Before the season started, the New Orleans Pelicans were the chic pick to make the NBA playoffs. With newcomers Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans joining budding superstar Anthony Davis, the Pelicans seemed like a team on the rise and poised to be the seventh or eighth seed in a competitive Western Conference. With the All-Star game back in New Orleans, this was supposed to be the season where the Pels broke out and the rest of the league took notice.
Nearly halfway through the season, however, the wheels have already come off the Pelicans' bandwagon. At press time the team is three games under .500 and has one of the worst defenses in the league. New Orleans has been dominated by the best teams in the league and Davis' breakout season was ignored by NBA fans and coaches as he was denied playing in the upcoming All-Star game played in his home arena.
What went wrong? What didn't? New Orleans lost all its best players to injury at one point or another. On January 3, the Pelicans were a game under .500 and still within striking distance of claiming a playoff spot. One day later, New Orleans lost three-point specialist Ryan Anderson to an injury — and then lost eight games straight. In the middle of that losing streak, the Pelicans lost Holiday and Jason Smith (who is now out for the remainder of the season), putting three players out of service — three players who account for more than 40 points and 17 rebounds per game.
The Pelicans' problems seem to be much larger than getting hit by the injury bug. This is a team that lost 12 games (nearly half their losses) by double digits and has only four victories against teams with a winning record (three of the four were against the Memphis Grizzlies).
The Pelicans' defense can be blamed for much of the team's woes at this point. Almost halfway through the season, New Orleans is in the bottom half in the NBA when it comes to opponents' points per game, allowing an average of just over 101 points. A more telling stat is the amount of free throw attempts that the Pelicans give up — at more than 26 per game, New Orleans is dead last in the NBA.
If you have a couple of games where the free throw disparity seems to favor your opponent, you can make blame bad officiating. But the Pelicans are attempting about 22 free throws per game, so the disparity isn't as stark as one would think. New Orleans players seem to foul more because they're playing poor defense and, to a lesser extent, try to stop the clock in close games in which they are trailing. Neither is a good sign for a team commanded by a supposedly defense-minded coach.
Coach Monty Williams has got to be troubled by his team's seeming inability to play well in the third quarter. The first frame after halftime is a coach's best chance to make adjustments so his team can have a better chance of winning the game. On average, the Pelicans seem to fare well against their opponents, scoring an average of 24.4 points in the third quarter while giving up 25.2 points. That's about the best thing you could say about their performance after halftime. The Pelicans are 25th in the league in third-quarter scoring and have outscored their opponents just 13 times through 46 games after the break. Not coincidentally, the Pelicans are 10-3 in games where they win the third quarter and 10-23 when they don't.
Williams' first season in New Orleans — in 2010 — showed he had the potential to be a great head coach. Williams coaxed 46 wins from a team that had missed the playoffs the previous season and was led by a disgruntled Chris Paul (who would seek and receive a trade the following off-season). Without Paul, Williams has struggled, losing roughly two games for every win. Defensive and third quarter struggles aside, 21 wins through 48 games puts New Orleans on pace to win 36 games this season, a nine-game improvement from last year. If that trend holds, Williams' team will have improved every season (discounting Paul's last year in New Orleans) and puts the team on pace to make the playoffs in 2015.
Then there's the Pelicans' not-so-secret weapon: Davis. In just his second season, he's averaging a double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds) per game and is establishing himself as the most feared shot blocker in the league — made all the more incredible by how badly the rest of his team plays defense. Davis also has a Player Efficiency Rating that ranks him among the league's most effective players: Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul. All this and he won't be old enough to drink alcohol legally until March.
Davis' rapid path to success can't be understated. Back when Gambit previewed his first season in New Orleans, we pointed out that only two big men have won championships with the teams that drafted them with a lottery pick: Hakeem Olajuwon with the Houston Rockets and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs. Less a statement about Davis and more about the unpredictability of drafting big players, Davis already has established himself as far and away the best Pelican drafted in 2012, and there's no question the team made the right move.
Having a hyper-talented big man can be a double-edged sword. Davis performs much better than his pay grade (a little more than $5 million a season). After next year, the Pelicans will have to pay market value or more to keep Davis in New Orleans — a price that Davis will have earned and the Pelicans will be eager to pay.
Thankfully for Pels fans, Davis hasn't shown any signs he'd leave town after next season, and his personality seems similar to Kevin Durant's, who famously signed a contract that was less than his market value just so he would stay in Oklahoma City. But Durant did so because he knew he was on a perennial playoff team. So far, the Pelicans have yet to prove that they have the tools to make the post-season, let alone be considered championship contender.
Where does that leave us? Fans hope this season's rash of injuries and poor defensive play is the exception — not the rule — for the young team. If the Pelicans continue to improve their win percentage under Williams, they'll be on track to be in the playoffs next year. The only problem: "Wait till next year" is a refrain that rings hollow when your team supposedly is built to win now.
Top 5 reasons to still believe in the Pelicans
1. Anthony Davis When is a losing season not a lost season? When the team's second-year player breaks out and shows everyone why he was drafted No. 1 overall. Every NBA team suffers through injuries and losing seasons, but not every team has a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Anthony Davis. In just his second year, Davis already is one of the most efficient players in the league, and was a last-minute pick to replace the mighty Kobe Bryant on the All-Star team.
2. Eric Gordon's imminent trade
OK, so there's no guarantee Gordon actually gets traded, but after nearly three seasons, the move seems all but inevitable. What can the Pelicans expect in return? With an injury history as long as his contract is expensive, the options are limited. Regardless, this seems like a clear case of addition by subtraction and any move where Gordon leaves town will be a good one.
3. Pierre's makeover
Pierre the Pelican's visage makes babies cry, children scream in terror and is the topic of late-night comedians. That he is the first NBA mascot to undergo a mid-season makeover is less a sign of the Pelicans' incompetence than it is the mark of a franchise not too proud to admit it made a mistake.
4. Austin Rivers
The Pelicans chose Rivers with the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He followed with the worst statistical season by a rookie point guard in NBA history. One season is too soon to call anyone a bust, but Rivers made it really easy to jump to that conclusion. Rivers has seen a drastic improvement, nearly doubling his Player Efficiency Rating and going from historically bad player to serviceable bench player. If he continues to improve, he could make everyone who wrote him off eat their words.
5. The 2014 off season
It's never a good sign that one of the reasons you should still have hope for your team is the potential moves they can pull after the season is over, but for the Pelicans a terrible season could be a blessing in disguise. Though they traded away their first-round draft pick for Jrue Holliday, the pick was protected, meaning that the Pelicans will keep it if it's in the top five. Moreover, New Orleans could potentially clear $14 million in cap room by getting rid of Gordon, giving New Orleans room to land a big-name free agent that could put the Pelicans over the top.