Fairness requires patience in evaluating struggling Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS – NBA seasons are really long.
Judgments tend to happen much faster.
This New Orleans Pelicans season is not quite four weeks old and the team has played a mere 14 games.
But it might seem that this season already is dragging because the Pelicans have won two games and lost 12.
That’s a really, really bad record – the second-worst in the NBA. And yet, even though wins and losses are the bottom line in the NBA, this team can’t be fairly evaluated strictly on wins and losses.
At least not yet.
They have 68 more games to play over the next 147 days, beginning with a trip to Washington to play the Eastern Conference-leading Wizards on Monday.
This is a team that has yet to play a game with its best player – forward Zion Williamson, who is sidelined indefinitely because of off-season foot surgery.
Their second-best player, forward Brandon Ingram, just returned from a seven-game absence due to a hip contusion to score 19 points as the Pelicans ended a nine-game losing streak with a 112-101 victory against Memphis on Saturday, their first home victory of the season.
Willie Green is in his first season as a head coach, trying to build the foundation of a program, install a basketball system and instill a mindset – mostly without his primary assets.
There’s a lot going on here that can’t be measured by final scores.
The Pelicans just completed a home-stand that consisted of three games in four games. It began with a 108-100 loss to Oklahoma City last Wednesday.
It was an immature performance by a team facing a fellow young team that has a leg up on it so far.
Josh Hart was ejected after receiving two of the Pelicans’ five technical fouls in the second quarter. The players felt they weren’t getting calls they deserved.
“We’re not going to get those calls,” Green said afterward. “We haven’t earned them, so what are we complaining about? Until we earn it, we’re not going to get that. That’s the deal. Our margin for error is too small to do that.”
The Pelicans are a young team with a rookie head coach.
Green said he goes home after each game and asks himself, “What can I do better?”
“I continue to pray about it,” he added, “and then the next day I come in and watch the tape and see if our guys are improving. Are they taking the things that we’re asking them to do and are they getting better at it? And I can honestly say they are.”
Two nights after the loss to OKC, the Pelicans had another close loss – this one against the Brooklyn Nets, one of the best teams in the NBA. The Nets led by 21 in the third quarter before a Pelicans surge produced a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter. But the Pelicans couldn’t finish.
Green said his team took its competitiveness “to another level” during the surge, but adding that it “can’t wait until we’re down 20 points” to do so.
Then Ingram returned and that’s a good thing.
But we don’t know when Williamson will return. When he does return that too will be a good thing, but it also will be a disruption to whatever progress might take place between now and then.
It’s discouraging looking at the five months that remain in this marathon knowing there’s almost certainly no significant payoff at the end.
A playoff spot is highly unlikely, and a play-in spot is only slightly less unlikely.
So it’s easy to write this team off – and search for someone to blame for its lack of success.
It’s easy to blame Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin for creating an ill-conceived roster.
It’s easy to dismiss Green as a rookie head coach not up to the challenge.
It’s easy to cherry-pick as failures, players that have been asked to do more than they were brought here to do because of the absences of the top players.
But all of that is premature.
It’s November and fairness requires that an evaluation wait until April.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…