If that night in 2012 when the pingpong balls bounced just right and delivered Anthony Davis to a downtrodden New Orleans NBA franchise changed the vision of how the team could be rebuilt, what, then, about the significance of midnight changing June to July when Davis signed a max-contract extension to tie him to the Pelicans through the end of the decade?
Quite simply, it put the Pels, as an ESPN’s analytics study proclaims, “On the Edge of Greatness.”
The ESPN predictions say the Pelicans remain on the edge: 47 victories, up two from a year ago, and the seventh seed in the Western Conference, a one-rung improvement. Others, both analytical and human-based, are all almost the same.
Now the job becomes to deliver the team from that edge into the middle of contention for a championship.
Obviously, much of that falls on the ever-broadening shoulders of Davis, whom league general managers recently voted the player they would most like to build a franchise around, beating out LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Davis’ desire to be the best player on the planet has been well demonstrated by both his dedication to his physical development and expanding the scope of his game (love those corner 3s!) along with his maturity that belies the fact he’s only 22.
But the rest of the job falls on the shoulders of general manger Dell Demps.
It was Demps whose philosophy of “young veterans” surrounding Davis saw the team both trade three straight first-round draft picks, plus 2012 lottery pick Austin Rivers, while eschewing counting on anyone over 30.
It’s why Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik, Norris Cole, Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham, none of whom were drafted by the Pels, make up the core of the team, along with Davis.
It was Demps who won the power struggle with coach Monty Williams over the makeup of the roster and changing to an up-tempo offense despite the Pelicans making the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and the good feelings that followed despite a first-round sweep by eventual champion Golden State.
It wasn’t an unprecedented move. Chicago and Oklahoma City parted ways with their coaches this year despite winning seasons.
Sometimes a coach can be seen as capable of taking a team only so far. It was Demps who chose Alvin Gentry despite the availability of higher-profile names who wanted the chance to coach a generational player like Davis.
Gentry got the job in large part because of his emphasis during his interview in his belief that he could further develop Davis’ talents even though AD had just had an historically great season.
It was Demps who, recognizing the need for defensive improvement to go with Gentry’s offensive acumen hired wunderkind Darren Erman even before Gentry’s deal had been ratified.
From all appearances, it’s a successful partnership.
It was Demps who brought back virtually the entire roster rather than seek out new core players via trade or free agency.
The Pels are second in the league in having the highest number of returning minutes.
And it was Demps, who generally shuns the limelight and declined to be interviewed for this column, who not only engineered the Davis deal but persuaded him to sign at the first possible moment instead of waiting until Halloween, as he could have.
Davis’ signing came after the firing of Williams, who was very close to him. It’s to the credit of all involved that AD didn’t let the emotion of the moment overcome doing what he felt was in his best interest.
Just how immediate the dividends from this offseason will come to fruition remains to be seen. History is actually against the Pels in that regard.
Since 2003, teams that have changed coaches after a .500 or better season have averaged just below 4.5 fewer victories the next year. That includes the post-LeBron Cavaliers and the post-Kevin Garnett Celtics. But take them out of the equation, and there’s still an average decrease of 2.4 victories.
Plus, Demps and Gentry are already having to deal with injuries, which have plagued the Pels so much in the past few years. Pondexter, Evans, Cole and Asik are all out for Tuesday’s opener at Golden State, and Holiday remains on a minutes count.
Another playoff appearance is far from assured.
“Unfortunately for Dell, many of his moves have been marred by injury,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who was among those who interviewed for the Pels’ coaching job. “All three of their top perimeter players (Gordon, Evans and Holiday) have experienced an inordinate number of injuries. ... Even the best moves you make as a general manager, there’s some luck involved in keeping your players healthy.”
At the least, the coaching change has created a much-more relaxed relationship, not just for the players who appreciate Gentry’s less-intense approach but between the team and the front office.
“Everybody is more on the same page,” Gordon said. “You can walk into Coach’s office or to Dell’s office and talk about anything, which is the way it should be. Monty made us work hard, and he was a hands-on guy. But we’re working together in a different way now.”
Hopefully the lessening of tensions will give Demps time to concentrate on his next big task: deciding which of the core players the Pels want going forward while calculating how the presence of Davis can attract star free agents so that this window of opportunity of having an MVP-caliber player in his prime won’t be squandered.
Anderson and Gordon will be unrestricted free agents after this season. Holiday and Evans follow suit in 2017. And, believe it or not, the Pels actually have a first-round draft pick in 2016.
“Oh, I’m going trade it,” Demps said, quickly adding, “I’m joking.”
Or is he? With Dell Demps, you never know.