The Playoffs are here!
Well, not exactly, but most of the remaining seven games on the regular season schedule for the New Orleans Pelicans are going to have both major playoff implications and somewhat of a playoff intensity. They currently sit in the fifth spot in the standings, although that is certain to change many times over the next few weeks, with all of the teams in the hunt for the last six spots still so close together.
And of course, the schedule doesn’t help alleviate much stress either.
As Raby alluded to in his Tuesday piece, it is probably too early to be predicting playoff match-ups, considering there’s still a chance the Pelicans miss out on the postseason completely. However, it is a fact that the mettle of this team will be tested in at least the remaining games of the regular season, and possibly beyond.
One problem with predicting potential playoff outcomes, besides the variable of whether or not the Pelicans actually finish among the top eight teams, is that it’s unclear which version of this team we’ll actually see in the playoffs.
The unknown of the Potential Playoff Pelicans doesn’t come from the fact that we haven’t seen them there since the 2015 sweep by the Warriors, nor does it come from Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday being the only two active players left from that 2015 roster. Rather, this Pelicans team has gone through many changes during the 2017-’18 season, and there are legitimate questions as to whether or not this team can have any success in a seven-game series given all of the team’s transformations in this so-far tumultuous season.
One thing has stayed consistent, however, and that is what seems to be an overall changed mindset for the team. A winning mindset.
No one really knew what to expect going into the season as far as results, but recently-formed duo of Davis and DeMarcus Cousins delivered early on, proving to be a mismatch along with the two-way star in Holiday. Then, even with Davis missing five games in the month of December, the Pelicans found a different way to win, shooting a blistering 43% from behind the three-point arc to lead the league by a wide margin. The 3pt percentage fell in January to nearly dead last in the league, but the team still pulled out victories, winning seven of the eight games before Cousins’s season ended due to injury. Of course, the organization was shaken up following the injury; but with the additions of Nikola Mirotić and Emeka Okafor providing some stability, the team went on a 10-game winning streak while playing at a pace of 106.4 possessions per 48 minutes, by far the fastest pace in the NBA over that stretch.
With the win streak now far away in the rearview mirror, the team seems to be in yet another iteration of itself, with Solomon Hill back in the lineup and intermittent injuries elsewhere. The team has gone 5-6 in a tough March schedule since the streak, but the team continued to show resiliency. Head coach Alvin Gentry stuck up for his Pelicans in a rant heard ‘round the sporting world after a tough loss to the Rockets, and his team responded with four straight wins, including three in the back-to-back-to-back slate after which the team, understandably, was exhausted.
The point of exploring all of the different forms this Pelicans team has taken so far this season is not to garner sympathy; rather, it is to direct attention to the fact that a winning mindset has seemed to carry across all of the different team configurations. This could be attributed to any number of things, such as the increased veteran presence in Rajon Rondo, Okafor, and even some of the early season vets like Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson. It could also be due to Davis and Holiday growing to be leaders in their own right, helped along by Cousins, who seemed to often be the leading voice in the locker room and on the court.
On Tuesday’s Locked on Pelicans podcast, Fox Sports host Erin Hartigan gave some insight into just how that leadership from the star and veteran Pelicans players has trickled down to the rest of the roster and created a team with tight chemistry. With a locker room of players who legitimately enjoy playing with and being around each other, it’s no wonder that the team has been able to sustain winning basketball even throughout some of the more turbulent stretches of the season.
It brings us to look at past seasons where, in similar circumstances of plentiful injuries and roster overturn, losses were much more frequent, and the team’s identity was constantly questioned. Normally in the past, Pelicans teams that played with different styles and wildly different rotations throughout the season would have “lack of identity” constantly thrown around as one of the most prevalent problems.
Winning seems to have changed that outlook, hasn’t it?
The early part of the season featured a few “ugly” or “bad” wins, such as a 96-90 overtime victory over the Bulls, that were significant because in the past, the Pelicans would often lose those types of close, badly played games; but also, any type of win is good for establishing a winning culture and teaching a team how to close out and win games. The schedule for the Pelicans has since been filled up with several more overtime and double overtime wins, large comeback victories, and other games against playoff-caliber teams where the team has shown the ability to close out games strong.
Alvin Gentry has begun being mentioned in NBA Coach of the Year conversations among some national writers for his management of the season, but credit also has to be given to Dell Demps, who seems to have done a solid job building a roster for versatility and adaptability.
This question still remains: can any of this be sustained in the playoffs?
Despite the huge loss of Cousins, the Pelicans still have a bona fide superstar in Davis, a borderline All-Star in Holiday, and a champion, veteran floor general in Rondo, as well as a talented cast of role players that should be able to match up well with anyone but the Rockets and Warriors at full strength. They’ve also seemingly been able to establish a winning mentality and good team chemistry that has led to success so far this season.
Everything the Pelicans have built will be put to the test in the coming weeks. There is no guarantee for success, however, like the rest of the NBA so far this season, it should prove to at least be a thrilling ride.
Thoughts on the team and this season so far? As usual, let me know in the comments or tweet at me @JasonQuigs!