Heading into tonight’s game against the Indiana Pacers, the New Orleans Pelicans sit at .500 for only the first time since way back on October 28, 2017. That’s…not a very long time ago. But before then the last time they had been .500 was on April 15, 2015, which is a very long time ago. Well, not in real time, but if you consider that Jeff Withey and John Salmons played for the team that season, it feels like millennia ago.
In the ten games of the 2017-18 season, the Pelicans have been inconsistent, looking like a ball-moving Spurs clone at times and a team full of butter-fisted stone-footed bricklayers at others. The general pulse of the Pelicans fanbase reveals a grumbling unease in the face of increased expectations. It’s understandable, of course — this is the most talented team the franchise has had in several years. It’s easy to get caught up in the current frustrations of the team. It’s also easy to lose perspective of the league as a whole, the Pelicans’ place in it, and how far the team has come. Fortunately, I was born with an unnaturally high amount of perspective at birth. The doctors said it would kill me before adulthood, but luckily for me — and for you, gentle reader — I’m still alive and here to put our minds at rest!
This is not an attempt to say that there is no reason for concern – turnovers have been a real issue and Jrue Holiday’s inability to be a reliable third option could spell doom for the team down the line. But there are several factors that should at least be taken into consideration when evaluating the Pelicans’ performance so far:
The Western Conference Is Like A Video Game But Every Boss is the Endgame Boss
We’ve beat this dead horse to mutilation, but it’s such an important point that it bears repeating. There is a real power imbalance in the NBA, and the Pelicans are unfortunate enough to be in the middle of this incredibly tough conference full of teams that basically beat the crap out of each other all season long. Right now there are three perennial or semi-perennial playoff teams — the Spurs, Blazers, and Grizzlies — that are 6-4, one game ahead of the Pelicans. There are two recently decent fringe playoff teams — the Jazz and the Nuggets — that are deadlocked with the Pelicans at 5-5. And there is one team, the Thunder, that were expected to be good but actually have a worse record than the Pelicans.
In the middle of this gauntlet, New Orleans has gone 3-4 against Western Conference Teams and 2-1 against Eastern Conference teams. And yes, the three teams the Pelicans have beaten in the West aren’t worldbeaters, but they’ve generally been in every game against good teams. So it isn’t like the Pelicans are just being housed when they face stiff competition. Right now, in the most tenuous part of the season due to injuries and building cohesion, they are treading water. And that is a positive thing.
Remember A Year Ago? Remember Two Years Ago?
Through ten games this season, the Pelicans are averaging 105.2 points per game and giving up 105.6 points per game. I can already hear you saying “A negative point differential? That’s really bad!” And sure, it’s bad. But it isn’t really bad. Right now it’s tied for 16th in the league. So it isn’t bad as much as it’s average. But more importantly, think back to the first ten games of the previous two seasons. In 2016, the Pelicans scored 100.2 points per game and gave up 109.4 points per game. In 2017 they scored 101.3 points per game and gave up 109.5 points per game. Those differentials both would’ve finished last in the league last year. And don’t forget that in both of those seasons the Pelicans were 1-9 through 10 games. So a barely negative point differential and 4 more wins is a vast improvement, isn’t it?
I know the counterpoint here: the Pelicans are a much better team this year, so expectations should be higher than in years past. It’s a valid point. But even with DeMarcus Cousins in tow, even with Jrue Holiday finally starting a season healthy, even with the additions of key veterans, improvement is difficult to sustain right away. There’s a gelling period. Look at the 4-5 Thunder, who added two all-league players. Teams with high roster turnover generally sputter out of the gate. So it’s good to see this team buckle down and grind out two gritty wins — even against poor teams — because those are precisely the games the Pelicans would lose in previous seasons.
The Pelicans Can’t Be Injured Forever
Well, really they can. And probably will. I’m pretty sure this franchise was cursed after refusing a witch shelter during a terrible storm.
But just in case they aren’t, this team will look different in less than two weeks. According to Alvin Gentry, Rajon Rondo could be back in the lineup as soon as November 17th against Denver. As a few of the writers here have theorized, Rondo’s return will allow Jrue to go back to the original plan of primarily playing the 2 while Rondo runs the offense. It will also change Gentry’s rotations, presumably for the better. It gives him options in the starting lineup as well as a slightly deeper bench to experiment with. Maybe this team starts to look more like the team that blitzed the Cavaliers with continual off-ball motion with Rondo leading the way. Maybe Jrue will feel less pressure and improve his play. This may not immediately translate to wins for the Pelicans, but it will be a lot easier to evaluate the team when Rondo returns.
Again, if you are the type of Pelicans fan who thinks the sky is falling, I am not trying to convince you that it’s all in your head. But I do think it’s important to keep the above in mind when looking at the team’s performance so far. It hasn’t been all positive, but it could be much worse — and it has been much worse in the past. So grab an umbrella in case the sky isn’t falling and it’s just a bit of rain instead.