Pelicans welcome back Elfrid Payton, down Timberwolves without Anthony Davis
So there is life without Anthony Davis.
Yes, the New Orleans Pelicans can actually win a game without their superstar.
They proved it Monday night in a 123-114 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, to whom they had lost the five most recent meetings between the two teams.
Of course, the Pelicans had been 0-4 without Davis so don’t get your hopes up.
What you might do is envision what life may be like without Davis, taking a glimpse into the future. Last night may have been a snapshot.
We all know that he becomes a free agent in 2020 and the supermax contract he can get from the Pelicans. We all know that if he turns down the extension he will receive, the Pelicans will be in a lame duck situation.
Of course, that is not the only contract issue facing Dell Demps and Alvin Gentry.
Julius Randle has a player option next year. Nikola Mirotic, Elfrid Payton and Darius Miller will be free agents. E’Twaun Moore has another year left on his deal.
The one building block is Jrue Holiday, who is under contract through the 2020-21 season with a player option for the following season.
I am still not totally sold that Davis is gone as many others are, though the likelihood is greater now than ever before.
The Pelicans played hard Monday night. They built an impressive 63-51 lead by halftime.
It was only a matter of time before Minnesota made a run.
It came, the T-Wolves took the lead but the Pelicans refused to follow the seasonal script of losing in the fourth quarter lose on this night.
Instead, they won the final quarter 35-25 to take a needed win.
Payton returned with nine points and six assists, despite four turnovers in 24 minutes. It is clear that he still impacted by the fractured finger which kept him out for 22 games. Still, it is clear that he impacted the game and impacts this team in positive fashion.
With Payton, rotations become clearer, more settled, with simply better players on the floor more of the time.
Of course, the irony is stupefying.
Mirotic remains out but Payton returns.
On the same night, Davis is out with an illness.
One of these days, New Orleans will get its full compliment of key contributors all on the floor in the same game.
We all remember how the team began 4-0 with the cast intact. The Pelicans are now 6-1 with Payton playing.
With Payton, New Orleans plays faster, the way Gentry wants to play and the way his roster is constructed to play. While Payton was not known as a defensive star when he arrived here, he definitely helps the team defense of the Pelicans.
That said, the Pelicans are not going to win by shutting teams down. They are going to win because opponents fail to shut them down.
With the full cast on display, that can happen on some nights, many nights.
For this to be a meaningful season, it has to happen on most nights moving forward.
New Orleans is 17-21, nearing the halfway mark of the season. That is good for 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference.
The good news is that they are just four games out of the eighth spot and only eight games out of first.
The bad news is that there are 13 teams, many quality teams, ahead of them.
The Pelicans won 48 games a year ago. To get to that number this season, New Orleans would have to go 31-13 the rest of the way. That is a tall order.
They will need more nights like the one Darius Miller and E’Twan Moore had last night from them. They need Davis to be the superstar that he is. They need Jrue Holiday to continue to be a defensive stopper and stat sheet stuffer. They need Randle to continue to play the brand of physical, bully-ball that has led to so many outstanding nights like last night.
Randle scored 33 points and that was superb, needed. He pulled down 11 rebounds and that was critical, essential.
Perhaps the most notable item about his night was the fact that he did not commit a turnover in 37 minutes. Teams are apt to double-team Randle in the post and when he puts it on the floor, it sometimes results in a turnover. Not last night.
New Orleans won by shooting 56 percent (14-of-25) from 3-point range. That was a huge lift, considering the way they had been shooting from distance. Of course, you cannot count on that kind of shooting percentage nightly.
What New Orleans needs is to get Davis and Mirotic back on the floor and a rotation consisting of those two, along with Randle, Payton, Holiday, Miller and Moore will be set. On a given night, Solomon Hill, Tim Frazier, Jahlil Okafor and Cheick Diallo can be called upon in a support role.
When a player misses time, there is a domino effect. There is no forgiveness with just five players on the floor. Opponents will expose your weakness.
There have been too many injuries and too many weaknesses for New Orleans in the first half of the season. Perhaps the second half and the turn of the calendar will result in a turn of fortune.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…