The last article I wrote for Locked On Pelicans (not counting the time I decided to write a broadway song about Darius Miller) focused on the ten game stretch where the Pelicans played all Western Conference opponents. Heading into that gauntlet, the Pelicans were 8-8, and I determined that by the end of the stretch we would have a decent idea of where this team stood in the midst of the Western Conference and the NBA as a whole.
I think I was right. Nine games into that stretch, the Pelicans are 13-12 after last night’s hard-fought win over the Denver Nuggets. They’ve gone 5-4 against the West, displaying a maddening inconsistency that can leave even the most steadfast fan reeling. Of course, perspective is necessary: the Pels have played the Warriors twice in this stretch, and they’ve been without Anthony Davis for four of these games (three and a half games due to injury and a half game due to the most uncharacteristic ejection I have ever seen). But the bottom line is that the Pelicans stand today where they stood during my last article, and where they stood the article before that: slightly above average. Treading water.
The good news is that treading water doesn’t seem to be a bad thing. Not in the current landscape of the NBA, at least. In years past, the average teams may as well be bottom-feeders with the strength of the Western Conference. If you couldn’t handle your business by winning games, another team was more than happy to take your spot. But as I look over the conference, I don’t see the separation that I expected. Perhaps it’s because the season is still young, but the Pelicans are in the thick of things so far. It seems that most teams in the conference are also treading water, which makes for a very crowded pool.
A half game above the Pelicans, who sit in the 8th seed currently, is the 5th seeded Trailblazers, who the Pelicans beat earlier this week. A game above them is the Timberwolves in the 4th seed. And a game behind the Pelicans is the Thunder, who the Pelicans beat to start off this gauntlet. The Pelicans have been unable to create a gap between their wins and losses, but the rest of the conference has been unable to as well. That also extends to the Eastern Conference. In the entire league, there are six teams that are more than four games above .500. Nine teams are more than three games below .500. That leaves fifteen teams — half the league for you math experts — that have gravitated towards the middle of the pack. The Pelicans find themselves in this pack for only the second time since Chris Paul left. It’s not something you can put on a trophy, but in this post-My-Next-Chapter era, it’s not a bad position to be in.
The trends are heading in the right direction too. Since Rondo entered the starting lineup, Jrue Holiday is playing with more confidence and scoring the ball more. E’Twaun Moore has averaged nearly 20 points a game over the past four games. Darius Miller has been so kind as to delay his regression to the mean. Omer Asik can be relied on for minimal minutes without eliciting groans from the crowd. So even though the record hasn’t dramatically improved, it’s easy to see that the team itself has.
All of this is good news for the team because Davis will be returning to the lineup soon, and we’re getting closer to the time where Solomon Hill will rejoin the team. It’s annoying to always fall back on moral victories, but for this team to be a game above .500 more than a quarter into the season when Davis has missed four games? When Rondo has missed fourteen? This team has shown something that Pelicans teams in the past have lacked. Without Davis, DeMarcus Cousins has averaged 32 points and nearly 14 rebounds a game. They don’t look lost, they look competent. In a post-game interview last night, Cousins said, “When our team plays the right way, we can play with the best of them,” and through twenty-five games, it appears he’s right.
It isn’t as if the games get much easier from here: Houston is right around the corner, and the Pelicans have to play a few tough Eastern Conference opponents as well. But the combined records of the rest of the teams on New Orleans’ December schedule is 127-134. So if the Pelicans continue to play the way they have recently — with heart, with togetherness, with a more aggressive Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore — they should be able to start 2018 with a winning record and the playoffs firmly in their sights.
The Pelicans are treading water right now, but in the current state of the NBA, the water’s fine.