After seven years of poor roster-building and team construction, the New Orleans’ Pelicans luck has finally run out. Here’s how they lost Anthony Davis.
It all began on June 28, 2012. The New Orleans Pelicans, then Hornets, had the first overall pick in the NBA draft after a dreadful 21-45 lockout season. Their luck was about to turn; they were about to get sure-fire star Anthony Davis to give some respectability to basketball in New Orleans again.
They had a clean slate. They had a lifetime to develop Davis into a mega-star, build around him, and contend for championships. Each day that passed, though, they crept closer to making their next mistake. That draft night was perhaps the peak of New Orleans’ hope in making Davis a lifer.
In six seasons, New Orleans made the playoffs twice with one of the best talents in the league — winning just a total of five games. How did it get this bad? There were three themes throughout the Davis Era that led to them losing the six-time All-Star.
Mishandling draft picks
Right from the jump, New Orleans started messing up in the draft. Nine picks after selecting Davis in 2012, they selected Austin Rivers. Rivers has turned out to be a decent player in the league, but not for the Pelicans. Missing on the 10th overall pick hurts. They ended up trading Rivers in 2015 for Quincy Pondexter and a second round pick.
The Pelicans took two smart, measured risks with their first-round draft picks — trading for Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins. In the 2013 draft, New Orleans sent Nerlens Noel — its sixth overall selection — and a 2014 first to Philadelphia for Holiday. The 2014 first became the 10th overall pick, whom the 76ers selected Elfrid Payton with and traded him to Orlando for Dario Saric. Nearly six years later, this was a pretty objectively good trade for the Pelicans.
Trading for Cousins was smart, but let’s first look at what led up to that.
In July of 2014, a few weeks after their pick to Philadelphia conveyed, New Orleans traded its 2015 first to Houston for Omer Asik. In Asik’s best season in New Orleans, he averaged 7.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
In 2016, for the first time since Davis was a rookie, New Orleans made a first-round selection that actually played for them: Buddy Hield, sixth overall. Then, 57 games into Hield’s career, he was sent to Sacramento alongside Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and a 2017 first- and second-round pick in exchange for Cousins.
New Orleans missed the playoffs that season, meaning another lottery pick was on its way out the door. But the upside of a Davis-Cousins backcourt was worth the risk… right?
In theory, yes. In hindsight, no.
At the end of January 2018, less than two weeks before the trade deadline, Cousins tore his Achilles — majorly lowering their short- and long-term ceiling.
Big men (and players in general) with Achilles injuries generally don’t come back as the same players, even at 100 percent health. This made how the Pelicans handled his then-impending free agency particularly difficult (more on that later).
With Cousins out, and Davis’s opportunity to leave growing closer, New Orleans had to start putting a competitive team around him. To do so in-season, the Pelicans shipped another first-round pick (2018) alongside Asik to Chicago for stretch-4 Nikola Mirotic (and a second-round pick they previously sent to the Bulls).
Upgrading from Asik to Mirotic seemed worth letting go of another first-rounder. The Pelicans had a 20-11 regular season record in games Mirotic played as a Pelican, including a 10-game winning streak. He was a vital factor in sweeping the Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.
Thanks to their success, the Pelicans’ first became 22nd overall. Even still, the Pelicans put three first-round picks into Cousins and Mirotic with only five postseason wins to show for it. The Cousins injury was bad luck, but that doesn’t change the facts.
Long story short, New Orleans dealt all seven of its first-round picks in the Davis Era with just Holiday and Mirotic still remaining on the roster.
Signing terrible contracts
In 2015, when New Orleans re-signed Davis, they handed out some other deals. The Davis deal was great. The other deals were terrible. Asik’s (below) average play was mentioned earlier. He wasn’t that good at basketball. But because, well, he allowed Davis to play the 4 (I guess), he was signed to a five-year deal that guaranteed him $47 million. Dell Demps got wild REAL QUICK.
They also signed Alexis Ajinca, an extremely replacement-level backup big, to a four-year, $20 million contract.
The next summer — 2016, a.k.a. the best summer to be a free agent ever — New Orleans felt the need to finally give Davis some reliable wings to play alongside. They gave Indiana free agent Solomon Hill a four-year, $48 million deal. Keep in mind that Hill was a free agent because the Pacers declined their team option on Hill the year prior. He had two double-figure games in a seven-game series against Toronto a couple months before, which obviously warranted a deal of the magnitude he received.
They also signed E’Twaun Moore to a four-year, $34 million deal, which has turned out to be a little bloated but mostly fine. The Hill deal may matter more than any other. They needed a wing, and because of Hill’s lack of an impact, they still do. He’s shooting his best field goal percentage with New Orleans this season — 40.3 percent.
They gave up a first-round pick — an asset they could have used to lock in a young, productive rotation player — in order to dump Asik on Chicago in the Mirotic deal. They probably could have gotten away with giving away a lesser asset if they didn’t need to dump his deal.
Hill takes up 10.8 percent of the Pelicans’ cap and is a sunk cost. Thanks to this, they have to rely way too much on Moore and cheap fliers to hold down the wing positions. Darius Miller plays 25 minutes a game and shoots sub-40 percent from the field. Before the season started, New Orleans got rid of Ajinca’s contract in exchange for Wesley Johnson. This team is starved for wings and yet Johnson hasn’t played meaningful minutes since the beginning of December. He makes $6 million.
The Pelicans have had some success with cheap fliers; Rajon Rondo was great last season. Jahlil Okafor has been a revelation this season. Elfrid Payton, when healthy, has been fine.
New Orleans left themselves little margin for error when they made trading first-round picks an annual tradition. Draft picks are the best value in sports; if you’re not going to take advantage of that, you have to be nearly perfect in free agency signings and trades. The Pelicans have been far from that.
Not being able to re-sign Cousins hurt. New Orleans would have most likely given Cousins a max or near-max long-term deal had he not suffered the Achilles injury, which could have bought them more time with Davis. They reportedly offered him a two-year, $40 million contract for which Cousins turned down for a chance at easy rehab and a shot at a title in Golden State.
It was bad luck, but New Orleans had earned nothing but bad luck up to that point.
This issue has subsided over the years, but it’s still part of the story. Davis’s handful of injuries seemingly every year (probably) aren’t the team’s fault. Cousins’ injury couldn’t have been prevented unless you want to argue that he was playing too much (36.2 minutes per game on the fastest team in the league). Jrue Holiday didn’t start over 60 games until his fourth year in New Orleans, mostly due to injury.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Pelicans’ rough injury history is its ownership. Run by the Benson family, who also own the Saints, the Pelicans share a medical staff with their football counterpart. New Orleans has lost the second-most games-to-injury/illness over the past five years. This could be a coincidence. But it might not be.
Most of the other teams in the league, in markets large and small, wouldn’t make more than one of these mistakes. Smart teams value the draft. Smart teams make smart signings. Smart teams take care of their players and don’t put million-dollar basketball players in the care of football medical specialists.
The New Orleans Pelicans wasted at least six-and-a-half seasons of a future Hall of Famer’s career because of their own basketball practices and procedures. The next time they get their hands on a star, they better make every day count.
With Davis, the bright future the Pelicans saw in 2012 dimmed each day they failed to realize what they had in front of them. Now, they’re here, trapped in a dark space hoping for that glimmer of light to shine through once again.