ON A SUNDAY afternoon at the Superdome in December 2014, Rita Benson LeBlanc, the granddaughter of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, reportedly accosted Benson’s wife, Gayle.
Within six days, Tom Benson disinherited his daughter, Renee Benson, and her two children (including Rita) and made Gayle his primary heir. There’s way more to this story, of course, and it was the subject of a long and bitter legal drama. But there’s a lesson: Be careful when messing with Gayle Benson.
What happens next with Anthony Davis is a huge test for the 72-year-old Benson, who became the Pelicans’ owner in March 2018, when her husband of 13 years passed away. She’s the NBA’s newest owner, one who doesn’t have a history of decisions to show a definitive track record, and she presides over an unusual management structure that relies on football executives to oversee her basketball team.
Deciding whether to honor Davis’ trade request, deciding when to honor it and deciding what type of trade package the Pelicans should seek are ownership-level decisions. It’s as complicated and as stressful of a moment as a sports team owner can have in this day and age. It’s a time when leadership and guidance are badly needed.
“She’s still learning. I would guess it’s going to be a challenge for her,” one NBA owner said. “I would think Adam [Silver] would offer guidance if she wanted it.”
It’s somewhat transparent that Davis is interested in getting to the Los Angeles Lakers, which is why his trade demand is coming now, when other expected bidders are compromised. The Boston Celtics can’t really get involved because of trade rules related to Kyrie Irving. The New York Knicks‘ potential best offer will be murky until their draft position is known in the spring.
Davis moving now has the markings of a leverage play, especially for a player with a season and a half left on his contract. It’s a strong-arm tactic, though it’s being made deftly. Davis has had a process with this move, meeting with teammates to inform them of his intentions personally and having his agent formally inform the team of his intentions and wishes.
But at the end of the day, it’s part of a campaign to make Benson bend toward his wishes. The NBA is watching: Will she, or won’t she?
Dell Demps has been the Pelicans’ general manager since 2010, when the team was known as the Hornets and was owned by George Shinn. He has seen a lot in his tenure, including the failed Chris Paul trade with the Lakers in 2011. He can negotiate trades, but ultimately, he gets his marching orders from ownership, just as he did when the Paul trade was rejected by the acting Hornets owner, commissioner David Stern. That will be the case again with Davis.
Will the Pelicans be willing to do a deal with a conference rival and create a potential superteam? Will they want to center the deal on draft picks and potentially bottom out the team, accepting losing and possible attendance declines? Will they prefer more established players to more quickly retrofit the team instead of a full rebuild?
In some form or another, these issues will land in Benson’s lap.
Those familiar with the Pelicans’ inner workings say Benson relies heavily on the infrastructure her late husband put in place. The Pelicans have a board of directors that make the major decisions within the franchise. They share a president, vice president, chief operating officer, chief financial officer and general counsel with the Saints, which is how Tom Benson structured the operation.
Demps’ direct boss within the Pelicans’ management structure is Mickey Loomis, who is the highly respected and successful general manager of the Saints. Last week, as Davis was finalizing his decision to ask for a trade after seeing a hand specialist to determine the severity of a finger injury, Loomis was at the Senior Bowl in Alabama. When he spoke to the media, he addressed not Davis but the missed pass interference call in the NFC Championship Game. His is not a common position to be in.
Those who have worked with Loomis on basketball matters report that he gives the Pelicans’ executives space to operate, but his experience in dealing with the challenges of pro sports shines through. He is not one to be intimidated or pushed around.
Teams who plan to negotiate with Demps and the Pelicans in the coming days have done their research on how to approach this situation. Some believe that Loomis will play a vital role in how the Pelicans manage the Davis crisis. But like Benson, Loomis has no demonstrable track record of dealing with such matters.
“We’re going to invest more money and get the big players and do everything we can to keep Anthony [Davis] here,” Benson said in an interview with The Athletic last month. “I really like Anthony, but if he wants to leave, you can’t hold him back.”
There’s a lot of things left to interpretation there.
Last April, I attended the Pelicans’ first playoff game in Portland, when they stunned the Blazers by 24 points on the way to a dominating first-round sweep. It was Davis’ first playoff win, and he was emotional about it.
As the Pelicans players came back into the locker room, there was Benson, just a few weeks after her husband’s passing, congratulating the team on the victory. Her intention, in part, was to demonstrate to the team that she was fully invested in the team and its success. It did send an impressive message.
The way she handles the Davis matter, though, might end up being a defining moment in her ownership tenure.
PAUL GEORGE IS having the best season of his career, averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding and steals, along with a shooting performance that is among his best. His player efficiency rating is a career-best 23.9. Late in games, a slumping Russell Westbrook has yielded to George more often than he did last season, and as a result, George has made several game-winning or game-sealing baskets. That included a buzzer-beater in Brooklyn earlier this season and a four-point play to win in Philadelphia last week. He made several clutch baskets in the Thunder’s win over the Bucks on Sunday.
It has been a change in narrative for George, who has been criticized in the past for not being able to make clutch shots. He was 0-of-15 on tying or game-winning attempts in the final 20 seconds of games during his tenure with the Indiana Pacers. Before his game-winning basket against the Nets, he was 0-of-14 in is career on go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds.
The irony is, even with George enjoying a glorious season, he actually has been worse in “the clutch.” Over the previous three seasons, George shot 41 percent on shots in the final five minutes with the score separated by fewer than five points. This season, he’s shooting only 31 percent in those situations — although it appears it’s because of volume. George has already logged as many “clutch” attempts as he did all of the previous season. It’s another indication of how Westbrook is handing off the clutch keys.
The point here is that George has always been pretty good in these situations. Defining a player by only the very last shot has never been fair because it ignores all the games he decided with his play long before the final 10 seconds. George is a wonderful example of that this season, and the percentages say he’s going to make only more of them as he pulls up to his average.
THERE’S AN UNEXPECTEDLY intriguing game on Thursday, when the Toronto Raptors host the Milwaukee Bucks. The winner will have the inside track to clinch the Eastern Conference’s best record by the Feb. 3 cutoff for determining the All-Star coaching staff. The Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and Raptors’ Nick Nurse are in a dead heat for the honor.
This game has tiebreaker potential in a high-value playoff series in the spring. The Bucks are 2-1 against the Raptors so far this season, and those victories have enabled them to pull ahead of the Raptors for a better winning percentage, though they are technically tied at the top of the standings.
Dwane Casey was the All-Star coach last season, but because the Raptors have changed coaches, Nurse is eligible for the honor this season.