Pelicans won’t blow it with Zion like they did with ADby J.W. Miller on 05/20/19
Random thoughts while wondering if no-jockey racing could ever be a thing …
Like the headline says, we’re going to talk about why I believe the early years of the Zion Williamson era will be vastly more productive for the Pelicans than the early years of the Anthony Davis era. But first, let’s give horse racing its final run down the stretch.
Most racing fans watched the Preakness on Saturday for two reasons. One, to put the Kentucky Derby controversy behind them, or Two, to watch a wide-open race where, despite the betting odds, there was no sure-fire favorite. But to anybody who has lived in Baltimore, as I did in the 1970’s, you also watched because it might be the last time you’ll see a Triple Crown race in Charm City. The reason is that the city of Baltimore and the owners of venerable Pimlico race course can’t agree on who should fix up what has become a crumbling, deteriorating structure. For example, before Saturday’s race, authorities shut down a 7,000-seating area because it was declared unsafe for patrons. Two days before the race, a ruptured water main near the track left much of the facility without water on race day.
The great history of “Old Hilltop” not only includes the Preakness, which is actually two years older than the Kentucky Derby, but a legendary match race in 1877 between Ten Broeck, Tom Ochiltree and Parole that shut down Congress. But tradition and reputation don’t pay the bills. In 2017, the Maryland Stadium Authority released the first phase of a study that said Pimlico needed at least $250 million in renovations. The next phase of the report a year later updated the first one and declared that Pimlico’s existing buildings should be demolished and rebuilt at a price that would well exceed the first estimate.
The Stronach group, which inherited the facility in 2011, says the structure isn’t worth fixing without help from the city or state, and they intend to move the Preakness 25 miles down I-95 to Laurel Park Racecourse, which they also own. I spent a lot of time at Pimlico during my decade in “Balmer,” much of it in the Preakness infield sipping multiple National Bohemian beers while watching a morning match of lacrosse between traditional powers Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.
I have nothing against Laurel, where I won my biggest race track payday with a $10 exacta on two Kentucky-breds that paid $225. I don’t think I’ve come out on the plus side at the track since, but the Preakness doesn’t belong at Laurel. Sadly, sentiment won’t surpass the need for hard cash to keep the race at Pimlico.
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Switching to basketball, when the NBA lottery balls inexplicably fell the Pelicans’ way last week, I had a fleeting thought that somehow Tom Benson was influencing the upset. It’s hard to argue with the Benson karma, which began in his first year as owner of the local NBA franchise when the bouncing balls sent Anthony Davis to New Orleans.
However, the euphoria didn’t last as Davis’ first six years resulted in more All-Star selections for him than winning records for the team. The culprit, as I have written here before, was GM Dell Demps who never seemed to have a consistent philosophy that would produce long-term success.
One year he signed all his own free agents, which hinted at continuity, and then he fired the coach – Monte Williams - who made their retention reasonable. Demps refused to draft players who fit into Alvin Gentry’s scheme, instead trading them for veterans whose compensation made the salary structure too top-heavy and restricted the ability to add quality depth. Sure, young players don’t come with NBA experience, but they do come with salaries that allow you the room to bring in veteran role-players. When Demps tried to do that with guys like Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore he overpaid for overrated ability that produced the same result.
Now, with New Orleans’ unremitting optimism level rising again with the impending addition of Zion Williamson, I don’t think David Griffin will repeated those same mistakes. The team’s new head of basketball operations is an experienced NBA executive who has a plan for long-term success, including the addition of new GM Trajan Langdon over the weekend.
At some point, Griffin’s plan also will include a coaching change. Alvin Gentry did a commendable job keeping the team together amid the AD hubbub last year, but his sub-.500 career record does not hint of championships. Griffin knows when to change coaches, like he did when he swapped out David Blatt for Tyrone Lue in Cleveland during the 2015-16 season and won a championship.
That’s why I believe Zion’s early years with the Pelicans will be more productive than AD’s early years. David Griffin is not Dell Demps. And with Griffin, don’t count out the possibility that Zion’s early years and AD’s middle years just might become a joint venture toward NBA success.