Only Anthony Davis stood in between Russell Westbrook and a game-tying basket. With under 10 seconds left in Wednesday’s game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook dribbled around a screen set by Paul George and had a decision to make. This is Westbrook, mind you, who attacks the rim when there’s two, three, maybe even four or five players in his path, and who isn’t exactly known for passing up the chance to be the hero. But on this night, with Davis staring him down from the restricted circle, Westbrook dished to an open Alex Abrines instead. Abrines’s 3-point attempt missed, and the Pelicans won, 118-114, after Solomon Hill iced the game with two free throws.
Davis was an unstoppable force on Wednesday, scoring 44 points and tallying 18 rebounds, six of which were on the offensive end. He was persistent on nearly every possession, dismantling the best defense in the league with a combination of skill and effort. He took 32 shots—11 more than the next Pelican—and made half of them. He was also a perfect 11-for-11 from the line.
For all the numbers Davis stuffed into the stat sheet, the game was decided by his sheer presence underneath the rim on Westbrook’s final drive. It was fitting symbolism: Had Davis not been in the middle of their defense, the Pelicans probably wouldn’t have won. There are some numbers that prove that: Wednesday was Davis’s fifth 40-point game this season, the most of any player in the league so far; the Pelicans are only 3-2 in those games. Two nights earlier, Davis had 41 in 38 minutes, but New Orleans lost to a Boston team sitting out four key players.
Does this all sound familiar? It should, because this has been the story of the Pelicans for most the Davis era. When Davis plays at an elite level, the Pelicans can hang with elite teams. When he doesn’t, they struggle. On nights like these, it’s hard not to think of what Davis told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports in early November: “I got to play almost perfect every night to give us a chance to win.”
Wednesday’s win, on national TV, was a positive sign for a Pelicans team that desperately needed one. Over the past 10 games, New Orleans has fallen into a discouraging pattern: loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win. The victory over a surging OKC team appropriately brought them back to .500 and a game and a half shy of the eighth spot in the West. But while it was mostly a showcase of the possibilities that a team has with Davis on its roster, it was also a quiet reminder of why his task is often so difficult. The Pelicans are currently without three key players due to injury: Nikola Mirotic (ankle), Elfrid Payton (fractured finger), and E’Twaun Moore (leg). Julius Randle has stepped up after his promotion to the starting lineup, with averages of 26.7 points and 11.3 rebounds over his past six games. But the rest of the starting five has become eerily familiar to the one New Orleans settled on when it slogged through the first few months of the 2016-17 season. The Pelicans dealt for DeMarcus Cousins at that trade deadline, and though they didn’t make the playoffs, they turned a page when it came to high-end talent around Davis.
Cousins is gone now, and the team hit a stride in the second half of last season and into the postseason without him by playing a fast, snarly brand of basketball. But this season’s Pels have had a hard time recapturing the same nervous energy that they played with since a season-opening shellacking of the Rockets in Houston (which doesn’t look as impressive now given the Rockets’ own hard times). Any team will struggle to replace a starter or two, but few rosters completely bottom out the way the Pelicans’ does. Because the New Orleans front office has dealt all of its first-round draft picks, is committed to pay roughly $43 million to Moore and Solomon Hill over the next two years, and turns over the rest of the supporting cast almost every summer, the talent level craters after the top four or five players. Tim Frazier, back after being waived by the Bucks in the preseason, is starting and regularly playing around 30 minutes. Hill, back from a dreadful shooting slump, is starting again too. Frank Jackson has upside, and Darius Miller is a solid off-the-bench shooter. But none of these players should be playing critical roles for a team with big goals. All four played 19 minutes or more on Wednesday.
In the end, Davis is forced to rely on Jrue Holiday, who is having one of his best statistical years but is already overworked guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player and oftentimes setting everything up on offense. As good as those two can be on any given night, they are not enough to win more than one playoff series in the West. This season, the Pelicans have a top-five offense but a bottom-10 defense, despite having two of the best two-way players in the league. When Holiday is off the floor this season, New Orleans has a minus-13.7 net rating; without Davis, it’s minus-8.8. That says it all.
And so the Pelicans play them as much as possible. Davis leads the NBA in average minutes this season with 37. Holiday is second in the NBA with 36.6. That’s untenable—Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said as much before Wednesday’s game. And yet Davis played 40 minutes, even after he left for the locker room midgame to get something checked on. Holiday played 34 minutes.
New Orleans clearly tops the list of teams who need to make a move at the trade deadline (ideally for another scoring wing or a ball-handler) in order to ensure a playoff spot, let alone compete on the level they’ll need to to convince Davis to stick around. Given their history of midseason trades, it’s almost certain that they’ll do something. With Davis able to either accept or turn down a max extension from New Orleans this summer, the stakes for every game, and every day leading up to the trade deadline, feel gigantic. What the Pelicans do over the next few weeks and months could determine the future of the franchise.