In the wake of Benson dying Thursday at age 90, questions about the Pelicans’ future have moved front and center.
That Benson’s wife, Gayle, met with the team Friday morning provides some sense of her feelings about owning the franchise. When the question of whether Gayle Benson would consider selling the Pelicans arose, Mickey Loomis, the top decision-maker for both the NFL’s Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans, said on ESPN, “That’s not the case at all.” Mike Bass, the NBA’s executive vice president of communications, said in a statement that, “As we mourn the loss of Tom Benson, we know the New Orleans Pelicans are on strong and stable footing as Gayle Benson, currently the team’s Alternate Governor, assumes control of the franchise.”
Despite those public comments, don’t expect the future of the Pelicans to be considered settled by anyone in and around the NBA.
NBA franchises are valued at levels they never have been before. The Brooklyn Nets and Houston Rockets each have been sold for more than $2 billion within the past year — a number that has undoubtedly caught the attention of anyone who controls one of the league’s 30 teams.
That was the price to take control of teams in big markets that had no possibility of being moved elsewhere. New Orleans, on the other hand, is neither of those. Gayle Benson is from New Orleans, and it would seem unthinkable she’d consider moving the team herself. But with dollar figures like that flying around — and with intriguing open markets in Seattle, Mexico City, Las Vegas and Vancouver — it would be seemingly only a matter of time before an offer comes along that would, at minimum, prove tempting for her to move on from owning the Pelicans.
Whether that happens could have wide-ranging implications for the rest of the league. There have been questions for some time about whether the NBA should expand, or will even look to do so. One school of thought has been that until the situations in New Orleans and Memphis — the two most unstable from an ownership standpoint, and in two of its smallest markets — are resolved, expansion would be put on hold.
With Memphis in the midst of an awkward arrangement between its primary owners, Robert Pera and Steve Kaplan, deciding who will be buying the other’s share of the franchise to take control, and now Benson’s death, both situations could be moving closer to a potential resolution. And with larger markets — most notably Seattle and Mexico City — hoping to lure a team, determining whether either the Pelicans or Grizzlies would consider a move is a logical step.
Even with those longer-term questions hanging over New Orleans, the ascension of Gayle Benson to the top of the franchise — even without selling the team — comes when the Pelicans have as much uncertainty about their future on the court as any team.
Those questions begin with the job status of General Manager Dell Demps and Coach Alvin Gentry. Both have been on the hot seat for what feels like the past two seasons, and they appeared to be in trouble when DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles’ tendon in late January. Instead, led by Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have surged into the middle of the Western Conference’s playoff picture even with Cousins sidelined, which has made it much more likely that Demps and Gentry will be back.
New Orleans has been able to remain a playoff team without Cousins because of the sensational play of Davis, who has been the subject of intrigue from a trade perspective for quite some time. This summer will be the team’s final chance to prove to him that it is headed in a direction he’s happy with — including a difficult decision on how much to pay Cousins when he becomes a free agent in July — before Davis has to decide whether to accept the gigantic designated veteran extension New Orleans will undoubtedly offer him next summer.
There was nothing easy about the path forward for the Pelicans before this week’s news. But now, in the wake of Tom Benson’s death, the future has never been murkier.