Pelicans should look to Warriors for championship blueprint

Build through the draft, avoid high-risk free agent gambles

Seth Dunlap
May 20, 2019 - 11:30 pm
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It’s impossible to succinctly define the interconnected internet era we live in, but one word quickly comes to mind: hate.  It’s so much easier to hate greatness than to appreciate it, probably because the latter requires a nuanced evaluation where emotions are set aside, an impossible task in the Age of Twitter.

Just look at the final season of Game of Thrones.  There has quite literally been nothing that spectacular ever produced on television.  The acting, cinematography, score, and special effects are all unparalleled in their greatness, and are destined to sweep through the upcoming awards season, but because it’s easier to write 240 characters hating on a script or character arc the show is painted by the hate-mongers as, I guess, something unworthy of being put in front of their eyeballs for entertaining escapism.  It’s the highest level of internet absurdity.

That type of nonsense has become commonplace to sports fans where far too many people engage in the hate-punditry that has proliferated on cable channels, sports talk radio, and social media.  No longer is it just acceptable to appreciate and admire the success of the New England Patriots and their remarkable quarterback, Tom Brady.  Most discussions now begin with, “The Patriots are great, BUT. . .” or, “Brady is the GOAT, but. . .”

But what? Six championships isn’t enough to show the haters that the way the Patriots and Brady approach professional football just might be the right way to do it?  That the dynasty we’ve all watch unfold in front of us the past two decades is more worthy of critical scorn than admiration?

LeBron James has, remarkably, nearly as many detractors as he does fawning onlookers, if the internet is to be believed.  Joe Montana is now some system quarterback.  People hate Duke basketball because they win too much, forget that they just might be doing college basketball better than just about everybody else.

That brings me to the Golden State Warriors, who are on their way to their fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.  Oh, and they’re doing it without Kevin Durant, the unstoppable offensive force that’s won back-to-back Finals MVPs for the Warriors, who hasn't been available their past five games, all of which were Warriors wins.   People loathe Durant; forget that he did the same thing – use free agency to leverage himself to a championship contender -- that Shaq, LeBron, Ray Allen and so many other did before him.  Beyond Durant, fans outside of the Bay Area have almost completely lost the ability to consume any Golden State game without spending those two hours explaining why they hate the Warriors so much.

Hate them?  Here’s a news flash that should be plastered in a neon marquee above every basketball fan’s house – the Warriors deserve fans’ admiration, not their scorn.  They have built their dynasty through incredible drafting and talent development which should be the envy of every other NBA franchise.  Actually, forget envy.  They’ve given the other 29 franchises the blueprint for how to build a championship powerhouse.

Perhaps it’s easy to forget that the Warriors were an NBA doormat before Steph and Klay showed up.  Golden State made one playoff appearance between the 1994-95 and 2011-12 seasons.  They were essentially the Cleveland Browns of the NBA, a franchise with some (very) mild long-forgotten success, including an NBA Finals appearance in 1975.  The Warriors weren’t exactly a model of NBA excellency, nor were they even considered a destination for most premier free agents.   

Sound familiar?

The New Orleans Pelicans can claim commonality with the pre-Curry Warriors.  The Pelicans have yet to make a conference finals appearance in their 17 season in existence.  They’ve won two total playoff series in the time, and haven’t had a single top-flight free agent even consider signing in New Orleans.  The Big Easy has been a big afterthought when it comes to NBA relevancy, even during the Anthony Davis era.

Instead of blindly hating on the Warriors, here’s a friendly suggestion for New Orleans basketball fans: look to the Bay Area for inspiration as the Pelicans attempt this rebuild.  The Warriors resurrected themselves from the abyss through incredible (and fortuitous) success in the draft.  They selected players they believed would fit their vision of a sharp-shooting, unselfish, perimeter oriented team that valued ball movement and team play over the isolation offenses that had proliferated through the league the prior two decades.   They also believed in positionless basketball, where somebody like a 6’7” Draymond Green could play large stretches of games at the center position not just effectively, but dominantly. 

Simply put, they didn’t believe that they could buy their way to championship success the way the Lakers, Heat, and Celtics could in free agency.  They built from the ground up through the draft. Golden State also invested heavily in the front office infrastructure and their coaching staff, with cost or owner control no obstacle to giving more power to the smart basketball people in their building.  Then, they supplemented their foundation with key fits in free agency.

The three pillars of the Warriors success – the draft, front office and coaching staff infrastructure, and eventual free agent supplementation – is something the Pelicans should try to replicate.

The Draft:  Golden State struck gold three different times in the draft between 2009-12.   They selected Curry with the No. 6 selection in 2009, then took Klay Thompson a couple of years later with pick No. 11.  Then they somehow found Draymond Green in the second round in 2012.   Discussions about the Warriors draft success is usually framed around luck; as in how fortunate Golden State was to find three future Hall of Famers in the span of four drafts. Golden State did have some notable misses like Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 pick in 2010), Anthony Randolph (No. 14 pick in 2008), but they used their draft capital as the backbone of their rebuild.

The Pelicans have a very real opportunity to replicate that success.  That seems absurd on its face, considering no franchise can legitimately expect a Curry-Thompson-Green trifecta in a handful of years, but New Orleans should have an incredible stockpile of draft picks over the next few seasons.  They’ve already secured the first overall selection in this year’s draft, a pick that will be used on Zion Williamson.   Whatever return they get in a possible Anthony Davis trade will undoubtedly add multiple first round selections in the next few drafts.  There’s also a real possibility that Jrue Holiday is on the trading block, as Holiday’s value has never been higher. Would it make sense to keep Holiday, who will be 29 years old next season and a decade Williamson's senior, around to groom the younger talent on the roster when you could get a premier return for him on the trade market now?  That's one of the more difficult decisions Griffin, Langdon, & Co. will have to make in the next couple months. Regardless, the Pelicans must finally look to the draft to build the foundation for future success. Gone are the Dell Demps days of completely ignoring the draft in favor of veteran mid-level free agents.  Good riddance.

Front Office:  The Warriors front office and coaching staff has been the envy of the league throughout their dominant run, although it took Golden State firing the heavily-criticized Mark Jackson in favor of Steve Kerr, a coach who shared their vision of ball movement and positionless basketball.  Kerr has also proven to be an incredible communicator and all-time handler of big NBA superstar egos.   The Warriors caught a lot of flak for firing Jackson, but nobody now believes they made the wrong decision.  Through all of that has been the steady hand of Bob Myers, the team's president of basketball operations.  Myers has deftly guided Golden State through multiple tumultuous free agency periods, handled attrition to their coaching staff, and been a key go-between from the players and coaching staff to the ownership group.  Kerr and his players get the spotlight, but Myers deserves heavy credit for the Warriors' success.   Also key has been the quiet-but-supportive ownership of Joe Lacob and Peter Guber who have given relatively unlimited resources to Myers as he built this dynasty.

The Pelicans have already started the overhaul of their front office, a process that’s been remarkably successful. They hired David Griffin as president of basketball operations who then lured away Aaron Nelson from Phoenix.  Griffin was the most sought-after front office mind in the NBA this spring, and Nelson is regarded as a revolutionary medical professional.   The Pelicans didn’t stop there, hiring Trajan Langdon away from the Brooklyn Nets to serve as the team’s new general manager under Griffin.  Langdon was at or near the top of every future general manager list of candidates. Owner Gayle Benson has already proven she's serious about turning the Pelicans into a model NBA franchise.  Benson's role in hiring Griffin and beginning this transformation can't be overstated. New Orleans has done a great job of swiftly remaking their image, but that process won’t stop there.  Head coach Alvin Gentry will be back next season, and rightfully so considering how he suavely navigated the Anthony Davis fiasco.  However, Gentry will need to prove, and prove quickly, that he’s capable of developing Zion and the other young players that will be littered across the Pelicans roster in the next few seasons.  If the process stall under Gentry, the Pelicans must quickly take decisive action to bring in a coach who fits their vision for how to build around Zion, much like the Warriors ruthlessly cut bait with Jackson.

Free Agency & Trades:  The Warriors stayed away from high priced free agents during the early years of the Splash Brothers era.  It wasn’t until Draymond Green made a call to Kevin Durant after losing the 2016 NBA finals that they landed a high-priced mercenary on the open market.  Prior to Durant, they did add veteran pieces around their new young core, the most savvy move probably being the three way trade that netted them Andre Iguodala, a player who remains a critical piece on their roster.  With their success came the ease of free agent recruiting, with guys like DeMarcus Cousins willing to take a pay cut just to head to the Bay Area for a chance at an elusive championship.

This area is (see: should be) a no-brainer for the Pelicans.  They cannot, must not, mortgage any part of their future by making ill-advised trades or high-risk free agency propositions.  Simply put, until they have a championship caliber core in place, a core young enough to have several years of team control remaining on their contracts, the Pelicans should stay away from making any splash moves.  Unless, those moves are sending away veteran players like Davis or Holiday for multiple young players and picks.  Griffin, and now Langdon, must be confident that whatever young core they've built around is truly ready to contend before jumping back in to the free agent or trade market head-first.  It won't be enough to be Sixers South, where a couple of runs to the conference semifinals is all you have to show for a long rebuild.  The Sixers jumping at a chance to add Jimmy Butler looks less now like a reasoned championship-aspiring addition and more foolish impatience.  The Simmons-Embiid era was still in it's relative infancy, but the Sixers tried to expedite their path to the NBA Finals by adding Butler.  It didn't work, and the Sixers are now are a bit of a rudderless ship stuck behind the Bucks in the East.  The Pelicans should be more Warriors and less Sixers. 

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As Pelicans fans watch the Warriors steamroll their way to another championship, perhaps it’s time to ditch the hate.  Admire what that franchise has built, and how they’ve built it.  Perhaps, if everything goes well, it will be the Pelicans everybody loves to loathe a few years from now.

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