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New Orleans Pelicans

Holding Out Hope During Uncertain Times

Jason Quigley

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The past few weeks of New Orleans Pelicans fandom has felt like something resembling mayhem.

Overall, I don’t think we’re at the stage of pure, unbridled chaos just yet. Anthony Davis still plays in the Crescent City, and the majority of the NBA season still remains for the Pelicans, a team very much still in the Western playoff race, to turn things around.

But ask any Pelicans fan about the season thus far, and the results would often not be very positive. New Orleans has alternated wins and losses for the past 11 games dating back to November 26 in one of a couple of frustrating losses against Boston this season. The wins have been mostly encouraging, but any progress from those wins seems to get erased in the infuriating losses. Now the team heads on a four-game road trip, its longest for the remainder of the season, against four teams who all currently find themselves in playoff contention.

Along with the consistent inconsistency and accumulating injuries, the growing exasperation among the fanbase has also stemmed from Anthony Davis’s looming decision about his future. Despite Davis showing no clear signs of wanting out of New Orleans, a story pushing the narrative of his potential departure elsewhere seems to pop up from a different national media source nearly every day.

All of this is to say that it’s all justified. All of the frustration-filled fake trade creations and emotions ranging from outrage to apathy are valid. But it’s important to take a step back and see the full picture, because the season is far from over, and the current struggling version of this team will not be the final product.

The Pelicans still have a top-five offense in the NBA, but a defensive rating near the bottom of the league nearly negates that. Several others have already extensively covered the Pelicans’ defensive woes schematically so I won’t go into that, but I do think it’s important to talk about how injuries have affected the team, specifically on the defensive end.

Nikola Mirotic, for example, hasn’t looked like the defensive player we saw at the end of the 2017-18 season, most likely due to playing with a sprained ankle for most of the season. Now with Julius Randle also injured, more minutes will likely go to Cheick Diallo and Jahlil Okafor, both of whom aren’t exactly known for defensive excellence.

Also on both sides of the ball, it’s clear the team misses Elfrid Payton. He took some pressure off of Jrue Holiday on the defensive end, and the difference between Payton and Tim Frazier on that end of the floor is noticeable. Payton also added help on the boards, where the Pels have sometimes struggled to close out defensive possessions (they’re currently tied for 18th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage).

From a team perspective, having to rotate so many pieces in the lineup throws an even bigger wrench in game plans. The long regular season is another factor. More depth is required in the season, where shorter rotations in the playoffs can hide a lack of depth in a team’s roster, which the Pelicans seem to have. The duo of Davis and Holiday will usually either thrive offensively on its own or draw attention to open up other options. But on the defensive side, team chemistry and familiarity playing with teammates is key, and it’s disrupted heavily by the string of injuries that seems to plague the Pelicans every season, causing a lack of familiarity and players playing out of position. 

Of course, following the team, we should be used to this happening every year, but it doesn’t make the loss of players less significant. The Pels will deploy their 12th different starting lineup of the season so far on Wednesday at Milwaukee, a number that is only outdone by the tanking disasters of the Cavaliers and Suns.

12 different starting lineups in 32 games is a lot, but it shows how teams in the league change constantly throughout the slow crawl of the 82-game season. Through 31 games, the Pelicans have 15 wins, 16 losses, the same record as last year’s squad through 31 games, but teams go through different iterations of themselves throughout the season. At this time last year, similar feelings of agitation rained down from the Pelicans fanbase, who was calling for coach Alvin Gentry’s head.

That struggling December 2017 team was not the same as the one who later handed the red-hot Rockets a stunning loss in February on the night DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles. And THAT team was not the same as the one who swept the Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, while Gentry was in the middle of the Coach of the Year conversation.

Similarly, the struggling December 2018 Pelicans team is not the same as the one that started 4-0 in one of the most impressive starts to a season we’ve seen in New Orleans. And once again, the team will look different in February after the trade deadline, where a trade for the Pels is becoming ever more likely and players (hopefully) return from injury and are able to stay on the court. 

Should the Pelicans look to be active in the trade and buyout markets? Probably, but not in a desperate manner; I don’t want the Austin Rivers Experience again, just because he’s available. It’s a competitive year in the Western Conference, with 14 of the 15 teams in the conference legitimately vying for the eight available playoff spots, so the Pels should be looking for deals that suit them. However, there is time for the Pelicans to get healthy and right the ship. So can we hold off on wanting to blow up the team for a few more months?

A Broadcasting graduate from the University of Louisiana, Jason Quigley works in athletic communications at Loyola University New Orleans after spending over three years as a student assistant with the Ragin' Cajuns Sports Information department.

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