On Wednesday, the New Orleans Pelicans, then 11-22, played the Dallas Mavericks, a team they had beaten twice this season and played three times overall.
Dallas elected not to play four starters — Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, Zaza Pachulia, and the wizard Dirk Nowitzki — as their old legs were still reeling from a comeback victory in double overtime against Sacramento the night before. As it is, the Mavericks are an odd bunch — overly reliant on Nowitzki for spacing, the team employs a collection of screwball drivers and shooters. It mostly conserves itself on defense.
Anthony Davis, hailed by most as the premier generational talent of the 2010s, and at the very least one of a select few, suited up on Wednesday. This meant the Pelicans, who were also at home and coming back from three days of rest, had myriad advantages over the Mavericks. The first two periods went back and forth, however, with Chandler Parsons, the lone Maverick starter, steadying his team offensively with an attentive drive-and-kick game.
Parsons possesses a pump fake that would make an otherwise lucid man flip over a barstool if he were to fall for it; the Pellies would have figuratively tipped over the entire saloon. Jeremy Evans and JaVale McGee, names that pull as much weight on the hardwood as a black box theatre in Dublin, suddenly became agile scoring threats and aerial attackers. As the floor opened up, Raymond Felton and J.J. Barea, who — standing on top of one another — might equal one Rudy Gobert on his tip-toes, knocked down a combined five 3-pointers.
After playing within one point through two periods, the Pelicans owed their fans, if not themselves, a better effort against an undermanned, underqualified opponent. This is what they managed:
What’s mystifying is that New Orleans isn’t untalented. The misuse of collective skills is the team’s undoing, and the Pelicans’ contagious lack of effort on both ends of the floor which seems to catch up to them regardless of the opponent. Tyreke Evans has never seen a shot, drive or take he didn’t like, but a player of his size and ability should have learned by now that patience is a virtue. For every ill-advised dipsy-do which draws sardonic praise from play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers (who is the master), Evans stumbles into a turnover or lays a brick.
What’s worse is that Evans will put his head down at the wrong time and forget whom he’s playing with entirely. Playing with Davis shouldn’t be so hard, and neither should building a top-10 offense around him, but teammates have to decidedly play through him.
Davis shot 11 for 25 on Wednesday, scoring 26 points and collecting seven assists. Those are great numbers. Here’s a not-so-great number: the Pelicans scored 91 points against the Mavericks, minus four starters, coming off a double-overtime game the night before. This tells me Davis isn’t getting involved in the right ways.
In Dallas, Rick Carlisle and Nowitzki have put themselves in the Hall of Fame by lifting limited supporting casts into 50-win teams, and their success has really been as simple as, “Nowitzki is the center of our offense, everything runs through him, and we make the defense bend to our will.”
In the dark days of September and October, seldom a preseason prediction left New Orleans outside the playoff picture. “50 wins.” “Davis for MVP.” “Gentry will be the next Steve Kerr.” Ironically, the Mavericks were mostly picked to flunk out of the postseason after whiffing on DeAndre Jordan and betting high on Matthews, Williams and Pachulia.
Well, here we are. The Pelicans are 11-23 — they’d have to win 34 out of 48 games to get to 45 wins this season. That’s roughly winning 71 percent of their games. Yes, the bottom of the West playoff picture lacks the punch it had much of the past two decades, but even with some relief, the Pelicans are going to have to flip gears in a major way to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Mavericks are poised to return to the postseason once again, confident in who they are and what they do. How New Orleans can cultivate a winning identity, on the fly, is anybody’s guess.