Pelicans should fully embrace youth movement

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Jrue Holiday, Jaxson Hayes
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

After 18 games, the New Orleans Pelicans have raised plenty of questions, but have found very few answers.

We’re nearing the end of the first quarter of the season and the Pelicans, with their 6-12 record, are on pace to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 games.

The Pels have been no stranger to misfortune, having already lost 71 player games to injury, including 18 for top overall pick Zion Williamson. Only the Golden State Warriors, with 115, have more.

Even with those injuries, Alvin Gentry’s player rotation has remained incredibly fluid. Some players, such as Nickeil Alexander-Walker, have seen their minutes reduced. Other, like Nicolo Melli, haven’t seen an increase in production with their increase in minutes.

Looking at the final score of Wednesday’s loss to the Lakers, one might be comforted by a close loss to the league’s best team if they hadn’t watched the Pelicans squander a lead that was as large as 16 points in the second half.

Publicly, the team was optimistic about their effort.

“I thought we executed the gameplan.” said JJ Redick, who finished the game with 18 points, making 5-of-8 three point attempts. “There was one stretch at the end of the third where we had the 15 or 17 point lead and they were able to cut it down to eight really quickly, with just a couple of possessions. Other than that stretch, I thought we were great all night.”

No, they weren’t. The Pelicans were outscored 35-21 in the fourth quarter, and that’s with Anthony Davis taking two shots from the floor. Jrue Holiday, who played great on defense all night, was a non factor offensively in the second half. Holiday scored four of his team-high 25 points in the final two quarters, committed four critical turnovers, and his missed dunk attempt that would have tied the score at 100 perfectly represented the team’s collapse down the stretch.

His teammates didn’t fare much better, as New Orleans shot less than 30 percent from the floor in the second half and had as many made field goals as turnovers (11).

It doesn’t matter that the Pelicans compete every night. In the words of former New York Jets and current Arizon State head coach Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game.”

Standing in the locker room after the game, you could see and feel the frustration that comes from a combination of climbing loss totals, expectations, injuries, and a lack of certainty about the present or the future.

It’s a very familiar feeling.

Fans were unified Friday in their disdain for Anthony Davis, the man who reopened the many wounds that the franchise has suffered from external and self-inflicted attacks, but are becoming staunchly divided in their views on how the team should be approaching this season.

Organizations have short and long-term goals. The New Orleans Pelicans seem to be trapped in a limbo somewhere between trying to win now and trying to build for the future.

From the outset, the “Won’t Bow Down” campaign has seemed a bit too bold; both in its open references to the Los Angeles Lakers, and its setting of an expectation that a team built around a core of players that had never played a meaning minute together, would somehow work out an incredible number of variables and be effective while doing it.

Basketball resets just don’t work that way.

The Philadelphia 76ers won 28 games in Joel Embiid’s first full season. During the 2016-17 campaign, 16 of the 21 players that the 76ers utilized had three years or less of NBA experience (76 percent). This year’s Pelicans 16 man roster, has 11 such players (69 percent).

The Milwaukee Bucks finished a season above .500 only once in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first three seasons.

Nikola Jokic didn’t see a winning record or get the Denver Nuggets into the postseason until his third season; the same for the Utah Jazz trio of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles.

If rebuilding the Pelicans into a consistent winner is David Griffin’s ultimate goal, the number one priority this season has to be developing the 11 youngsters. It’s a concept that Pelicans fans would understand and embrace. Winning without a franchise-changing superstar in their prime doesn’t happen overnight, and even having one takes years.

Of the last 15 NBA Most Valuable Player award winners, 11 have made at least one NBA Finals appearance, but only Steph Curry (twice), LeBron James (twice), and Kobe Bryant (once), did it in the season they won the award. James (twice) and Curry (once) are the only ones to win the championship in an MVP season. Not one of the 11 even got to the league’s ultimate round before their third season in the league.

Season Player Team Finals 1st Finals Apperarance
2018-19 Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks No N/A
2017-18 James Harden Houston Rockets No Season 2 (Thunder)
2016-17 Russell Westbrook Okla. City Thunder No Season 3
2015-16 Stephen Curry Golden St. Warriors Yes Season 5
2014-15 Stephen Curry Golden St. Warriors Yes Season 5
2013-14 Kevin Durant Okla. City Thunder No Season 4
2012-13 LeBron James Miami Heat Yes Season 3
2011-12 LeBron James Miami Heat Yes Season 3
2010-11 Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls No N/A
2009-10 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers No Season 3
2008-09 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers No Season 3
2007-08 Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers Yes Season 3
2006-07 Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks No Season 7
2005-06 Steve Nash Phoenix Suns No N/A
2004-05 Steve Nash Phoenix Suns No N/A

There isn’t a player on the Pelicans roster who likely make any of the three All-NBA teams, let alone be mentioned as an MVP candidate this season.

In that same period, teams with the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft have made the playoffs only five times, and one of those was the 2014-15 season when LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers shipped top pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota.

In retrospect, the collective spell that New Orleanians fell under that created playoff hopes, was just that. A magic trick.

What does that mean for the Pelicans?

It likely means some very difficult choices in the near future. Even with the schedule expected to be easier during the second half of the season, is chasing the illusion of the playoffs good for the future?

Are veterans like Derrick Favors, JJ Redick, E’Twaun Moore, and yes, even Jrue Holiday going to be expected to exercise the necessary patience it will take to suffer through these rough patches while the team sorts out which of its young players to keep and which to move?

No matter their stated intent prior to the season, it seems that they would desire an opportunity to compete for the championship that none has captured in their careers.

When David Griffin was hired, the Pelicans weren’t in need of a renovation. They needed a complete teardown.

Griffin can’t have it both ways. It’s time for the Pelicans to embrace the future completely and give Brandon Ingram, John Hart, Lonzo Ball, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes, and soon Zion Williamson the room to grow. They also need to give those vets the best exit options possible and continue to develop the roster with the veteran role players more suited for supporting roles, rather than frontline starters.

Doing so isn’t waving a white flag on this season; it is the best possible option for the franchise.

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David Grubb

David Grubb

Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter

David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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