The road not taken, which has made all the difference

Two teams added superstars around the same time. Their strategies for supporting those superstars were different, with very different results.

Elfrid Payton rises and shoots a three pointer over Eric Bledsoe. Photo Credit: Wyatt Vaughn

Story and photos by Wyatt Vaughn, senior at Holy Cross School; mentored by McClain Forman

Cheick Diallo plays tough defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Photo Credit: Wyatt Vaughn

On Tuesday night the New Orleans Pelicans, now 12th in the Western Conference, took on the top team in the league in the Milwaukee Bucks who currently have a 50-17 record. With Jrue Holiday out, and Anthony Davis playing limited minutes, it was going to be a huge challenge for the Pels to steal a win, but some fans would take that as a good thing for the Pels. With the Bucks, and perennial superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, coming into town it is time to revisit how the Bucks built a contender of a team around Giannis, and how the Pelicans failed to do so with Anthony Davis.

Just a few short years ago, the Bucks and Pelicans were in very similar positions. Back in 2013, the Pelicans had just finished up a 27-55 campaign with star rookie Anthony Davis, and were gearing up for the NBA draft with the 6th overall pick. The Bucks meanwhile were coming off a first round playoff loss to the eventual champion Miami Heat, and had the 15th pick in the NBA draft. Long before the draft, the consensus #1 pick for many months was Nerlens Noel, a Center from Kentucky. Noel, who was the #1 recruit coming out of high school, was highly touted because of his length, athleticism, and versatility as either a center or a power forward. But on February 14th, the prospect received news that he had torn his ACL and was going to miss the rest of his college season. This injury would make his draft stock drop significantly. So much so that he was available with the 6th pick when the Pelicans were making their draft selection. Had Noel not gotten injured, maybe the Pelicans would have traded down, or picked another player. Noel’s tenure with the Pels wasn’t long, as he was traded almost immediately to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Pelicans in return got Jrue Holiday, a future all-defensive first team player. The Bucks meanwhile took a little known player, Giannis Antetokounmpo all the way from Greece. And so it began.

It didn’t seem like the Greek Freak was all that great when he started out. As a rookie he averaged just six points and four rebounds a game, while shooting a measly 41% from the field. Comparatively, AD averaged 13 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks per game in his rookie season. But Antetokounmpo just kept getting better, year after year. In every year since his rookie season, his points and rebounds per game have gone up. Though Antetokounmpo blossomed a little later than Davis did, it was clear for both teams, that they had a rising superstar, and needed to build a team around them. The Pelicans had already begun this process by trading for Jrue Holiday.

Darius Miller shoots a jumper over Brook Lopez. Photo Credit: Wyatt Vaughn

The Bucks would follow the Pelicans in quickly building a team around their growing star. After the 2013 season ended the Bucks made a blockbuster trade with the Detroit Pistons. The Bucks gave up star point guard Brandon Jennings in exchange for three players from the Pistons, one of which was future all-star Khris Middleton. That move was the most influential move they have made in the last 10 years, aside from drafting Antetokounmpo. Middleton is currently in his 6th season with the team, averaging just over 17 points per game and six rebounds. Just a month ago he was nominated to his first ever all-star game. But Middleton wasn’t a proven prospect when the Bucks traded for him. The Bucks were playing for the future, a common theme in their building process. The Bucks were extremely proactive in acquiring great teammates for Antetokounmpo to play with. Just two drafts ago they drafted the rookie of the year, guard Malcolm Brogdon in the second round. Only five times has the award ever been won by someone drafted outside of the first round, and Brogdon is the first since 1962 to do it. After that the Bucks knew they were building something special, so they finally made a move to win now, instead of in the future by trading for star point guard Eric Bledsoe. All of these moves have proved to be great as the Bucks are now 51-17, the #1 seed in the East, and the favorite to go to the finals. But all of this wouldn’t be possible without Antetokounmpo, who is the frontrunner for MVP, averaging 27 points per game and 12 rebounds, while shooting 58% from the field. What the Bucks did was perfect, they built for the future, and it is finally paying off.

The Pelicans did all they could to build around Anthony Davis. They made move after move, with them all culminating in Davis requesting a trade last month. Back in 2013, armed with a new name, brand and enthusiasm, the Pelicans were one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA. They had Davis, along with recently acquired Jrue Holiday, and Austin Rivers, who they drafted 10th overall in the draft. The Pelicans’ troubles started when Austin Rivers didn’t produce like they thought he would. The Pelicans wound up trading him after two years in 2015 to the Boston Celtics. After that the Pelicans stayed quiet for a while until a blockbuster trade for Demarcus Cousins, in which they gave away Buddy Hield. Although the trade seemed to be good at first, once Cousins tore his achilles he decided to leave NOLA and join the Golden State Warriors. Hield is now averaging more points per game than Cousins is, at 20 points per game. Another case of the Pelicans trying to build for now, instead of the future.

Now they must build their team back up again. This time, the roster will not include Anthony Davis. While winning in the NBA without a star isn’t impossible, it is extremely difficult. And if the Pelicans want to do so, they are going to have to get to work.

The Pelicans will be back in action on Friday the 14th against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Smoothie King Center.