The New Orleans Pelicans are going to lose Anthony Davis, and their only real option to competing again is trading their veterans and rebuilding.
Anthony Davis requesting a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans is the biggest story in the NBA this season right now, mostly because of excitement over what team Davis could join, and how good that team could become. That’s all fine and well, but what about the other end of the equation?
The Pelicans, if they hadn’t accepted this possibility before, now need to figure out what life looks like without Anthony Davis. There are two basic options for New Orleans: to rebuild from the ground up or to try and acquire some future assets while also getting players to keep them somewhat competitive.
The first route is the only way New Orleans will be good in the foreseeable future. The Pelicans cannot let the fear of being bad scare them away from rebuilding the right way. Let’s be honest — this team wasn’t all that good with Davis around. New Orleans has won five total playoff games in Davis’ six full seasons with the franchise. Since drafting Davis in 2012, the Pelicans have gone 240-302 in the regular season.
How can a team with one of the best big men in the game be expected to be any sort of competitive by swapping that player out for some spare parts, if they were 62 games below .500 with Davis? The tough pill to swallow for the Pelicans is that they simply cannot compete in the short term without him. It’s a non-starter, especially in the Western Conference.
Rebuilding, known in its extreme form as tanking, is not a perfect philosophy. Detractors of true rebuilds will cite the Orlando Magic as a cautionary tale of a tank gone wrong. That’s not entirely true though — the Magic are where they are because they didn’t tank.
Bear with me for a second. Tanking as carried out by Sam Hinkie’s 76ers includes being bad for a long time to get more shots at top-end lottery picks, yes. But it’s more than that. Hinkie flipped assets for more and better assets at every turn, and used cap space and veteran players to get more picks.
The Magic have never done that on a consistent, competent level. The best player in the NBA right now who has been a member of the Magic is Victor Oladipo. Orlando traded Oladipo and the draft pick used on Domantas Sabonis, plus Ersan Ilyasova, for a freaking Serge Ibaka rental. Orlando not having their best young player isn’t due to tanking, it’s because the Magic tried to kickstart their rebuild and refused to commit to a plan.
On the other hand, Orlando rarely maximizes the value of its veteran players. Nikola Vucevic seems like a no-doubt All-Star, and he’s on the last year of a bargain deal by today’s salary cap standards. Flipping Vucevic for young players and picks is the move for a team interested in truly rebuilding. Orlando has yet to do so or to even seem all that interested in doing so.
The Magic deserve some credit for flipping Ibaka for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick, although a first from the Toronto Raptors isn’t exactly a great pick. Still, it’s something!
If the Pelicans want to actually avoid being the next Orlando, they would be wise to embrace being bad, not try and escape from it. Sell off the veterans, eat bad contracts for draft picks, give a bunch of promising young players time to play, and be patient. It’s not easy, and it will cost fan attendance in the short term. Oh well. Scared money don’t make none.
The Process worked. Philly has two stars in their young 20s, might have another future star in Markelle Fultz, and has Jimmy Butler. The Brooklyn Nets embraced their tank as well, and currently have a plethora of good young players and already hold the sixth seed in the East.
For the Pelicans to be listed with those teams that “won” their rebuild, they need to do more than get future assets for Davis. Veterans like Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotic are still around, and they still have value around the league. Really embracing a rebuild would mean trading those three for young players and draft assets.
For the New Orleans Pelicans to come out on the other side of this, the real rebuild is inevitable. Whether the odd front office and ownership situation in New Orleans will allow it to actually happen is a different story.
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