In the win-now NBA, New Orleans’ ownership is playing the long game with its coach and its assembly of young talent
After going 48-100 over the past two seasons, seemingly the only thing more welcome for Pelicans coach Monty Williams than having the No. 6 selection in the upcoming NBA draft would be having one in the top five.
Or perhaps like last year when the team formerly known as the Hornets had two lottery picks, Nos. 1 and 10.
But Williams doesn’t quite see it that way.
“You look in the NBA. San Antonio and Miami aren’t winning with rookies,” Williams said Monday, the day he was announced as an assistant on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. “So to put that kind of pressure on a rookie, that doesn’t work.
“This young guy (whomever the Pelicans pick) is a guy who may not get there until three or four years from now. That’s just the way the NBA is.”
And fortunately for Williams, and by extension general manager Dell Demps, owner Tom Benson and executive vice president Mickey Loomis are of the same mind.
To Benson and Loomis, Williams and Demps are heading into only their second season, not their fourth, because it’s only the second under Benson’s ownership and Loomis’ overseeing of operations after the purchase of the franchise from the league in 2012.
And the season just completed — stepping down in hopes of stepping back up — was an anticipated mulligan. Witness the contract extensions given to the pair last year, when Loomis said he was “absolutely sure” Williams and Demps were the right men for the job.
That’s remarkable security in a league where, of the 12 teams which will have new coaches next season, six changes were made by teams that made the playoffs. And if Doc Rivers leaves Boston, it’ll be seven of 13.
So that means that the Pelicans brain trust can afford to take a long view about the pick, although it’s worth noting that the player who went at No. 6 last year, guard Damian Lillard of Portland, was the NBA Rookie of the Year, beating out Anthony Davis, the player New Orleans took at No. 1, for the honor.
“We’re looking for a guy that can come in and help maybe this year, maybe two years, maybe three years from now,” Demps said. “We’re not going to limit it to ‘We need some immediate help now.’ ”
That’s good, because the best players most likely available at No. 6 either don’t look like instant-impact guys or quite fit with the Pelicans’ short-team needs or are increasing their stock as June 27 approaches.
Small forward Anthony Bennett of UNLV? Not a strong perimeter defender. At least not yet.
Point guards Trey Burke of Michigan and Michael Carter-Williams of Maryland? They both bring solid qualities, but incumbent Greivis Vasquez looks entrenched as the starter, and it’s a little early to give up on Austin Rivers, last year’s No. 10 pick, who suffered a season-ending broken hand just at the point it looked like he had turned the rookie corner.
Center Alex Len of Maryland? In Robin Lopez, Williams and his staff showed they know how to develop a big man, but Len’s stock is rising and Charlotte at No. 4 and Phoenix at No. 5 aren’t both likely to pass on the Ukrainian.
That leaves shooting guard Victor Oladipo of Indiana, who might just fall to the Pelicans thanks to Len’s rise. A tenacious defender with strong leadership qualities, Oladipo would be the ideal rookie backup and eventual replacement for the enigmatic Eric Gordon.
Whoever the choice is, Williams is tempering expectations.
“When you’re that young (Bennett’s a freshman and Burke, Carter-Williams, Len and Oladipo are all sophomores), it’s hard to process all of this stuff,” he said. “These guys are 19 and 20 years old.
“As talented as they are, they’re still playing against men. So the learning curve is always going to be steep as they transition to their respective NBA careers.”
Then maybe the Pelicans should opt to deal down to take a European future player, obtaining a second-round pick they currently lack and leaving more cap room for free agents.
At least the team isn’t back in the bad old days when cash was more valued than keeping promising picks. Remember the draft night dumping of Cole Aldrich in 2010?
Of course, Williams’ grace period won’t last forever.
The New Orleans Arena was usually half-filled at best last season. Tom Benson likes full houses. Winning’s the best way to achieve that.
And at some point budding superstar Anthony Davis has to see something solid being built around him, lest the team wind up with another Chris Paul debacle.
But the Pelicans look like they’re headed in the right direction.
At least they have a direction.
So perhaps, come 2016, when Davis makes his second Olympic team, Williams will still be more than just his coach for the Games.