CHARLOTTE — On the day of the All-Star Game two years ago, Dell Demps executed a blockbuster trade for DeMarcus Cousins that overshadowed the NBA’s midseason showcase and landed a long-awaited superstar sidekick for franchise player Anthony Davis. The New Orleans Pelicans’ embattled general manager again stole the show at All-Star Weekend on Friday in Charlotte, but this time it was for all the wrong reasons.
The Pelicans, embroiled in drama since Davis requested a trade in late January, fired Demps on Friday and named special adviser Danny Ferry as his interim replacement. In an unusual management arrangement, Demps, hired in 2010, had reported to New Orleans Saints President Mickey Loomis and owner Gayle Benson, who has run the Saints and Pelicans since the 2018 death of her husband, longtime owner Tom Benson. Under Demps, New Orleans made the playoffs twice and won just one playoff series since drafting Davis with the top pick in the 2012 draft.
It probably would take a 300-page book to document fully how Demps went from landing Cousins to losing Davis’s commitment in less than two years. The short version includes bad luck, years of rotating rosters and an aggressive power play by Davis’s agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, that combined to make his position untenable.
The brief Cousins era in New Orleans is a helpful prism through which to view Demps’s downfall. In the aftermath of Cousins’s arrival, Davis seemed heartened by the prospect of teaming with a fellow University of Kentucky product. The two supersized stars made for an unorthodox fit in the modern small-ball game, but they struck a mutually beneficial balance and enjoyed a positive rapport.
But Cousins’s Achilles’ tendon tear in 2018 marked the beginning of the end. Davis, who had spent years enduring his own injuries and extended health-related absences, valiantly carried the Pelicans to the second round of the playoffs without Cousins. Instead of welcoming back the rehabilitating all-star center, though, Demps failed to re-sign him last summer following acrimonious negotiations. Point guard Rajon Rondo, another key member of the playoff push, then left for the Los Angeles Lakers with little warning.
Suddenly, Davis was left to build on the biggest success of his career without his partner in the post or his floor general. He was forced to start over for what probably felt like the fourth or fifth time in his seven-year career.
New Orleans fell out of the Western Conference’s packed playoff chase early this season, which surely played a role in Davis’s desire to seek greener pastures. His trade request cited a desire to find a team that could “win consistently and compete for a championship.” The Pelicans replied that they were “disappointed,” that they would work on their “own timeline” and that their decision on whether to trade Davis “would not be dictated by those outside the organization.”
As the trade deadline approached, Demps resisted overtures from the Los Angeles Lakers and decided not to trade the 25-year-old all-NBA big man. That decision was defensible given that Davis will still command significant trade offers this summer, but it was not coupled with a clear plan for how to move forward in the meantime. Demps was also noticeably absent from the public messaging before, during and after the decision, leaving Coach Alvin Gentry to handle most of the media deluge.
Even before the trade deadline, it was clear that the Davis affair had blindsided the Pelicans and left management scrambling. They weren’t sure whether to play Davis down the stretch of the season — doing so would compromise their draft positioning and could lead to injury — and wiped his image from their pregame hype video. After the NBA insisted that Davis could not be shut down because he is healthy, New Orleans played him limited minutes. He looked like a shell of himself in a handful of games, and the home crowd booed him.
Of course, Demps could have avoided this ugliness by swinging a deal with the Lakers, or another suitor, before the trade deadline. Doing so would have allowed the organization to turn the page and provided a clear direction heading into the offseason. He might have been caught off guard by Davis’s unusually assertive trade request, but Demps’s decision to hide and to delay certainly contributed to the chaos.
Benson reportedly hit a breaking point Thursday night, when Davis suffered a minor shoulder injury during a game against Oklahoma City and left the arena before the final buzzer. Again, the Pelicans were positioned as bystanders to their own reality — at the mercy of their biggest star and his agent. This was a plainly unhealthy dynamic, one Demps again bore partial responsibility for given his poor roster management over the years, his communication breakdown with Davis and Paul and his inability to quickly respond to the trade request with a palatable deal.
Demps’s tenure will be marked by a thousand what-ifs. What if Cousins had never torn his Achilles’? What if New Orleans had paid up to keep Rondo? What if LeBron James hadn’t chosen the Lakers last summer and eyed Davis as a dream sidekick? What if Davis had waited until this summer to sign with Klutch Sports or to issue his trade request?
An executive in Demps’s position could be forgiven for concluding that being fired was better, for his own reputation, than trading Davis for a less-than-ideal return. This way, he could at least be painted as a martyr with principles rather than a mere patsy whose legacy would be defined by a single deal.
But Demps’s conduct in recent weeks only set back the Pelicans’ next chapter, furthering their reputation as an unstable organization and leading TNT’s Charles Barkley, among others, to speculate that the franchise might not survive in New Orleans once Davis leaves. Demps was unprepared for this crisis, and for that he deserved to go.
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