defense. But do they really have time to see that strategy out? Could one gutsy transaction be the right course of action for this struggling team? Could they actually trade Davis?
It would be a soul-crushing transaction for the Pelicans faithful if Davis were moved. He appeared to be a once-in-a-generation franchise savior. However, they have to accept that Davis has as many playoff wins as DeMarcus Cousins has with the dysfunctional Sacramento Kings: none. It’s been a little more than four seasons and the franchise is still in need of saving.
The idea of trading Davis comes with all sorts of potential problems. It might make the franchise vulnerable enough to be relocated to Seattle. Front office personnel who make that decision are the ones who could lose their jobs if it doesn’t work out. There’s no guarantee of getting back a player as good or as young as Davis.
However, the return the Pelicans could demand for Davis might be something we haven’t seen in decades — in terms of picks and young talent, the Pelicans could replenish their barren war chest.
The only comparable trades in modern sports history are what the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers got for Wayne Gretzky with the Los Angeles Kings and what the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys received for Herschel Walker from the Minnesota Vikings. Edmonton has never been the same since the Gretzky trade. Dallas won multiple Super Bowls thanks to Jimmy Johnson owning the Vikings in that late 1980s deal.
There are a few teams that have the asset allocation to land a guy like Davis. The Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, and even the Orlando Magic come to mind. All three could offer some combination of useful veterans, potential stars, and a draft pick or two. Davis is a likable guy with immense talent, locked into a deal through the 2020-21 NBA season. The return New Orleans could get would likely be bigger that what disgruntled Cousins could land for the Kings or what enigmatic Chris Webber could have garnered in his prime.
And if a good enough deal isn’t there, don’t take it.
So why would the Pelicans consider this? The team already has a transcendent talent and they’re terrible. Is it outside the realm of possibility that the trade return on Davis could get them closer to contention by the end of his contract than adding realistic pieces around him? Davis should be able to get a handful of future first-round picks and some reliable NBA starters. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Pelicans would improve via the Ewing Theory.
In the short-term, it would crush the Pelicans, but it might hasten their road to competitiveness. What’s the point of having a superstar player on a 25-win team, honestly? Davis is only 23-years old, but are we sure he will ever be able to carry this doormat of a basketball franchise? If you can’t put the pieces around him, maybe it’s time to tear it all down and start with different pieces?
Trading Davis collapses the Pelicans’ immediate ceiling, but it would raise this team’s floor exponentially if they land the right role players. They are not a playoff team as is with him. Even landing the No. 1 pick this year might just add a player who isn’t really able to contribute for two or three more years. By then, then Davis may already be done with this team.
This is not a back-to-the-wall scenario, New Orleans doesn’t have to execute this trade. Frankly, it might be too much of a risk. However, the possibility has to be on the table. Losses are going to pile up and frustrations are going to mount. The Pelicans can’t afford to waste the talent of Anthony Davis, even if that means trading him.