Taking Flight

Griffin brings championship vision to Pelicans
Illustration by Tony Healey


The New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 season began with a lot of promise and ended in near disaster. After reaching the second round of the NBA Playoffs the previous season, the team’s year swung on team superstar Anthony Davis’ midseason trade request to the Los Angeles Lakers after announcing he no longer wanted to play in the Crescent City. The move wrecked not only the Pelicans’ season, but the Lakers’, too. Both teams missed the playoffs and are working through the PR catastrophe left in the botched deal’s wake.   

New Orleans ended the season with a 33-49 record, tied for second-worst in the Western Conference and 15 games out of qualifying for the playoffs. The horrid display cost team GM Dell Demps his job, leaving the rebuilding of the team to someone else.

Team owner Gayle Benson promised a renewed focus on improving the franchise. On April 17, David Griffin was named the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operation and charged with building a roster that can compete for championships.

His addition has felt like the dawn of a new day. There is promise on the horizon.
Pelicans’ website reporter Jim Eichenhofer recently interviewed several people who have known and worked with Griffin for years. They describe a well-liked man who, from his earliest days in the NBA, was driven to run a franchise and work in whatever role he’s needed to learn how to put a talent together within the salary cap and build a winner. He was part of the Phoenix Suns’ most recent resurrection under Steve Nash and built the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers team that came back from a 0-3 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals to win a championship.

David Cooper, owner of New York City-based MVP Public Relations and an NYU professor, who worked with Griffin when both interned with the Suns during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons, said of him, “It’s a rare gift today to have an owner or other executive be able to represent your brand to the public, and David brings all of that. He builds winning cultures, and you can only do that if you’ve walked in the shoes of those around you.”

Cooper went on to say, “I know him personally, so I may have a bias, but he’s the smartest individual in the league, hands-down, from cap issues, to talent evaluation, to gamesmanship, to Xs and Os.”

In his introductory press conference, Griffin said he and Benson had a shared vision of building the roster “organically”

“If you start building to the ethos of the city, you can build something that attracts the right people,” he said, “and we want to build something that lasts and that means something, and this city gives us the chance to do it.”

One of his first decisions was to retain head coach Alvin Gentry, who has compiled a 145-183 record in four seasons leading the Pels. Up until the most recent season, the team had improved its record in consecutive seasons under Gentry’s tutelage.

“Keeping him around was a no-brainer for me in terms of once we met and talked about where he was in his thought process, and his desire to be part of what the vision was, it was a given.”

Some experts have said that Griffin taking over the club may cause Davis to reconsider his trade request.

“I think (Davis’ agent) Rich (Paul) is genuinely excited about this situation,” Griffin said at his first press conference. “Rich (Paul) represents the greatest player of his generation, and he saw LeBron (James) buy into what we were doing, and our direction, and the respect he had for what we did. And I think LeBron (James) himself has been very supportive of us as well in terms of listen, they know what they’re doing. So I think he’ll have plenty of the right voices in his ear.”

If Davis stays, the team will continue to build around him. If faced with rebuilding, Griffin said it won’t be “rocket surgery.” He plans to “invest” in unselfish players with high basketball IQs who can move the ball.

“What we have to do is win, make several small wins, every day, and cobble those together. Every deal we make stacks upon the last one, and there’s going to be things we do that you’re going to look at and say, ‘What on earth are they doing?’ Well, we look at this as a one-deal-feeds-the-next opportunity, and I think that will be something that you see us invest in, and that’s where the infrastructure comes from. We’ll make a series of very good decisions, and hopefully that culminates into a championship caliber team.”