Heading into their game against the Utah Jazz on October 27, the New Orleans Pelicans were one of the NBA’s hottest teams. The squad owned a 4-0 record and the NBA’s most blistering offense, helmed by early-season MVP favorite Anthony Davis. With Davis making his case as the game’s best player on both ends of the floor, perfect-fit running buddies Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic picking up right where they left off last season, and new arrivals Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton looking like excellent replacements for the departed DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, the Pelicans seemed ready to rise in the Western Conference’s power structure.
And then, well ... what a difference a week makes.
That Saturday meeting with the Jazz kicked off a string of five straight losses for the Pelicans, capped by a 109-95 defeat in San Antonio on Saturday night. If New Orleans drops another game in Oklahoma City on Monday, it would move into a tie with the Dallas Mavericks for the longest losing streak in the league.
Since the Pelicans’ torrid start, they have cooled considerably on the offensive end. Over the last five games, they’re scoring just 105.7 points per 100 possessions, 20th out of 30 NBA teams in that span and a staggering 14.4 points per 100 below the mark they’d managed during their season-opening four-game winning streak. They’ve experienced a similar drop on the defensive end, too, plummeting from a 109.9 defensive rating in their four wins to an unsightly 117.2 during the losing streak, second-worst in the league.
It’s not stunning that New Orleans has sputtered since its sensational start. For one thing, even the Warriors aren’t scoring at as high a clip as the Pelicans were during the first week and a half of the season; some regression was always going to come for New Orleans. And, as we feared heading into the season, the Pelicans have already been bitten by the injury bug.
Davis has missed the losses to the Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers with a sprained right elbow, and, as you might expect, the Pelicans have cratered without their best player on the floor. New Orleans has performed at a near-Warriors level when Davis has been on the court, but when he’s been out of the game, the New Orleans offense has scored at a bottom-five clip, while the defense has more closely resembled that of the imploding Cavaliers; AD’s presence and absence determines, in a broad sense, whether the Pelicans look like the best or worst team in the league.
Making matters worse, the Pelicans have also been without Payton, who hasn’t taken the court since sustaining a sprained right ankle early in the second half of the loss to Utah. There were plenty of questions about how the guard would fare as the primary replacement for Rondo, especially after a rough preseason when New Orleans was outscored by 40 points in Payton’s 127 minutes. But the 24-year-old started the season with a flourish, doing a more-than-credible Rondo impression: Payton notched 14.5 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and a steal in 32 minutes per game before his injury.
With Payton sidelined, coach Alvin Gentry has leaned harder on reserve guards Tim Frazier, Frank Jackson, and Ian Clark, none of whom has been able to provide a consistent combination of playmaking and defensive quality on the ball. With his other backcourt options lacking and a bigger opponent looming, Gentry opted for more size against the Spurs on Saturday, sliding Holiday back to the point and Moore to shooting guard alongside a more traditional small forward on the wing. That wound up being Wesley Johnson, who scored three points and grabbed five rebounds in 21 minutes; the starting lineup largely held serve with him in the fold, but a lack of depth on the perimeter still loomed large. San Antonio torched lineups featuring Frazier, Clark, and swingman Darius Miller (who also just returned from a quad injury) late in the first quarter and throughout the second to drop the Pelicans under .500.
That’s where things get dicey for New Orleans. Davis will get healthier—he didn’t look quite right against the Warriors or Spurs, but he’s listed as probable for Monday—and the schedule will get sunnier after a brutal run of six straight games against 2018 playoff teams, including five straight on the road. (No matter which strength-of-schedule metric you favor, the Pelicans have played one of the NBA’s five toughest slates so far.) But Payton might stay on the shelf for a few more games, and when Gentry looks down his bench for perimeter options, he’s still not going to find much to love.
Frazier’s a credible facilitator, but he’s also a career 40 percent shooter who, at a generously listed 6-foot-1, is the kind of small point guard opposing offenses punish. Jackson, a 2017 second-round draft pick who lost his first pro season to a foot injury, has shown some exciting flashes, but he’s a 20-year-old who’s going to need some more time to learn the NBA ropes. Ex-Warrior Clark remains a shooter who’s a target on the defensive end. Johnson’s a steady hand on the wing at best. Solomon Hill is shooting 27.6 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from 3-point range this season; he continues to be one of the worst free-agent signings of the summer of 2016. (And man, that is saying something.)
A version of the Pelicans that gets full, healthy seasons from its top six wouldn’t need a ton from its complementary pieces to make noise in the West. But in this injury-plagued reality, the team’s present and future both look shakier, especially in a conference where 2.5 games separates the teams in fourth place and 13th. That’s why comments like the ones Davis gave to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes raised both alarm and eyebrows.
It’s not that Davis says he’s “got to play almost perfect every night to give [the Pelicans] a chance to win,” but rather that when he says his teammates are “great players, good defenders, good role players [who] do as much as possible to help me,” he’s identifying the fundamental limitations of the roster that general manager Dell Demps has built. When anything goes wrong, the whole system shudders; New Orleans, as constituted, has no margin for error. Davis knows what we know: The team’s chances, now and beyond, live and die with him.