The New Orleans Pelicans have won their first two games after the All-Star break.
It’s been a terrible series of days for the organization.
Are you laughing? There’s nothing wrong with having a little chuckle in a world where teams’ best interests — near the bottom of the NBA food chain — are better served this time of year by losing rather than winning. However, once the laughter subsides, and once the afterglow of “59 and 20” from Anthony Davis recedes a little more into the past, the reality of these two wins becomes that much more apparent: The Pelicans — a team which started the season so poorly and was in position to strategically tank for a shot at LSU star Ben Simmons — will almost surely finish outside the top five in the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a barrier to the top five, and the top four will very likely consist of the Nets, Suns, Lakers, and 76ers in some order.
The Pelicans are perfectly stuck between playoff contention and the top pick. Catching the Houston-Portland-Utah trio for the 7 or 8 seed in the West isn’t particularly realistic. Neither is getting a top-four selection in the draft; only Minnesota is catchable in an inverted sense. The No. 6 pick isn’t insignificant, but Willie Cauley-Stein is no Kristaps Porzingis (No. 4), and he certainly isn’t Karl-Anthony Towns (No. 1).
What sharpens’ the Pelicans’ predicament is that on the morning of Tuesday, February 23, they share 22 wins with the Denver Nuggets. Yet, 22 wins for one team can mean something totally different, relative to another team. The Nuggets have what appears to be a real future: Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic are learning how to be NBA big men, and Emmanuel Mudiay is learning how to be a point guard, with Jameer Nelson essentially being his tutor. The Nuggets have only two players older than 28 on their roster, both veterans who are — for all intents and purposes — assistant coaches, Nelson and ancient fossil Mike Miller.
Denver has set itself up for the next several years, and could augment its lineup with a veteran star once its younger collection of assets ripens into something more. The Nuggets are in the process of creating a situation which gives them options.
The Pelicans, under general manager Dell Demps (pictured above), seem to have no real roadmap.
New Orleans is lugging around Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and other broken-bodied stars whose brightest days are their yesterdays, not their tomorrows. There’s a sad, empty undercurrent flowing through the basketball corridors of a city which has known many more profound sadnesses this century. The Pelicans are the least of the city of New Orleans’s problems, but the barrenness of the organization and the grim nature of its outlook serve as a metaphor for what’s happened in that city in recent years.
Head coach Alvin Gentry can’t really be graded in a season such as this one. His team has been far too ravaged by the injury bug — any report card for the former Golden State assistant should read “incomplete.” Nevertheless, if New Orleans stays in the dumps with Demps — who didn’t dump any players before the trade deadline in an attempt to simultaneously save money and facilitate a strategic tank over the final 25 games of the season — Anthony Davis’s luminous talents are going to be wasted.
So much optimism coursed through the Pelicans organization — and rightly so — after Davis capably guarded Stephen Curry and performed so many other remarkable feats in a first-round playoff loss to the Warriors last April. Sure, injuries will hijack a season for any team, but in the case of the Pelicans, there doesn’t seem to be a firm plan on the horizon. More precisely, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling vision in place, a combination of a financial structure and a roster complexion which would make high-value free agents want to join the Unibrow and establish world domination over the next several seasons.
Anthony Davis is about to turn 23, so it’s not as though his biological basketball clock is beginning to tick loudly enough to cause panic in the streets. However, the view from the Big Easy would certainly suggest that in three seasons, Davis won’t have anything to show for all the transcendent numbers he’s going to post in that time.
59 and 20 was remarkable. And?
Is that going to be the best memory of this New Orleans basketball season? If it is, that’s a problem.
The sad part of it is that when the regular season does end in April, problems will litter the landscape for the Pelicans, in the dumps with Dell Demps.