Few have been in the position where Dell Demps finds himself.
As the general manager travels the country to sit down with the candidates hoping to become the New Orleans Pelicans’ next head coach, he’s aware that the pressures surrounding this selection are out of the ordinary.
Sure, coaches come and go from the NBA in an unrelenting churn, but the chance to take over a team with a superstar on the roster is a rare commodity. The presence of first-team all-NBA forward Anthony Davis boosts Monty Williams’ former spot into one of the most-coveted jobs in the league’s recent history.
Analysis and risk management consultant Jeff Asher said that since 2000, only 21 coaches have walked into their introductory team meeting by greeting a returning player who finished the previous season ranked in the top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating, the formula that combines nearly every traditional statistic.
Davis led the NBA in PER last year.
“A lot of people all over the country are looking at this Pelicans job because it may be one of the best to come open in a while,” ESPN NBA analyst Michael Wallace said. “It’s hard to find a lot of these circumstances where someone is going to step into a playoff-caliber team with one of the best players in the league who is just entering his prime.”
In the past, opportunities to take over a team with a top-10 PER player have arisen either because of a coach’s retirement, underachieving performance or looming contract disputes. It all leads to new coaches displaying a wildly varying performance in their first season.
Of the 20 who have coached in this unusual circumstance — new Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on his roster, has yet to begin his NBA tenure — 11 tallied a worse record than the previous season, averaging 8.2 fewer wins. So there’s no guarantee a star player will carry the next year’s team to a better record.
And the long-term results are equally murky.
“Only five of those 20 examples featured a coach taking over a .500 or better team with a player with a top-10 PER and the team improving that season’s winning percentage over the remainder of the player or new coach’s tenure with the team (Phil Jackson in 2005-06, Steve Kerr in 2014-15, Mike Brown in 2005-06, Erik Spoelstra in 2009-10 and Avery Johnson in 2005-06),” Asher said. “Circumstances matter greatly for most of those success stories, as Jackson re-took over a team he had previously coached to titles, Spoelstra lucked into Miami’s ‘Big Three,’ and Brown rode LeBron’s development into the NBA’s best player.”
But Davis is different than most.
He is only the second player to lead the league in PER and transition to a new coach within the same franchise during the past 15 years. He joins Kevin Garnett, who played for coach Dwayne Casey during his last season in Minnesota before maneuvering a trade to Boston.
At 22, he is the second-youngest All-NBA player to experience a coaching change. Only LeBron James’ 2005 offseason, when Cleveland’s front office chose Mike Brown to coach the 21-year-old star, is a comparable scenario.
That’s when Cleveland rocketed to a championship contender, earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference twice and reached the NBA Finals. After James bolted to Miami, Brown’s record plummeted, and he was fired three times in five years.
With James in tow, Spoelstra made four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and won two championships before missing the playoffs entirely when James returned to Cleveland.
It exemplifies the gift of inheriting superstar talent.
And if New Orleans is able to lock Davis into a long-term contract, Demps is choosing a coach to take over one of the most fortunate positions in NBA history, on par with the new coaches who took on a budding Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and saw unprecedented success.
“Not only do the Pelicans need to hire a great coach, they need to hire someone who can basically recruit Anthony Davis to sign long-term, so it’s a big priority,” Wallace said. “But there are a lot of GMs in this league who would like to be where Demps is right now — that’s for sure.”