Why Dell Demps Was Fired and Luke Walton Was Not

In his nearly nine years as a NBA GM, Dell Demps had seen it all. He had iconic talent in Chris Paul and Anthony Davis. Then, as fate would have it, he lost Chris Paul and Anthony Davis was out the door too. A trade he engineered was vetoed by then commissioner David Stern who called Dell Demps lousy.  He signed Rajon Rondo and traded for Boogie Cousins and overpaid below average role players like Solomon Hill. He had great offenses and great defenses but few playoff wins to show for it.

Outside of Davis, Dell Demps failed the draft. He passed on Eric Bledsoe and drafted Cole Aldrich. (Aldrich was traded). He passed on Draymond Green and drafted Austin Rivers. (Rivers was traded). He passed on Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder and drafted Nerlens Noel. (Noel was traded). He passed on Jamal Murray and drafted Buddy Hield (Hield was traded). Dell Demps the GM would never be confused with Jerry West. But that was not why he was fired. He was fired because of the culture.

After he was hired, when Luke Walton was introduced to the Los Angeles media he talked a lot about changing the culture. Fresh off the Warriors unselfishness, he assumed, that like osmosis, he could recreate the Golden State magic. But by its own definition, magic is magic because it cannot be duplicated.

NBA culture is defined by the great players on the roster. They set the culture and its accompanying anchors and values, and they demand its adherence like a parent demands obedience from a child. When you only have young players the culture is watered down, hit or miss. It is just guessing or throwing whatever at the wall and hoping it sticks. Culture is invisible.

A while back, shortly after LeBron James was injured, Brandon Ingram seemed to be relieved. He told reporters that with LeBron out he could finally play his game. I was struck by how easily he inserted himself into the equation as opposed to the team. Me and not we. That has been the Lakers culture and Walton has not been able to poke a hole in it. Outside of James who is new to the L.A. scene, the Lakers don’t have stars to establish their identity. But that is not why Luke Walton kept his job. He kept his job because of Jeanie Buss.

Both the Pelicans and the Lakers have female owners. Both came to ownership through inheritance. A husband died. A father died. Gayle Benson is unhappy with the disaster that is the Anthony Davis in limbo saga. She wants a clean house and to start over. She wants to gut the infection from the wound. But here’s the thing. By firing Demps she has put the Pelicans further behind the eight ball. Being on the bottom rung doesn’t do a thing for your culture and identity. It’s hard to get players, win games, compete and stay afloat. Firing Dell Demps was a reaction to a bad moment publicized on television, one of those Donald Trump twitter storms, a grotesque overreaction. The last thing that needed to be done was fire a GM when you’re trying to get the best deal for a top-5 player. Yes, Demps played mind games with the Lakers which wasn’t exactly professional but he was given a tough hand to play.

In the winter of 2011, Demps fixed the Chris Paul trade veto, so much so, the Hornets/Pelicans were awarded Anthony Davis in 2012. In the winter of 2019, Demps was fired before he could manage another save.

West of New Orelans, the inner circle of the game’s best player wants Luke Walton gone. LeBron James people have been leaking their unhappiness to the media and in past years it has worked. It got David Blatt fired. But the Lakers are a different kind of organization than team LeBron is used to. Jeanie listens to the season ticket holders and the fans. They are her customers and most Lakers fans want Walton to stick it out, at least until the end of the season.

Walton is no one’s idea of Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich. He’s terrible at adjustments, after time-outs, and identity. Many of Walton’s players don’t have the skill to execute the system he is running, so he’s forcing a round peg into a square hole. On the sidelines, he often looks bewildered. He is probably overmatched in spite of the young kids wanting to play hard for him. But the season was all about LeBron James and not Luke Walton. Either LeBron will magically get them to the playoffs. Or, he won’t. Luke Walton doesn’t matter.

And so here they are, Gayle Benson and Jeanie Buss. They had exceptional plans for this season and it has all cratered into mess. Firing a GM doesn’t solve the problem; the player wanting out is the problem. Keeping a struggling coach doesn’t fix things in the L.A. fishbowl. The players have to fix things and frankly their talent level, absent James, means it is another lost year.

The Pelicans and Lakers were supposed to trade with one another. Now they are in their respective corners trying to repair the messiness that their teams have become. Not a dumpster fire but nothing pretty is happening in New Orleans and Los Angeles.