The 76ers may be on the edge of their dream scenario now, but in the early months of last season, when Ben Simmons had yet to play a second and Joel Embiid was as available as a starting pitcher, they were just another bad team in the awkward teen phase of the Process. With stopgap starters like Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson accounting for more of the shot chart than is ideal for a self-respecting NBA franchise, Philly would go on to finish the 2016-17 season with the fourth-worst record and as the worst road attraction in the entire league.
So when those Sixers, at 4-18 overall, came to the Smoothie King Center on December 8 to face a Pelicans team still trying to dig its way out of an 0-8 start, the city of New Orleans barely noticed. The official attendance for the Thursday night bout was listed as 14,158, about 3,600 shy of capacity, but at times, it felt like 14. Several tickets had been gifted to each Pelicans employee—Merry fucking Christmas—but finding takers for the clash of two bottom-10 teams proved difficult. They didn’t miss much. New Orleans, playing without guards Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, scored just 88 points as Ersan Ilyasova (pre-extended Atlanta vacation) and Rodriguez powered the 76ers to their first road win in almost a year.
Eighteen months earlier, a champagne-soaked Alvin Gentry forecasted big things for his future team and his star pupil-to-be, Anthony Davis. “AD!” Gentry, drunk off possibility, shouted into a nearby camera. “AD! We’re gonna be right back here!” But on that December night, the Pelicans coach heard boos from the from the home crowd—to the point that the game ops crew eventually began jacking up the volume on the backing track after announcing his name in pregame introductions. He was also prodded about the security of his head-coaching position, to which he retorted, “I really don’t give a shit about my job status.” When the home locker room opened to reporters, Anthony Davis, who often takes the sweet time afforded to star players after games before speaking to the media, had already changed into sweats and sat waiting, stewing in front of his locker. The big man, reserved by nature, grumbled back at most questions with just one word:
Does this seem like a low point for this team?
Is this the most frustrated you’ve been in five years here?
The Pelicans’ breakthrough into the 2015 postseason felt like the beginning of something, both for Davis and for a franchise with one playoff series win in the 13 years since its move to New Orleans (two of which were split with Oklahoma City). But a historic amount of injuries and a hasty roster reboot recalibrated trajectories—the marketing slogan for the team flipped from “Take Flight” to the less-ambitious “Win the Night.” A nascent, football-obsessed fan base in one of the league’s smallest markets was given little reason to care. According to an ESPN Sports Poll taken two months after the loss to Philadelphia, only 17.3 percent of New Orleans sports fans considered the Pelicans their favorite NBA team. Only 4.4 percent of residents also said the NBA was their favorite sport. A business model that boiled down to selling a winning product was missing the crucial element.
The arrival of DeMarcus Cousins renewed energy and interest (sort of), and this season rerouted the Pelicans back to the playoffs, where a team with a generational talent like Davis belongs. But when you lose that same galvanizing force to an injury with an ugly track record in the waning seconds of one of your biggest wins in years, a nagging fatalism starts to creep in. Maybe it’s the aftereffects of having to concede your only other face of the franchise at the first obvious opportunity. Maybe it’s the lingering anxiety wrought by years of relocation limbo—first, with Oklahoma City trying to finders-keepers your team, and later, when the league had to take over ownership. Or maybe it’s the fact that any time Davis does anything of note, a horde of self-righteous Celtics fans bombards Twitter with trade ideas. To 29 fan bases, the Pelicans were nothing more than an Anthony Davis incubator.
Now, that same team is playing better than anyone in the NBA.
Davis is the foundation of everything for the Pelicans; he is not only their best player, he is their longest-tenured player and the only homegrown regular of significance in the post-Hornets era. But his path has always run ancillary to the team’s. He was put on a Hall of Fame track almost as soon as he was selected no. 1 overall in the 2012 draft and quickly proved he’d get there as long as his body and his supporting cast were able. So far, so good this year. He’s second in points and first in blocks this postseason, and his career scoring average through eight playoff games (32.3) ranks behind only Michael Jordan in league history. His reemergence this postseason is more a delayed affirmation of what was foretold three years ago than a revision to the Anthony Davis narrative.
The course of the franchise as a whole, meanwhile, has been choppy, like a street in Uptown. In that sense, Jrue Holiday might be the quintessential Pelican. The Process was driven by a be-great-not-good principle, and Holiday was its Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the sacrifice that greased the wheels of revolution. Holiday was an embodiment of the previous era, the inverse of Sam Hinkie’s vision: a good young player, but not an All-Star in the West’s deeper talent pool. Leg injuries robbed him of the majority of his first two seasons in New Orleans, and then a family health scare delayed his fourth. When he did play, the results were positive, albeit not on the level of a bona fide second star. By the time Boogie arrived and rejiggered the hierarchy, Holiday had already moved more off the ball, and thus farther away from some idealized, CP3-ian pick-and-roll partner for Davis. Cousins and Davis, two John Calipari favorites, were natural counterbalances—“Fire and Ice,” in Cousins’s words. The success of their on-court partnership has as much to do with their complementary personalities as it does their versatile games. Davis’s fit with Holiday, a family man with a 27-going-on-47 disposition and the sandpaper wit of a blog boy, always felt more like a working relationship.
But in their first-round series victory, Holiday literally bullied the Trail Blazers. He bodied Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the most potent duos in the league in the regular season, and turned the bravado up so high that he began outright taunting his opponents. He pointed and laughed, Nelson Muntz–style, at Jusuf Nurkic after Davis dunked on the big lug:
He baited Blazers fans sitting courtside in Game 2. And before Davis had fully secured the rebound from Holiday’s game-saving block in Game 1, the guard was already off in the other direction, swaggering like he was reciting a monologue from Training Day.
Gentry, speaking from the podium after Game 1, agreed that a different, edgier Jrue was on display, but seemed pretty nonchalant about it. Probably because the former associate head coach of the current-era Warriors, one of the shit-talkingest teams that ever was, has seen more of it than most in recent years. Gentry understands the value of playing loose. It’s at the heart of his coaching ethos, and one of his greatest strengths as a workplace manager. Many a coach has tried and failed to reach Cousins and Rajon Rondo, yet neither player has been the source of any public consternation since arriving in New Orleans. In a recent interview with The Undefeated, Gentry attributed his positive working relationship with Rondo to blunt honesty and affording the point guard the freedom to have final cut on most of the play calls.
Gentry is a pragmatist. His views on pace and ball movement may be light-years ahead, but he’ll also praise Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct in crunch time or Russell Westbrook’s force of will. He is a “working actor,” in Hollywood parlance, having not missed a season on an NBA bench in three decades. He was tasked with making a starting lineup of two centers, a reformed lead guard, a point guard who was one of the worst shooters last season, and E’Twaun Moore work because it was his job to make it work.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pels are better in these playoffs than at any other point in Gentry’s tenure; they’ve finally been able to play like a Gentry-coached team. They are fast. They are aggressive (see above). They shoot 3s and switch on defense. They’ve unlocked unheralded journeyman shooters the way Gentry’s old Seven Seconds or Less Suns always managed to. And while there’s no easy Steve Nash proxy (although what is Rondo but Nash without a jumper?), Davis, now fully unleashed as a full-time center, can dominate a game on both ends in a way that Shawn Marion could only dream of.
“When I came here three years ago, I envisioned playing the kind of basketball that we’re playing now,” Gentry told reporters after Game 4 of their first-round series. “I thought that we would be an uptempo team, and be able to spread the floor. I thought AD was truly one of the top three or four best players in this league. That was three years ago and he’s improved a lot since then. I don’t think as a coach you can get too high or too low. I think every coach in this league has been fired at one time or another. It’s just part of the industry that we’re in. But I think you’ve got to have confidence in yourself, and I think you’ve got to believe in the way you coach and what you do.”
The Pelicans have taken so many shapes under Gentry. Eighty-six different starting lineups have taken the floor in his three seasons. The team opened this season by trying to meld an oversized frontcourt with quick actions and a three-guard lineup—which worked in the way sticking racing tires on a Ford Explorer probably would. But the Pelicans have finally moved forward with a rough outline of what they first envisioned, with the original cornerstones playing slightly different roles but more to the preference of the coach brought in to take them over the top. In the end, the first answer was probably the right answer.
When a team takes such a dramatic leap, the impulse is to ascribe its success to something of greater significance. The postseason is the peak of High Schmaltz season, where everything is masterminded or orchestrated or the result of a secret blueprint. Draymond Green’s ascension into Golden State’s starting lineup four years ago is seen as a stroke of organizational brilliance, rather than a necessity created by an injury. Nick U’Ren is basketball Galileo, not a staffer with a suggestion.
These Pelicans just kind of happened. They did not carefully stockpile assets waiting for a player of Cousins’s caliber to hit the market; they had the right asset. Solomon Hill’s contract wasn’t ahead of its time; it was an overpay (based on their original calculations going into free agency) to catch up to the times. The foundation of the 2.0 edition surrounding Davis seems better positioned to sustain whatever progress they’ve made than the all-offense, no-defense outfit from three years ago, but this franchise should be well aware of how fleeting playoff buzz can be.
Whenever this current postseason run ends, the Pelicans will need to find a way to cram new contracts for Cousins, Rondo, and maybe Ian Clark into their overstuffed books without going into the luxury tax. And while there’s no reason to doubt Anthony Davis when he says he wants to “build a legacy” in New Orleans, the two years between now and when he can opt out of the final year of his current contract are an eternity on an NBA calendar. Teams change. As we saw with Kevin Durant, people can, too.
But if you’ll allow for just a little schmaltz, the improbability of it all feels appropriate for New Orleans, a place that warps complications into something special. It’s a city that has a swimming pool scene because the only other bodies of water within proximity are a muddy river and potholes after a rainstorm. It’s a city that turned a sinkhole into a celebration. It’s a city afflicted with crime and division, but one that invites everyone to party together in the streets. The Saints have one of the worst all-time winning percentages among NFL franchises, but you’d think Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning just last week if you walked into any bar. So while a first-round series victory won’t make much of a ripple in the NBA at large, it matters to New Orleans. A local once fired back at me upon overhearing my claim that there wasn’t much support for the Pelicans in the city. She had never been to a game. It didn’t matter, because passion doesn’t come in half-measures there.
The Pelicans aren’t some great organizational masterpiece, but they are a beautiful mess. In New Orleans, that might be a better fit.