It looked, for a second there, like the New Orleans Pelicans had steadied themselves. After losing seven of nine games to fall to 14th in the West, four games out of the conference’s final playoff spot, the Pelicans had won five of eight, outscoring opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions during that stretch, according to Cleaning the Glass. They’d finally started to get healthy, with Elfrid Payton returning from a fractured finger December 31 and Nikola Mirotic coming back from a right ankle injury January 9; when E’Twaun Moore got back from a left quad contusion on January 12, New Orleans had its full preferred rotation available for the first time in ages.
Watching the Pelicans beat the Clippers in Los Angeles and hang with the rampaging Warriors at Oracle Arena, you thought maybe head coach Alvin Gentry and Company were on their way. Maybe, with all their dudes back, they would finally move on from what superstar Anthony Davis recently called “the frustrating part” of his tenure in New Orleans.
Or ... y’know ... maybe not.
Here's the play where Anthony Davis strained his index finger against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Pelicans were trailing by 10 points at 119-109 with 3:37 to go in the game. pic.twitter.com/Py026VhGi0— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) January 19, 2019
The fickle finger of fate once again flipped off the Pelicans in Portland on Friday. The kind of exploratory defensive swipe at the ball you see dozens of times a night around the NBA resulted in Davis spraining his left index finger, the latest in a laundry list of dings the All-Star has picked up this season, and one that removed the Pelicans’ best player from the lineup in the midst of what looks like a harrowing stretch of the schedule. Any good vibes created by Monday’s win over the disintegrating Grizzlies were scuttled Tuesday, when Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Davis would see a hand specialist to determine whether he’d fractured the finger; if it’s broken, the All-NBA big man could be sidelined for up to a month.
New Orleans has unsurprisingly struggled without a player who ranks in the top three in the NBA in points, rebounds, and blocked shots per game, going 1-4 in the five games that Davis has missed this season. The Pelicans have outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor and have been outscored by 3.3 points-per-100 when he’s been off it, according to Cleaning the Glass—the difference between performing like a 51-win team and a 33-win outfit.
The Pelicans defense, which is tied for 26th on the season and caused Gentry to blow his stack after allowing a 20-point quarter to unheralded Blazers swingman Jake Layman, turns into wet tissue paper with Davis gone. Opponents are totally unperturbed by the presence of Julius Randle, Jahlil Okafor, or Cheick Diallo in the paint, taking 39.5 of their total field goal attempts at the rim with Davis on the bench; that would be the second-highest rate in the league over the course of the full season. All that attacking punctures the perimeter defense, causing help defenders to collapse, opening up kick-out opportunities and high-value looks elsewhere; opponents have drilled 46.7 percent of their corner 3-pointers with Davis off the court.
Losing a first-team All-Defense center without any reasonable replacement likely means that the Pelicans will have to tilt their profile even further toward trying to win shoot-outs with point guard Jrue Holiday leading a run-and-gun attack. The problem: Their offense has (again, unsurprisingly) struggled without its no. 1 option too. In 435 minutes this season with Davis off the court and Holiday on it, New Orleans has played faster but less effectively, averaging 108.8 points per 100 possessions, nearly five fewer points-per-100 than its full-season mark.
Davis’s injury sets in stark relief both the state of affairs in New Orleans and the massive stakes of the rest of this season. The Pelicans desperately need to win to prove to Davis that it’s worth his while to stick around for the next half-decade, but thanks to years of individually defensible but collectively debilitating moves, they don’t have enough complementary talent to be able to hold fast without him in a crowded Western Conference.
The Pelicans reportedly won’t entertain the idea of detonating the franchise by moving Davis before the February 7 trade deadline, and, since the goal is to make the playoffs and convince Davis to stay, they can’t justify selling off much of anything else, either, even if that path might make more sense in the big picture. Whether Davis’s injury changes New Orleans’s thinking about becoming a seller remains to be seen, but a month without him would make repeating last season’s second-half run to the postseason nearly unfathomable.
After missing out on Jimmy Butler earlier this season and with few difference-makers likely to be on the move, it’s hard to see general manager Dell Demps finding a home-run trade that will bolster the Pelicans’ depth enough to make them a bona fide contender by the time the playoffs start. And, at four games behind the Clippers for the eighth seed entering Monday’s play, with Davis potentially missing a couple of weeks’ worth of games, it’s far from a certainty that New Orleans will be playing past mid-April; FiveThirtyEight’s model gives the team a 37 percent chance of making the postseason, while Basketball-Reference pegs its odds at less than 20 percent.
Those numbers could surge north if New Orleans is able to get on a run—if Holiday puts the team on his back for a few weeks, if the collective defensive effort improves just enough to create the chance to win some of those shoot-outs, and if everybody else can, at long last, stay upright and operational for just, like, a second. The Pelicans could survive the next couple of weeks and, if Davis returns rested and ready to roar, maybe get back to looking like the kind of athletic wrecking crew nobody wants to see in the first round, if they could only catch a break. Given the way things have been going, though, maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath.
This story was updated Wednesday at 12:13 p.m. ET with new information about Davis’s recovery timeline. All statistics are current through Monday.