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Where Do the Pelicans Go From Here?

Some thoughts on a franchise in flux

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The last time the Pelicans faced the Trail Blazers was in November, when New Orleans was outrebounded by 18, thanks in biggest part to Mason Plumlee (now with the Nuggets), who had 14 boards. Five months have passed. In that time Portland acquired a fulcrum who can set tough high screens in Jusuf Nurkic, and New Orleans acquired the gravity hammer from Halo.

Since pairing DeMarcus Cousins with Anthony Davis and branding the duo with a nickname that I refuse to acknowledge because it’s 1/1,000th as good as “The Big Tymers,” New Orleans has been in search of validation even though the two have worked not great, but reasonably well together.

Buddy Hield, whom I’ll always love and wish the absolute best as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me, is doing well in Sacramento. Conversely, the Pelicans had won just three of their last nine going into Tuesday’s Portland clash, the latest victory a particularly weird one over the Hornets in which Boogie played little of the fourth quarter and none of overtime. On Tuesday, Mannie Fresh and Birdman (LET’S DO THE RIGHT THING HERE, PEOPLE) roped off the paint for a combined 37 points, 24 rebounds, five blocks, and five assists as New Orleans beat the Blazers handily, 100–77, holding the sweet shooters from PDX to 30 percent from the field. Everything worked, and it felt fantastic, but it was also whatever.

The Pelicans are five games behind the Nuggets, the current 8-seed. Three teams — Portland, Minnesota, and [squints] Dallas — stand between New Orleans and the playoffs. I’ve crunched the numbers and I regret to inform all of you, as well as admit to myself: That’s too damn far; they’ll never make it. Whether or not the Pelicans know this is a different question, and not the one I’m here to answer. I’m actually not answering any questions, or talking to anyone, because I don’t do that while I’m grieving. But as the season has effectively ended, it’s good practice to pause and reflect and look for takeaways. Here are five of them:

They Have Boogie AND the Brow

Chris Paul left. Brandin Cooks left. There was a pre-trade deadline assumption that Davis could eventually leave, because everyone always leaves. Post-2011-ish, New Orleans sports fandom has been some combination of pinching yourself, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and biting what looks like a gold coin to be sure that it’s actually gold. I can assure you that this is real, actual gold:

Cousins was added for regular beans — not even magic ones — on the dollar, so no matter what happens it’s important to remember that we’re playing with, like, all of the house’s money. No more talking. We’re all just going to appreciate this alley-oop together in reverential, monastery-appropriate silence.

They Will STILL Have Them Next Season

Cousins is under contract until next summer, at which point he could re-sign, and very well might. He’s taken to his new home rather well. You can’t fake this kind of acclimation:

When both Cousins and Davis are on the floor, the Pelicans average fewer points per 100 possessions than the Sixers, who are the Sixers. But that offensive inefficiency number has more to do with the backcourt and its inability to space the floor by reliably hitting open 3s, even though there are two large battering rams laying siege to the frontcourt. Add just one of those mythical shooters, and the center of the court untangles itself and the team’s entire complexion changes. I like Hollis Thompson, but Hollis Thompson probably ain’t it.

A fan’s patience gets sharpened to a point when two giant and mind-bogglingly mobile top-15-rated players wear the same colors. The pull to expect teamwide performance to immediately pick up by a handful of letter grades is undeniable, but the fact remains that 10 games is an incredibly small sample size. After having everything flow through them for their entire professional careers, both Davis and Cousins are going to take some time to get used to one another. Hopefully “some time” means “a summer and some change.”

Jordan. Lee. Crawford.

If 10 games is a small sample size, then a 10-day contract is a minuscule one, but I think we can safely say that Jordan Crawford is a walking bucket.

Having not played an NBA game in three calendar years, Crawford signed his 10-day last Monday morning and put up 19 points from the bench against the Utah Jazz that night. In each of his three games since, he hasn’t scored below double digits. This is a huge deal because, prior to his joining, the Pelicans bench sputtered to 20.8 points per game, the worst average in the league. Since, they’ve averaged 38.8, which is top 10.

Crawford is averaging 15.3 points per game on 52 percent shooting from the field, which his pre-China history would suggest is unsustainable. But that was pre-China, and a recent conversation with Chris Reichart of Fansided (that’s well worth your time) suggests that a lot has changed.

Also, Crawford apparently asked for a B-level contract with the Grand Rapids Drive, his former NBA D-League team, so that a teammate with no NBA experience could land a larger A-level contract. Give this man an extension, please and thank you.

Pay Jrue Holliday Whatever He Wants

Being on the Pelicans now means ceding the spotlight to and learning to massage pick-and-rolls with both Cousins and Davis. If they’re being honest with themselves, no superstar point guard really wants to do the former, and no non-superstar point guard would be better at doing the latter than Jrue Holiday.

That Trade Pick Is Still Top-3 Protected