Sinking feeling surrounds Pelicans midway through season
Though there are 43 games left in the regular season, including tonight’s contest against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Orleans Pelicans season feels over.
As does the Anthony Davis era in the Crescent City.
The Pelicans are floundering, listless, and disappointing. They haven’t won consecutive games in more than a month, and after Wednesday’s 121-116 loss to the Brooklyn Nets they are 17-22, good for 14th in the Western Conference standings.
How did we get to this place?
A place with a fan-base fatigued by poor performances and incessant rumors about its franchise player.
A place where the coach and general manager, who just a few months ago were awarded contract extensions, are now at the helm of a team appearing to be slipping farther and farther away from relevancy.
New Orleans thought its basketball team had made a breakthrough after 48 wins and a first round playoff win over the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
Anthony Davis had climbed his way into the conversation of being the best player in the NBA. Jrue Holiday became one of the league’s most complete guards. E’Twaun Moore, Darius Miller, Cheick Diallo, and late-season addition Niko Mirotic were all coming off of career years.
Ian Clark showed flashes down the stretch, and defensive specialist Solomon Hill would be fully recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season.
The Pelicans had withstood the loss of DeMarcus Cousins, first to injury and then, along with Rajon Rondo, to free agency.
Gretna native Elfrid Payton came home to be a younger, possibly better Rondo. Julius Randle, a young bulldozer blessed with tons of strength and potential, signed for a bargain.
They were even able to add another former lottery pick, center Jahlil Okafor.
Fans were excited. New Orleans had visions of a deep playoff run, punctuated by Davis committing to the Pelicans long-term and the arrival of the wing player that would push the team into title contention.
The sky was clear and bright.
However, General Manager Dell Demps and Head Coach Alvin Gentry warned early on that making the next step wouldn’t be easy; going so far as to call the first round sweep “fool’s gold.”
No one had any idea how right they were.
The first storm clouds were ignored. There were clues that something was amiss during the preseason. New Orleans went 0-5 while playing the second-worst defense among NBA teams. The record wasn’t as big a red flag as was the seeming lack of interest and intensity on the defensive end.
Fans wrote off the poor effort, but once again Gentry tried to give a warning.
“I just think we have to do a better job of following the game plan and do a better job of executing that,” Gentry said then and has said repeatedly since. “ A lot it has come because we’re kind of in between. I don’t know if I’d say we aren’t playing hard, but we need to play hard enough to contain the ball and also hard enough that the screen and rolls won’t hurt us like they are.”
Jrue Holiday, selected to the NBA All-Defense first team last season, seemed as unfazed and unworried as most fans at the time.
“I think a lot of it is getting comfortable,” Holiday said then. “We know what we need to do now.”
The Pelicans got off to a 4-0 start that included a demolition of the Houston Rockets. Expectations began to soar.
But lightning struck when Elfrid Payton broke his finger against the Utah Jazz. With no experienced point guards on the roster, Jrue Holiday was put back on the ball.
4-0 quickly became 4-6. Then New Orleans won six out of seven, including victories over Toronto, Denver, and San Antonio. The one loss was to Minnesota, but losing the game wasn’t as important as Niko Mirotic spraining his ankle.
Mirotic, averaging 19.4 points and 11.7 rebounds at the time, missed the previous two games with the same injury and it quickly progressed from nuisance to serious concern. Since Nov. 14, Niko has a played in only 13 of the last 24 games, sitting out the last 10 in a row with no recovery date in site.
After climbing back to 10-7 after beating the Spurs, the Pelicans have been flirting far more with mediocrity than with contention.
New Orleans is 7-15 since then, employing more than a dozen different starting lineups due to injury and ineffectiveness.
Sure, Davis, Holiday, and Randle have had statistically satisfying years thus far, but it hasn’t translated to consistency or victory.
As the losses have mounted, the frustrations of players and fans have been much harder to hide.
Holiday demanded to be taken off the ball and Tim Frazier was inserted into the lineup.
It didn’t help.
Neither has the growing noise from within and outside of the organization that Davis will reject the Pelicans’ max contract offer this summer, essentially forcing the franchise to trade its second future Hall of Famer in less than a decade.
On the court, the Pelicans don’t play like a team. The offense, predicated on player and ball movement, stagnates too frequently.
The defense? New Orleans is 26th in defensive rating even with two of the league’s best defenses. Opponents have had their way with the Pelicans inside, scoring more than 50 points per game in the paint, and outside, making better than 36 percent of their three point attempts.
The Pelicans have also gone from one of the NBA’s best clutch teams to one of the worst. New Orleans is 7-15 in tight games, barely edging out the Cavs for worst in the league, after finishing 30-20 a season ago.
With six teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, and needing a 31-12 run just to match last season’s win total, the odds are heavily against the Pelicans making the postseason, let alone matching last season’s march to the conference semifinals.
The excuses from players, coaches, and management have gotten stale. With or without injuries, the Pelicans should be better than they are.
The options are few and far between. New Orleans can:
- Make a last-ditch effort to obtain a major piece through a trade
- Hope that the team gets healthy and goes on a historic tear
- Start a fire sale now, that includes Davis, and try to jump start a rebuild
- Or, ride the season out and evaluate the entire organization from top to bottom and make some major changes
None seem particularly appealing, with each relying on good fortune to come to a franchise that has seen precious little of it in 17 years.
There’s more than enough blame to go around for the Pelicans’ current situation.
The Benson family’s commitment to creating a winning basketball environment has been in question ever since they took the reigns in 2012.
In an article posted earlier this week, NBC Sports basketball writer Tom Haberstroh cited one league executive who stated, “the organization only cares about the Saints.”
Everything from the Pelicans’ lack of their own facility, to its medical staff was called into question (New Orleans has lost the second-most games to injury of any team in the NBA over the last five seasons).
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis also serves as executive vice president of basketball operations for the Pelicans. He’s been clear that he spends little time focused on the day-to-day workings of the team.
“I think it’s probably overblown the amount of actual time and work that I have to do with the Pelicans,” Loomis told reporters in 2017. “It’s something Mr. (Tom) Benson has asked me to do, but, again, I think it’s overblown the amount of actual work that I do (with the Pelicans).”
It’s time for someone to do that work. If Gayle Benson is as committed to building a winner in New Orleans, her first order of business has to be putting a true basketball mind at the top of the organizational chart.
Until that happens, no major personnel decisions should be made by Demps or anyone else.
In all likelihood Anthony Davis is gone, one way or another.
The Pelicans need a plan and a new direction, and they need it now. Until then, we march slowly through the rest of the season, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
It’s an all too familiar feeling.
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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…