By: Rajan Nanavati
2018 was primed to be the year that the New Orlean Pelicans went from a middling middle class team to one of the more formidable contenders in the NBA.
After losing Demarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury in late January, behind the absolutely other-worldly play of bona fide superstar Anthony Davis, the Pelicans went 22-13 over the remainder of the season, finished the season as the 6th seed in the Western Conference, and absolutely annihilated the Portland TrailBlazers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. Their run ended in a five-game loss to the Golden State Warriors, but the message seemed clear: New Orleans was an emerging force to be reckoned with in the West.
The start of the 2018-2019 season looked like the Pelicans were officially taking that next step towards becoming a force to be reckoned with. They raced out to a 4-0 record, scoring 280 points in their first two games and not scoring less than 116 points in any of their four wins. Davis looked more and more like the basketball-world-destroying demon that he evolved to last season, averaging over 30 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and three blocks per game in the Pelicans first three games.
But since the aforementioned 4-0 start, New Orleans has gone 4-7, counting Friday night’s win over the hapless New York Knicks. That 4-0 start was then followed by a six-game losing streak; none of those losses were by a margin of less than five points, and three of them were by 14 or more points.
It’s not like the Pelicans suddenly forgot how to play basketball. Rather, their “funk” has been a result of a much more obvious culprit: injuries. Davis was out for three of those losses (and clearly not close to 100% when playing in a fourth) due to an elbow sprain. Forward Nikola Mirotic, one of the major catalysts for New Orleans step forward last year, battled a sprained ankle. Guard Elfird Payton, brought in to help replace the departure of Rajon Rondo, battled a sprained knee. Ironically, the only “main” guy for New Orleans who didn’t miss any time this year is the guy who’s previously had the injury-prone label on him (Jrue Holiday).
When healthy, this team is very aware of what it can do. Even amidst said six-game losing streak, Mirotic discussed how the team was “being very unselfish and playing beautiful basketball.” Between Mirotic, Davis, and free agent acquisition Julius Randle, the team has a cadre of “bigs” that have the athleticism to move around and run the floor more like guards. Holiday, again, has remained healthy (every single New Orleans fan should be knocking on wood so hard that your hand might break), and openly stated how this is the best basketball he’s ever played. And every man on the Pelicans roster, and virtually every member of the coaching staff, will tell you that the proverbial switch has been flipped in Davis. Where he has acknowledged that in order to get where he wants himself and his team to go, he has to fully maximize all of his god-given basketball gifts, and go and rip out the heart of opponents each night.
But all of that is lip service if it doesn’t actually happen. Injuries are a rationalization for the fact that the Pelicans currently sit in the 8th spot in the West, but not an excuse; every team has to deal with them.
The Western Conference is wide open; you can make the case that there is only one truly “good” team in the West, and that’s the juggernaut over in the San Francisco Bay area. With San Antonio’s wonky personnel issues, Houston’s major regression, Utah’s total lack of offense, and the Los Angeles Lakers getting a better understanding what LeBron James meant when he said that building basketball teams is not the same is making instant oatmeal, there’s never been a more perfect time for New Orleans to stake their claim as one of the best teams in the conference.
Now it’s up to them to go out and do so.