The Twisting Path to Success

When they unveiled their uniforms, the Pelicans planned for these three stars -- Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday -- to be on the court for most games. But injuries have derailed that plan. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

When they unveiled their uniforms, the Pelicans planned for these three stars -- Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday -- to be on the court for most games. But injuries have derailed that plan. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

If you watch the NBA with a partisan slant, there’s a good chance your allegiance is to a team that lacks even an outside shot at competing for a title this season. Your team is probably in some stage of a rebuild, or someone important is hurt, or you root for the Mavericks and get to watch Monta Ellis’ renaissance, which is its own kind of championship. Because only a handful of teams are contending in a given year, fans and writers of lottery and also-ran playoff teams need to find something to do besides sizing up title hopes. Vexingly, what happens a lot is that people put considerable time and energy into tracing the path a team needs to take in order to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy some two or three years in the future.

The result of this work has been a proliferation of theories about team construction. There is the Oklahoma City Model, which involves bottoming out and maintaining cap flexibility; the Morey Model, where a team hoards assets and tries to swing a big trade; and the San Antonio Model, which requires a genius head coach who finds a way to turn every role player on the team into prime Shane Battier. Numerous others exist, and the reason for that is a desire to believe there are schematics for success in the NBA. In the way Moneyball ostensibly demonstrated a way for small market MLB teams to compete, the OKC Model is supposed to show how franchises in undesirable cities can build giant-killers, and the Morey Model delineates a route to title contention that doesn’t require years of miserable basketball.

The problem with these strategies is that they don’t account for specificities or the considerable amount of luck involved in rebuilds that come to fruition. If you’re bottoming out for a draft pick, you had better hope there’s a strong incoming class. Even if you find a generational talent, his career can be stalled, altered or ended by injury. If you’re in Sacramento or Cleveland, your team has to put together some sustained success for good free agents to want to sign with you. This isn’t to say there aren’t more and less correct ways to build a team, but these models are more like very broad guidelines than foolproof, step-by-step plans.

Case in point: The New Orleans Pelicans’ front office has seen some 40 games of their new-look squad and decided it might be time to blow it up. The Pels are having a season that quickly deviated from the course they set in training camp. During the 2013 draft, they traded Nerlens Noel and their 2014 first-rounder to the Sixers for Jrue Holiday. They then signed Tyreke Evans to a four-year, $44 million contract that drew some considerable side-eye from people who know who Tyreke Evans is. Regardless of the merits of these moves, they signaled that New Orleans was ready to shoot for a playoff spot.

This was a defensible decision if you follow the logic that the point of being in the lottery is locating a star that you can build around for the next decade. Anthony Davis is still figuring himself out, but it seems increasingly clear that he’s a generational talent who can alter an opposing team’s offense just by being on the floor. It’s not a crazy proposition, to try to leave the lottery behind by flanking your rapidly developing young star with some good players and to figure the rest out as you go along. But the Pels couldn’t have been able to predict that they would suffer enough injuries to render this something of a lost season. Davis broke his hand a month ago, Ryan Anderson has been in and out of the lineup and Jrue Holiday is currently sidelined with a stress fracture. They’re going to end up in the lottery, and it’s not really anyone’s fault.

Now there are rumors circulating that the Pelicans are open to trading Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. This is a little like buying a fire-damaged home and trying to flip it six months later because, wow, it sure does smell like smoke in here. Gordon is a slightly overpaid scorer with knees like year-old hair ties, and Evans is who we thought he was. These rumors seem to illuminate more than anything that the Pelicans just aren’t quite sure what they’re doing, because their vision of what this season could have been was thoroughly disrupted by unforeseen crummy luck. It seems like they’re now trying to clear out cap space because there’s not much else they can do.

A handful of NBA GMs have gotten considerable praise because they seemed to have laid out strategies for success, but just as importantly: They’ve been in the right places at the right times. Houston had a bunch of assets when OKC was looking to move James Harden. OKC bottomed out for drafts that had exceptional talent. Even San Antonio has had Tim Duncan for the past 15 years. All a good approach can do is put you in a slightly more advantageous position than you otherwise would be. As the Pelicans are illustrating, everything else is up to factors you can’t possibly hope to control.

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