New Orleans Pelicans

What do the New Orleans Pelicans owe the NBA and their fans?

The Anthony Davis saga drags on and every night the Pelicans have to decide between sitting him and taking a $100,000 fine from the NBA, or playing him and risking an injury that craters his trade value. With implications for competitiveness, playoff standings and the in-game experience, what do the Pelicans owe to their fans and the rest of the league? Bryan Toporek and Ian Levy discussed the tangled web.

Bryan Toporek: Since Anthony Davis’ trade request went public in late January, the New Orleans Pelicans have been a traveshamockery.

The Pelicans’ plan of whether to play Davis or how much to play him varies on a night-by-night basis. Prior to the All-Star break, head coach Alvin Gentry said, “this whole thing has been a dumpster fire.” While Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Pelicans players haven’t mailed in the season, the dysfunction surrounding the organization is having an unquestionable effect on the on-court product.

So, Ian, why shouldn’t season ticket holders demand their money back? They expected the Pelicans to put forth a good-faith effort to field their best roster every night. How is limiting Davis’ minutes — and refusing to put him back into close games — living up to that obligation?

Ian Levy: I recognize that this is an unfortunate situation, for everyone involved, really. No one is winning — not Davis, not the fans (both those who buy tickets and those who don’t) and certainly not the Pelicans. But the uncomfortable truth is that the organization’s obligation isn’t to put the best possible product on the floor every single night. It would be easy if short- and long-term goals always overlapped perfectly, but in this case, it’s better for everyone, fans included, in the long-term if Davis is on the floor as little as possible.

The assumption in this argument is often that fans buy tickets specifically to see stars play. Some certainly do. But fans buy tickets for all sorts of reasons and a team can’t be expected to cater to the individual interests of everyone. This is kind of a strawman, but if a large block of Tunisian-Americans bought tickets to a game to see Salah Mejri play, are the Mavericks failing to live up to their obligations to those fans if they made him a healthy scratch?

Toporek: If Pelicans Twitter is any indication, it seems like a number of Pelicans fans agree with you! They’d prefer to see Davis sit the rest of the season, both to avoid the risk of injury (and preserve his trade value) and to allow the team to hand more minutes to players who may be part of their future beyond this season. Also, Davis always misses at least a handful of games every year due to a grab bag of injuries, so I agree that the “they bought tickets specifically to see him!” argument doesn’t hold much water.

If anything, I’d be pissed about the NBA’s intervention if I were a Pelicans fan. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the league told the Pelicans that “they would be subject to a fine of $100,000 per every game if Davis were benched.” NBA spokesman Mike Bass later denied that, telling Marc Stein of the New York Times that the Pelicans “had not identified a proper basis” to hold a healthy Davis out. “League rules governing competitive integrity therefore require that he be permitted to play,” he added.

According to Stein, the Pelicans “initially planned to sit Davis for the rest of the season” after they decided not to send him to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline. Whether the NBA threatened the franchise with fines or not, benching Davis would have been the prudent play. If the Pelicans refused to do so in fear of incurring such fines — which would have totaled $2.7 million — season ticket holders should exert financial pressure on the team by demanding a portion of their money back. In doing so, they would send a strong message both to the Pelicans and the league that no franchise should be forced to risk its long-term future for the sake of competitive balance.

Levy: That’s pretty much where I am too. If Davis were to get injured before the end of this season, driving down his trade value, it could potentially cost the Pelicans A LOT more than $2.7 million dollars. Receiving less value for Davis means a less competitive team next year and beyond, which also impacts competitive balance and the value ticker-buyers receive for their money when they go to a game.

The issue here is everyone’s interests are aligned, but the timelines are not. A ticket-holder or another team who needs the Pelicans to pull out a win for the sake of the playoff positioning, they are necessarily focused on the outcome of a single game. The league itself is interested in maintaining the integrity (or at least the appearance of integrity) of this season. The Pelicans are responsible for balancing the short- and long-term to put the organization in the most stable position both competitively and financially. Making those decisions means short-term/long-term and competitive/financial trade-offs.

But EVERYONE is better off if Anthony Davis finishes this season without being injured. And EVERYONE loses if he gets hurt. The interested parties just can’t all acknowledge or reconcile that in the same way.

Toporek: Right, the conflicting interests make this situation far more complicated than it otherwise should be. If the league office took a laissez-faire approach, the Pelicans would have the power to bench Davis for the rest of the season regardless of how that decision impacts other teams, the playoff race, etc. But for the sake of maintaining competitive balance, the league can’t allow that to happen without threatening the Pelicans with serious consequences.

It does seem somewhat unfair to the Pelicans that the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies were allowed to send J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Chandler Parsons away, respectively, without getting fined. Sure, none of those guys are anywhere near as vital as Davis, but how does benching those guys repeatedly not violate the same rules the Pelicans would be by benching Davis?

For me, this all comes back to the on-court product, too. As Mason Ginsberg of Bourbon Street Shots noted, the Pelicans closed Monday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers on a 41-27 run once Davis checked out for good with five minutes left in the third quarter. Is anyone enjoying seeing Davis play for 20 minutes per game just to appease the NBA? What part of the Orlando Magic’s 118-88 thumping of the Pelicans heading into the All-Star break — a game in which Davis finished with three points on 1-of-9 shooting in 24 minutes — suggests this situation is conducive to New Orleans creating a positive long-term environment?

Inflicting financial pain is the best way for season ticket holders to enact change. Any sort of legal action against the Pelicans or the NBA is bound to come up short, but that shouldn’t stop season ticket holders from voicing their frustration with this situation regardless.

Next: Handicapping the race for No. 7 and No. 8 in the Eastern Conference

Levy: In the words of Mitch Hedberg, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. And right now, all of those people are on the internet. I guess we just hope the Pelicans ride their frustration at the situation to competitiveness even when Davis is on the bench and that nothing bad happens in those minutes when he is on the floor.

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