What the Wolves can learn from the Pelicans and Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis’ trade request sent ripples through the NBA this week. The seven-year veteran informed the New Orleans Pelicans that he would not be signing a contract extension with the team after his current deal ends in 2020.

It’s not for a lack of trying on the team’s part. Take a look.

● After selecting Davis first overall in the 2012 draft, the then-New Orleans Hornets got to work on building around their future star. Gustavo Ayon was flipped to Orlando for Ryan Anderson on July 13.

● The following offseason they traded the rights to Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick on draft night to Philadephia for Jrue Holliday and Pierre Jackson. Sacramento also dealt Tyreke Evans to New Orleans on July 10. For good measure, they signed Anthony Morrow in hopes of adding 3-point shooting.

● In the summer of 2014, the Pelicans swung big again, this time trading Scotty Hopson, Alonzo Gee and a 2015 first-round pick to Houston for Omer Asik and Omri Casspi in a 3-team deal. Casspi was later waived to make room for Jimmer Fredette and Darius Miller.

● Following a 45-win season in which the Pelicans returned to the postseason, they locked into their core. Asik received a five-year, $60-million extension. Alexis Anjinca received $20 million over four years. And Dante Cunningham signed a three-year, nine-million-dollar extension.

While this seems like petty cash in today’s NBA, bear in mind that this was before the TV money kicked in when spending $27 million per season on Evans, Anjinca, and Asik was actually consequential. The TV deal would kick in the following season, causing the salary cap to spike and softening the blow.

● We all remember Evans being traded back to Sacramento, along with Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway and another first-round pick, during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game for DeMarcus Cousins. This was a fantastic price for the Pelicans that almost worked out. The Pelicans won 48 games the next season before Cousins tore his Achilles and Davis when supernova to carry the team to their first playoff series win.

● Tony Allen, Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson and a 2018 first-round pick were dealt to Chicago for Nikola Mirotic in February 2018.

As another mid-to-small market team, the Wolves could take some lessons from how the Pelicans handled Davis’ career to handling Towns. It used to be said that you had eight years with a player, which would be true but players have begun seeking an out a year or two years prior to the end of their deals.

New Orleans thought that they had the rest of this season plus next season to convince Davis to commit long term. Now, they’re having to face the prospect of trading Davis during or after his seventh season. So, in reality, NBA teams get closer to five full seasons with a player before these situations arise. That only accelerates the timeline.

Don’t give away draft picks

Did you notice how many times the Pelicans sacrificed a first-round pick for a veteran player? Three times and four if you include Buddy Hield, who was traded during his rookie season and has become one of the most reliable shooters in the NBA already.

That doesn’t even include the handful of picks the Pelicans included in trades over this time. While it’s difficult, value can be found in second-round picks. In fact, a second rounder that was involved in one of their trades over this time was used to select eventual Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

That pick originated from Portland but the point remains: don’t frivolously trade away draft picks, especially when your franchise is tight on cap space and has to do things like extend Omer Asik for five years and $60 million.

The Pelicans knew right away that building a winner was going to be important, but you could argue that trading away so many draft picks hurt them. Sure, Holliday was probably better than anyone they’d use that pick on, especially since it was eventually used to select Elfrid Payton (who now actually plays for the Pelicans!), but the principle remains the same: non-free agent destination franchises can’t afford to give away too much young, affordable talent.

This is something the Wolves have gotten better at. Atlanta finally received their pick for the misguided Adreian Payne trade last summer but the Hawks got a very useful player in Kevin Huerter with that pick. These mid-firsts aren’t guaranteed home run picks but they are still valuable.

Be smart with your cap space

There’s a saying that sometimes the best deals in business are the ones you don’t make and the Pelicans have been alright in this area. Moves like Morrow and Cunningham were smart additions but other times they’ve done things like pay Solomon Hill $48 million over four years to hit 38 percent of his shots in three years because he played 59 good games with the Pacers one year.

When it comes to the Timberwolves, this is why paying Wiggins so much money compared to his production is difficult. With one player consuming so much cap room, it’s difficult to add talent around a player like Towns. If Wiggins continues rebounding like he has under Ryan Saunders, that’s great and would be a big check mark in the pro column for retaining him if the trend holds.

Otherwise, removing albatrosses like Wiggins’ and Gorgui Dieng’s can be costly. The Pelicans had to include a first to get the Bulls to take Asik in exchange for Mirotic who had recently returned from getting knocked out by a teammate. Of course, it would be ideal for both players to improve than to have to explore that situation. But at some point the Wolves will feel the constraints of these deals.

Sometimes your luck is bad

The difficult thing about building a good team is that you can do everything correctly and still catch enough bad breaks to knock you back two steps. The Pelicans are a great example.

Forward Ryan Anderson had his girlfriend tragically pass away before the 2014 season and played just 22 games that season.

After a breakout 2015 season in which they snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and won 45 games, the Pelicans won just 30 in 2016 due to injuries. Just two Pelicans missed fewer than 10 games and required 21 players to finish the season. There’s just no way that Pelicans team got 15 wins worse from one season to the other based on their offseason.

Jrue Holiday was healthy after two injury-plagued seasons when he missed the start of the 2017 season to tend to his pregnant wife during her brain surgery.

Bryce DeJean-Jones’ life and career were tragically cut short at the end of the 2016 season.

These are things that you cannot control. You can be smart and savvy but still have everything go sideways due to circumstances beyond your control. Athletes get injured and people have horrible situations to deal with that suddenly arise and you can’t help those things. What a team can control are the first two items in this column.

The Wolves being down three point guards was unforeseen. Robert Covington’s sore knee is unfortunate.

Making a coaching change after a 22-point victory was surprising but that can be controlled. The same could have been said for the Jimmy Butler situation since the Wolves put off dealing with it as long as they could and allowed it to come to a head.

What the Wolves can’t control are the contracts of Wiggins and Dieng. But they can control what they do from here. They can manage the exceptions that they do get wisely and even continue to work with the players.

Look at last season. Had Butler not been hurt or hurt as badly, could his return have put the Wolves in a more favorable matchup? Sure and maybe they even take a series if they had home court.

Just win, baby

The Pelicans have spent the last six seasons yo-yoing up and down the Western Conference standings. There are reasons why they weren’t more consistent but at some point you just have to say that a team didn’t get the job done. All the home trades and big signings all were generally well received at the time but they never translated to wins.

You can say that part of this is on Davis but he’s missed 20 or more games just once in his career and has played 75 two seasons in a row. All things considered, that’s not an extreme number of missed games. With the moves that the Pelicans made to surround him with a viable cast, there should have been enough there to keep the team afloat. Well, unless those guys become more or as injured as Davis.

At any rate, the bottomline on the Pelicans during Davis’ tenure is that they made the playoffs twice in his first five seasons. That’s not going to be enough to satisfy a player of Davis’ caliber who has been one of the best players in the NBA on both sides of the floor. The days of someone like Kevin Garnett wasting 12 years of his prime losing in the first round with one team are over.

One day, Karl-Anthony Towns is going to take the same time to reflect as Davis did and wonder what will be best for his future. If the Wolves have proven that they can consistently win, I believe they’ll be in good shape. But if they’re making the playoffs every other year and are cap strapped with few means for improving the team, then it doesn’t really make sense for Towns to stay past this contract.

The bright side

The good news is that the Wolves have several things going for them. Sure, they still have to pick a head coach for the future but things look promising otherwise.

No first-round draft picks are currently owed to other teams. This should provide them with affordable young talent to surround Towns with at least through his contract if the Wolves are fortunate enough.

If the Wolves can find a way to move Jeff Teague or he declines his 2020 player option, the Wolves would have $90 million on the payroll for next season. That doesn’t take into account any other moves like matching an offer for Tyus Jones in restricted free agency or a player signed with an exception. But it gives you an idea of what kind of freedom the team may have going forward.
Of course, Towns and his durability (knocks on all of the wood) are the biggest reasons for optimism with the Timberwolves going forward. He needs to improve in some areas still but he is well on his way to becoming one of the best and most reliable players in the game today.

The biggest thing and arguably the hardest to control is the winning. We’ve seen that with the Pelicans, when Kevin Durant was in Oklahoma City, and countless other times in league history. You can do all of the right things and take as much of your fate into your own hands and still fall short. Winning is hard and all the Wolves can hope to do is put themselves in the best position to do so.