Dell Demps was the fall guy in the circus-like atmosphere that the Pelicans have been operating under with the Benson family ownership.
When the action resumes, the inevitable storylines will revolve around the LeBron‘s Lakers making a postseason push, which franchises are front runners in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, the juggernaut in Golden State, James Harden and Russell Westbrook‘s assault on the record books, Paul George’s MVP candidacy and bizarre situation with Anthony Davis in New Orleans.
On Friday, Dell Demps was fired as general manager of the Pelicans after eight seasons. With the anticipation escalating as the league hosted its Rising Stars Challenge amid some dope new shoe releases, and with the rest of All-Star weekend on tap, most people shrugged at Demps’ dismissal.
After all, the team’s handling of Davis’ trade request and the subsequent stench around the entire situation, which head coach Alvin Gentry frustratingly described as a “dumpster fire“, seemed to warrant Demps’ dismissal.
But upon further inspection, it seems as if the Pelicans gave him the ax in order to mask its own long-standing incompetence as a franchise.
So let’s do a quick rewind.
Demps was hired by George Shinn, the financially strapped owner of the team that was then known as the New Orleans Hornets. Things were not as rosy in the league back then in terms of cash raining down from the sky, with a recession that was causing a great bit of concern in NBA circles. And Demps’ tenure as the GM began prior to the 2011 labor deal and the 2016 influx of some robust television revenue.
In this time of uncertainty, one thing was certain in the eyes of then-commissioner David Stern: broke ass (as far as pro sports owners go) George Shinn, who also happened to be among the least liked owners in the NBA, needed to bounce.
So Stern orchestrated, along with the 29 other team owners, Shinn’s buyout. They gave him his cash, kicked him to the curb and took over the franchise operation until a suitable owner could be found. In the process, they retained Demps to continue in his role as GM.
But David Stern was never a man to sit idly by and observe. He exerted his power over the franchise both privately and publicly.
Remember when he nixed the deal that Demps put together to trade Chris Paul to the Lakers? And when Demps wanted to offer Eric Gordon an early contract extension in 2011, Stern tied his hands. Instead of locking him up at a discounted price, they were forced to match the exorbitant offer that the Suns had on the table for Gordon the following summer to the tune of $58 million over four years.
If you don’t think that was a big deal, please check the early extension that Golden State finessed that summer with Steph Curry, signing him for $44 million over four years. Had Stern let Demps operate uninhibited, they could have freed up some major cash to swing with down the road. Those are some micro examples of what Demps had to stomach.
Now let’s peep the macro.
Stern sold the franchise to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson through a process that excluded open bidding. In the parlance of urban vernacular, we call that “the hook up.”
Stern wanted to be sure that the new owners would not create further instability by moving the franchise to another market.
The league and the other owners recouped their cash, and Benson got put on at a time when franchise valuations started to rise like Hamidou Diallo in the Dunk Contest.
But the Pelicans, who were still known as the Hornets at the time, were always seen as, and treated like, distant cousins to the Saints within the ownership’s corporate culture.
Securing the top overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft was huge for Demps, as Anthony Davis was seen as a generational talent along the lines of Tim Duncan.
The team went 27-55 during Davis’ rookie season. The next year, they were re-branded as the Pelicans and won 34 games. By 2015, they were a 45-win playoff team.
After regressing during the next few seasons, Demps made a power move with the DeMarcus Cousins trade. He scooped up Jrue Holiday, an emerging, elite point guard, for a set of draft picks. Last year, they won 48 games and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals.
The steep decline and malaise of this year has little to do with Demps, and more to do with Cousins’ ruptured achilles tendon.
Demps was basically fired after team owner Gayle Benson and Saints GM Mickey Loomis were pissed that Davis left the arena with his agent, Rich Paul, after injuring his shoulder and going to the hospital on their own for an MRI.
Now why would Demps, an NBA GM, have to report to and be held accountable by an NFL GM as his boss? Sounds pretty wacky, doesn’t it?
Demps has long had to deal with craziness behind the scenes with Shinn, then Stern and now the Benson’s during his tenure. And overall, it seems that he did a credible job given the circumstances.
Demps wasn’t the reason that Davis wants to be traded, he was simply caught up in the organizational mess that’s the true accelerant in the Pelicans dumpster fire.
Sure, you can point to him trading Robin Lopez for Tyreke Evans, swapping a first round pick for Omer Asik, and the millions of investments in Asik, Alexis Ajinca and Soloman Hill that never worked out. Those were some pretty significant misses.
But in the larger picture, who’s willing to discuss the circus-like atmosphere that the Pelicans have been operating under with the Benson family ownership?
How in the world has Mickey Loomis, the aforementioned the general manager of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, served as the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations for six seasons?
The Saints will always get the biggest piece of chicken in under the Benson family corporate umbrella. Demps was never fully in control, always burdened by having to run things through the Saints leadership team.
Sadly, the team’s new GM will likely have full control of the basketball operation, and they’ll be seen as the one who cleaned up Demps’ mess in handling the Anthony Davis trade.
But it was never Demps’ mess in the first place, as he did what he was supposed to do with Davis’ trade demand by refusing to be strong-armed into a quick deal.
Demps refused the Lakers’ offer of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and at least two future first-round picks, opting to wait until the summer where they could field competitive bids from around the league.
But he won’t be the one to see this mess to its conclusion, a mess that was ultimately long-brewing and never entirely of his making. He just happened to be a convenient scapegoat.