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The Trouble With Dell Demps: Why the Pelicans Needed to Move On

After how the Anthony Davis trade situation unfolded, the Pelicans had no choice but to fire general manager Dell Demps.

The next franchise-changing, landscape-altering superstar trade in the NBA will be executed by a mystery guest. Dell Demps, who has acted as general manager of the Pelicans since 2010, has been fired, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

There was an open question floating around the league as to whether Demps would actually end up being the GM to trade Anthony Davis, and another questioning whether he should. It was Demps, after all, who oversaw the team from the day Davis was drafted. Every move made went in some way through him, and in the aggregate, those moves led the Pelicans to their current predicament. This was the work of years. Some mistakes were based on a flawed premise. Others were faults of execution or poor timing. It was those years of error, complicated by tough breaks, that left New Orleans with a supporting roster that was somehow talent-poor, inflexible, and without much potential for improvement.

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Yet the direction of an NBA team always comes from ownership. It is their prerogative to decide a team’s priorities, making it the responsibility of the front office to execute them. It was the organizational structure under the late Tom Benson (and subsequently, his widow Gayle Benson) that led the Pelicans to operate, essentially, as an arm of the New Orleans Saints. It was the baffling choice of the Bensons to employ Mickey Loomis, the general manager of the Saints, as executive vice president of the Pelicans—and thus Demps’ boss. Some front offices have the commitment of ownership to wade into the luxury tax to more fully outfit a playoff-caliber team when needed. The Pelicans did not.

Parse that dynamic as you will. Many of the issues that led the Pelicans here were the product of moving too fast. Once New Orleans landed Davis, who was a transformational talent from the start, Demps proceeded to surround him with veterans and trade away first-round pick after first-round pick. Young players were cut loose before they ever had the chance to develop. It is fascinating that one of the longest-tenured general managers in the league largely played a short game; the primary goals of the Pelicans always seemed to revolve around the immediate future, and most of their moves came in service of it.

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Some of those efforts were successful. (Jrue Holiday, in particular, battled through stress injuries to become a rock for the franchise.) Others were subject to factors beyond control. (One wonders, for example, how different all of this might look had DeMarcus Cousins never ruptured his Achilles tendon.) In total, however, the Pelicans’ tilt toward the present under Demps proved overwhelming—a win-now philosophy that never led New Orleans to actually win enough.

The last few weeks have been awkward for the franchise—embarrassing, even. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was made to serve as the organization’s first line of defense in a matter largely beyond his purview. After the team chose not to move Davis by the trade deadline, he returned to the lineup for New Orleans at the reported urging of the league office. Public debate raged over whether Davis should play at all and, if so, how much. New Orleans had little to gain from his involvement and much to lose between the negative influence on their draft position and the potential for Davis to be injured. The latter became a more pressing concern on Thursday, when Davis exited a game against the Thunder with a left shoulder injury and left the arena before the game even finished.

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In the end, the trouble with Demps was that it was difficult to find a criteria by which he succeeded. By no means was this an easy job; building around a growing superstar is always more complex than it seems, and the ownership and structure of the Pelicans did Demps no favors. Still, the Pelicans under his watch tried to split the difference between rebuilding and contending and accomplished neither. It is entirely fair for Gayle Benson, in her defining moments as the owner of this franchise, to want something more.

What form that takes has yet to be determined. The Pelicans will need to move somewhat quickly, if only because they have a crucial draft pick to make in four months and a scouting apparatus to maintain—not to mention a hugely consequential trade request to resolve. According to Wojnarowski’s report, Danny Ferry (special advisor, and formerly the general manager for the Cavs and Hawks) will take over in the interim. The search begins today for their eventual replacement, and with them a distinct influence on the next era of basketball in New Orleans.