Landing an absolute monster in the draft- and knowing it basically from day 1- is the single best start to building a contender. It is such an advantage that teams can't imagine squandering it, until a few moves down the road and the GM is scratching his head trying to figure out ways to improve a team over the cap with no picks and not even any contracts to trade. By the time Lebron left the Cavs their last remaining moves were to trade away rotation players with the understanding they would be bought out and could return to the team after a long vacation. The history of how Z was traded for Jamison and then played with him is to long to go into here. Basically it started with Boozer being let out of his contract a year early- much like Houston did with Parsons this season- which set in motion a perpetual chase to find an appropriate running mate, which never was realized though the permutations of Mo Williams, Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Shaquille O'Neal, Darius Miles, and others indicate that a lot of effort was put forth, after that initial mistake.
New Orleans, sadly, looks like they have made a similar mistake in their rebuild, and they are compounding that error. Some of this will sound an awful lot like hindsight but remember that I am pointing out the cumulative effects of these issues. That instead of eating one bad move, falling back a year and then taking advantage of their fortune they are continued to bet big on one line of thought, and it painful to watch.
Mistake #1: Matching Gordon's contract offer from Pheonix. A lot here was going on, he was the major piece in the CP3 trade and losing him would look bad, but matching a max (BTW a good move for a cheap owner is to make a big offer to a guy whose team will match- it even ties up your cap so that you CANT make any other offers for 3 days) for a guy that missed every game save 9 the previous season also missed time the two years before that (20 and 26 games) was a huge risk. Obviously a mistake in hindsight, and probably a mistake going in, you can see why they did it after landing Davis. His contract and (likely) production would make it ok if Gordon was a 10-12 million dollar player and not a 15-17 when he came back.
Gordon didn't come back. He missed 40 games the next season and though he looked good playing (though not as good as his last year in LA) missing that much time with his contract was not just a red flag, but a 3rd red flag. The rebuild should have essentially been rethought at that point with the main focus on knowing that they might be building a team with a 15 million dollar albatross on the books. Instead all indications are that their future moves were made under the assumption that Gordon would come back, and they doubled down on.
Mistake #2: Trading for Jrue Holiday. Lets review- you have a massive advantage that should manifest itself in a year or two, but you have a potentially massive liability. Davis for 5 million is great, Davis and a guy on the bench with a bad knee for 20 million isn't a huge advantage any more. Two first round picks for a solid, but not great, PG making 11 million per year was their move. The fit with Davis/Anderson/Gordon is acceptable, but the picks are ruining you if Gordon doesn't return. A gimpy Gordon can be replaced in one of two ways- first by drafting a replacement and using his cheap production to mitigate Gordon's expensive non production. Secondly you stick one of those picks on his contract you can find a taker for part of that money. Either way 1st round picks are your best bet at getting your team back on track.
Here is where I list signing Evans as mistake #3- only I don't know that its a "mistake". Teams make bad projections on how FAs will fit and Evans certainly has some of the skills necessary to make him an eleven million dollar player.
Mistake #3: TRADING for Evans. While Evans MIGHT be worth 11 million with the right coach, team and system that doesn't mean you dump two cheap, productive players to do so. Dumping Lopez rippled into this season when they then had to trade a 1st for Asik to shore up a big man "rotation", and dumping Vazquez meant they had to turn the backup PG keys to Brian Roberts and forced Rivers who, to put it mildly, looked like shit at as a rookie, into more playing time. When he continued to look bad the Pelicans then didn't pick up his affordable 4th year option. Now he looks like a passable backup NBA player and to keep him the Pelicans will have to make him an offer and hope their insult doesn't push him out the door.
The trade for Evans and his new contract basically capped the team out for another off season and again their only route to improve was to give up an asset. Enter mistake #4
Mistake #4: A bizarrely protected (#1-3 and #20-30) pick for Asik. Not only are they potentially giving up their 3rd pick in as many years this move actually makes it hard to trade future picks. If the Pelicans do have a successful year and pick in the 20s they keep a pick, which means they they still owe it to Houston making the 2016 pick untradeable, and because it will still have a lot of protections for its entire life the possibility will always exist that a team landing a 1st round pick from the Pelicans will have to wait, and wait, and wait, dimishing its trade value.
Davis is still under contract and still wonderful, and his teammates are NBA level players but the Pelicans' front office doesn't control its destiny. They can catch a break if Gordon opts out of his last year (he shouldn't) or they find a gem of a 2nd round pick, but this would take luck not skill. And don't let anyone tell you it was bad luck for the Pelicans. They had a position of strength, gambled heavily and look to have lost.