Forgive the New Orleans Pelicans for not panicking.
They’ve been here before.
Sitting at .500 more than 30 percent through the season, these Pelicans have displayed equal glimpses of promise and pessimism through 26 uneven games. The tumultuous performance makes it irresponsible to forecast contention in the Western Conference but equally impossible to write them off.
It’s left fans hopeful, baffled, curious and agitated all at once.
But, they’ve been through this before, too.
The Pelicans sat in this exact position, at this exact moment of the season, just a year ago. Not only were they 13-13 last December, that team went on to be 14-14, 15-15 and 16-16 as well.
Skepticism was easy to justify and easier to find, even in this space.
Yet, within a month they rattled off seven wins in eight games, then re-engineered in the wake of losing DeMarcus Cousins to finish on a 20-8 kick, propelling them to the Western Conference semifinals and leaving any cynicism in the dust.
So, as the current Pelicans trudge through records of 11-11, 12-12 and now 13-13, they carry an underlying assurance about their position.
“For sure,” Anthony Davis said. “It gives us a ton of confidence knowing that we were in the same situation last year. Of course, we want to be better. But, like I’ve said, we’ve done it before. We just have to stay the course and let the rest take care of itself.”
But what unfolded last year doesn’t actually foreshadow what’s coming this season.
No matter what backdrop the current record is presented in, the past six weeks have mostly disappointed, considering the meteoric late-season rise last spring coupled with the MVP expectations Davis placed on his own shoulders.
The Pelicans’ late-season defensive renaissance (ranked No. 4 over final 33 games) has fallen flat, now ceding the seventh-most points per 100 possessions in the NBA. And key players have admitted the team’s defensive focus fluctuates from night to night, prompting inconsistent production and head-scratching results.
And while most issues are correctable, there might also be some intransigent problems. Last year’s roster was catalyzed by trading for Nikola Mirotic and this year’s group could benefit from a similar shakeup to improve the Pelicans’ shaky shooting and wing depth.
It’s why the true ceiling of this team likely won’t be known until the trade deadline passes. And make no mistake, the Pelicans will be buyers.
In the meantime, coach Alvin Gentry feels grateful to be in the bunched-up Western Conference, which feature the No. 1 and No. 13 spots separated by just 5½ games. So, one winning streak could slingshot New Orleans into a coveted slot.
“To me, the greatest thing is there’s no one running away with it,” Gentry said. “It’s not like anyone is creating this great separation. So what we have to do is keep battling and try to keep our head above water, so that when we get our team back and everybody healthy, I think we’ll be pretty good.”
There’s just no guarantee. While it’s easy to point to last year and give New Orleans the benefit of the doubt, it requires a myriad of circumstances to line up.
Most obviously, the Pelicans need their stars available.
It’s not simply because Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis are their two best players, it’s that New Orleans crumbles when they’re off the floor. The Pelicans’ scoring differential vacillates by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions depending on if they’re on or off the floor.
“I think everybody is an injury away from struggling,” Gentry said. “It’s been apparent this year, more so than anything.”
While certainly true, it underscores how maddening it is for fans to see potential wins slip away when both are healthy and performing at All-Star levels.
Yes, last year’s run was radiant and memorable, but it was also the culmination of hitting on the right trade and finding the right style all while staying healthy. It’s a scenario the Pelicans seek to replicate.
But doing so is difficult.
And it should press some urgency to tally wins during the next few weeks, rather than waiting for everything to line up, even though catching a similar streak is a realistic possibility.
The Pelicans are not alone. The Rockets, Jazz, Spurs and Timberwolves all made the playoffs last season and scuffled to mediocre starts this year.
“We missed an opportunity,” Solomon Hill said after Monday’s loss to the Clippers. “A lot of teams are just kind of standing in place and if we could win some of these games, we could get out in front of them. Instead, we are kind of right there with them. We know what we are capable of and how to get it done, but we need to get it done.”
When Holiday was asked if the ingredients to replicating last year’s turnaround were in place, he just shrugged and said: “We’re going to have to find out.”
Those streaks don’t just happen. They require the convergence of savvy, timing and luck.
So, there’s no panic in the Pelicans, but there should be some urgency.
“I think what you have to do is you just have to keep plugging away at it,” Gentry said. “And somewhere along the line, you’ve got to win those 10 out of 12, or 10 straight, to make up for the ups and downs that you have.”