In this era of protracted rebuilds, where franchises burn their foundations to the ground to erect new ones on half-decade timetables, the season in which a team is supposed to ascend is fraught with anxiety.
The en vogue teardown method has its merits, but even its most vocal proponents would admit that it produces some long winters of less-than-watchable basketball as everyone sits around waiting for Lottery Godot. The fans, coaches, executives and players of a rebuilding team suffer through years of on-court incompetence and struggle as the roster comes together, which is why, when the squad finally hints that it’s ready to put some genuine fear into the rest of the league, overeagerness abounds. The media starts murmuring about a playoff run; the players are especially chipper at training camp; the fans ready themselves for a fun season after a handful of punishing ones. And then the franchise takes off, or it doesn’t.
After opening the season with six straight losses, the New Orleans Pelicans nabbed their first win of the campaign Tuesday night. A team that was supposed to build on a narrow playoff berth in 2014–15 is foundering due to an injury epidemic. Tyreke Evans hasn’t played yet and won’t until late November at the earliest. Jrue Holiday had off-season leg surgery and is being brought along slowly on a minutes restriction. Omer Asik just recently returned from a bum calf. Norris Cole is out with an ankle sprain. Big man of last resort Kendrick Perkins is on the shelf for three months with a pectoral strain. Even Anthony Davis is hobbled; he missed Wednesday’s game against the Hawks with a bruised hip and is doubtful for Friday against the Raptors. Soon, the team shop in Smoothie King Arena is going to start selling full-body casts with names and numbers sewn onto the back.
It’s true that the Pelicans still don’t fully grasp new head coach Alvin Gentry’s uptempo offensive scheme, and that they look disoriented on the other end of the floor, but they haven’t dug themselves a hole so much as they have been placed inside of one. The Pelicans’ predicament is a product of cosmic unfairness. A wave of injuries has swept half the squad away, and the remaining players are doing all they can to keep the team competitive while their colleagues heal.
From where the Pelicans stand now, at 1-7, they’re already on the verge of missing the playoffs. To nab the eighth seed in the West, the squad will have to produce something close to a .600 record the rest of the way, a nigh impossible task considering how many suit-clad players are sitting at the end of the bench every night. It appears that by the time the team gets itself back to full strength, it will be in the midst of a lost season.
This is enervating in all the obvious ways. Davis is an MVP-in-waiting, Gentry is considered one of the sharper offensive minds in the league, and the Pelicans were stocked — in August, at least — with a roster full of capable players. All the elements for some serious noise-making were present before Evans hit the injury list and several of his teammates followed. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of the team's predicament is that there’s not much to be done about it. Stuff happens; athletes get injured at inopportune times. The Pelicans’ place in the Western Conference basement isn’t indicative of front-office mistakes, nor should it be an invitation to indulge in damaging short-term thinking.
An overly firm commitment to winning on a set schedule has cost franchises generational talents before. In the summer of 2005, heading into LeBron James’s third season, the Cavaliers pulled a doozy of a win-now move and gave Larry Hughes a five-year, $70 million contract, betting that an inefficient combo guard would make a worthy sidekick for LeBron. Hughes proceeded to shoot 39.6 percent from the field in two-and-a-half seasons in Cleveland before he was traded for the washed up tandem of Ben Wallace and Joe Smith in February 2008.
The Hughes misstep meant the Cavs, even as LeBron dragged them to numerous win-filled seasons, weren’t ever able to find their star a proper running mate. Each season, the organization signed or traded for players — Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal — who were less than great. It’s no coincidence that LeBron skipped town to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or that when he returned, he directed the Cavs — who already had Kyrie Irving — to make a move for Kevin Love. LeBron decided in 2010 that he was never again going to play for a team with only one star.
Chris Paul forced a trade out of New Orleans following the 2010–11 season because the then-Hornets had exhibited a lack of direction during his six seasons there. Following Paul’s rookie year in 2006, New Orleans larded up its cap by acquiring Peja Stojakovic in a sign-and-trade at $64 million for five years and taking Tyson Chandler, who still had five years and $54 million left on his contract, off the Bulls’ hands. Chandler was sent to Charlotte in the summer of 2009, and a physically broken-down Stojakovic was dumped on Toronto in the final year of his contract in 2010. Over a four-year span, the Hornets made it past the first round of the playoffs just once.
Kevin Garnett spent more than a decade in Minnesota before leaving for Boston in 2007. The Wolves initially put a fine team around Garnett, acquiring Tom Gugliotta in 1996 and Stephon Marbury in 1997, but then the Joe Smith fiasco hit the franchise hard. Long, bizarre story short: owner Glen Taylor signed Smith to a series of well-below-market one-year deals in 1998, 1999 and 2000 with the wink-wink promise of giving Smith a max contract down the road. This being an egregious violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the Wolves lost Smith, $3.5 million, and first-round picks in the 2001, 2002 and 2004 drafts.
At the exact moment when Minnesota could have used some first-rounders as trade assets or to bolster what at the time was a squad on the rise, it forfeited three of them because Taylor thought the team was just one cut-rate Joe Smith contract away from doing big things. In the aftermath of the sanctions, the Wolves never quite took off, topping out at 58 wins and a Western Conference Finals loss in 2003–04 with a roster that included a 33-year-old Latrell Sprewell and a 34-year-old Sam Cassell. Then they fell back toward mediocrity and sunk to the lottery in 2005–06, finishing 33-49. Garnett, thoroughly frustrated, was dealt the following summer.
Unless some awful injury befalls Davis, he’s going to be an all-time great like LeBron, Paul and Garnett. What the Pelicans need to understand, if they’re seriously committed to winning titles with their star, is that even though Davis is one of the very best players in the league right now, that doesn’t mean the franchise needs to slam on the accelerator yet. The Pelicans have draft picks and expiring contracts that they could cash in on a helpful veteran if they really want to, but NBA history is littered with myopia-addled franchises that foiled themselves by trying to build a contender around their generational talent too quickly.
If they’re searching for a contemporary example, the Pelicans would do well to look at the Kings, who have spent a majority of the DeMarcus Cousins era jumping the gun. No franchise can match Sacramento in terms of baroque dysfunctionality, but there’s an object lesson in all of owner Vivek Ranadive’s hapless meddling: impatience has sunk an otherwise promising venture.
This off-season, the Kings sent the Sixers first-round swap privileges in 2016 and 2017 and a top-10 protected 2018 pick that becomes unprotected in 2019 for the right to sign Rajon Rondo to a one-year contract and throw some extra cash at Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli. The Kings are 2-7 and have already held an Oh God, Is This Season Going To Hell? meeting in which the players agreed not to fully mutiny on their coach … yet. The franchise has a star, and nothing else. Not even hope.
The Pelicans still have a lot to look forward to, even if this year is a wash. Eric Gordon’s albatross of a contract comes off the books this summer. The cap is going to take a big jump. The team owns all its picks, so if it lands in the lottery, it will have the option to select a prospect who could end up being quite good. There are many ways the Pelicans’ project can still succeed, provided the folks in charge don’t let a few bad months skew their perspective. They have Anthony Davis. That’s half the championship puzzle solved, right there. Davis turned 22 in March. He’s under contract until 2021. The Pelicans have plenty of time to figure out the rest.