The Pelicans Gambled and Lost

The 12 grueling minutes were followed by 5 minutes of overtime, which was followed by a catastrophic collapse. The end was set in place by an absolute unraveling. Sorrow was thick in the air. Unproven in moments likes this, the New Orleans Pelicans and their seventeen minutes of disaster twisted what was supposed to be a glorious night. In the arena, there was an absence of mercy. In a short amount of time, not even a half an hour, the New Orleans Pelicans shut their own door and you can say they choked and you can say they were a young team but at the end of the day they had a 20 point fourth quarter lead in the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors, who were not yet NBA champions, and they lost. It was April 23rd, 2015.

In the aftermath, the players and coaches spoke in platitudes but the writing on the wall told a story about the future. What else was there to do but look ahead and mumble something about being young. That this ended so crushingly painful was too fresh in the mind. So look forward, better days are coming.

No one anticipated it would linger, that when it started all over again, when it was June and then July and then August, when it was training camp, and then the beginning of games, the torture would return because the Pelicans reaction to their 4th quarter April choke job was to stab themselves in the back. One small management decision rerouted a franchise on the way up. As Shakespeare once put it, they were “hoisted by their own petard.” Meaning they dug the knife into the chest and let it lay there. The Pelicans fired Monty Williams. Everything went to hell.

Monty Williams, trained under Gregg Popovich, was one of the disciples that would leave the nest and bring the best of Pop to NOLA. Williams was a defensive apostle of the Spurs system which he cultivated in New Orleans. With Anthony Davis, a skilled rebounder and shot blocker, not to mention an athletic marvel who could cover all parts of the floor and score with efficiency in and out the paint, it was a marriage that was supposed to last.

The Pelicans were 3rd in defensive three-point percentage in 2014-15. They were 1st in blocks, 4th in 3-point percentage (offense), 8th in offensive rating, 10th in offensive rebounding, 11th in assists, 12th in points allowed. They made the playoffs as an 8th seed with young Anthony Davis as the headliner, establishing themselves as a team on the rise.

And then they had that debacle against the Warriors. And then Monty Williams was fired. And then Alvin Gentry was hired. And then the Pelicans started the season 1-11. And then they were the biggest NBA disappointment. And then they had to go back to the drawing board as far as rebuilding. They don’t have the pieces around Davis to win consistently. And no one wants to defend.

One year after the Pelicans made the playoffs, the first time since Chris Paul was traded west, and one season after Monty Williams was fired, the Pelicans were 9th in pace so Gentry was able to get the Pelicans to run. But did it matter? They were 26th in points allowed. Their offensive rating was 18th. They won 30 games. They were 22nd in rebounds. They were ninth in 3-point percentage. Every metric established by Monty Williams, except how fast they played, was worse.

Obviously the back and forth of Anthony Davis, in the lineup, out the lineup, hurt the Pelicans. But Davis didn’t miss half a season. He missed 21 games. In games that he played in, the Pelicans lost by 16 points and 18 points and 14 points. Those were the first three games of the NBA season. In Davis last 10 games, the Pels went 2-8. In his first ten games, they went 2-8. Six months and nothing had changed. Except at the end Davis was so banged up, the team shut him down.

Monty Williams had his flaws, particularly on offense. He had yet to adapt to the free flowing style of the new NBA. With Williams, a defensive coach, his players were defensive oriented and worked hard ala Tom Thibodeau. But Williams and Gentry, were both hampered by the roster.

Tyreke Evans was Rookie of the Year (2010) and has regressed every since. He doesn’t have point guard intangibles. He’s not a good enough shooter to be a two-guard. He’s a bad defender so he can’t be a three. Plus he has had injuries. As has Eric Gordon who didn’t want to be in NOLA in the first place. He made it clear he wanted out but the Pelicans wanted him back, signed the offer sheet. Jrue Holiday, who the Pelicans received as damaged goods from the 76ers, has had his own injury nightmares. In a point guard era, Holiday is above average but not great. As far as on-court impact, he is ranked as the 12th best point guard, behind Patrick Beverly and Goran Dragic (Real Plus Minus).

The Pelicans don’t have a playoff roster and yet Monty Williams probably got the best out of this crew, leading them to the playoffs and then losing that 20 point lead to the Warriors in game 3, the first home playoff game since Chris Paul left. Alvin Gentry wasn’t as lucky. He got the worst. Many a night, the Pelicans looked like zombies and ghosts.

There is some relief coming. Ryan Anderson won’t be back and neither will Eric Gordon. The Pelicans will have about $20 million to play around with in order to add skill and defensive intensity to their lineup. Their first order of business is designing a defensive framework around the players still on the roster that have been terrible defenders in their careers. The ability to push the Pels beyond what they demonstrated this year, albeit, given the injuries, and then surrounding them with veteran talent is the prescription for forgetting this year ever happened.

The fast pace is great but it paralyzes Omer Asik so a decision has to be made about what to do with him. Trade him to a half court team or incentivize what he does well and include it in the offense.

Anthony Davis is a star but is he a leader? He is young but in many instances, down the stretch of close games, he didn’t demand the ball so the ball stayed out of his hands. It confused NBA players turned analysts who routinely saw the ball stick in Jrue Holiday or some other guard’s hands and not once was Davis an option. Could you ever imagine a scenario in which LeBron James didn’t get the ball with the game on the line? Davis has the capital to determine what happens in games. He has to mature into the type of leader that his teammates are going to follow. They need to know he wants them to follow him.

The Pelicans front office was brash last summer in firing Williams and they got what they wanted, a member of the Warriors staff on their side. But Jrue Holiday isn’t Steph Curry. And the Pels don’t have a Draymond Green equivalent. And their version of Klay Thomopson is a free agent. But they have Anthony Davis, superstar in the making.

GM  Del Demps has all the pressure to guide this ship forward without hitting another rock and taking water into the boat. He has Davis for four years before his opt-out. But another year like 2015-16 will crack open the window for Anthony Davis, free agent, to escape NOLA.


photo  via llananba