Julius Randle came into Wednesday night primed for a revenge game. The Lakers had lost two in a row and desperately needed a win against the Pelicans to inject hope into their playoff aspirations. Randle, who was drafted by L.A. in 2014 and spent four seasons with the Lakers before signing with New Orleans last summer, was prepared to play spoiler.
“I’m always going to be motivated to play against this team,” Randle said after the game.
That attitude was evident from tipoff. Randle immediately became a bulldozer and a bully, making 3s and trash-talking the Lakers bench—specifically the team’s assistant coaches—every chance he got. The L.A. home crowd cheered for him during introductions, but as Randle went off, their full attention turned to another member of the Pelicans. At various moments throughout the game, cries of “We want Davis” rang through Staples Center. Between Anthony Davis and Randle, the Pelicans represented everything the Lakers wanted but couldn’t get, and what they once had but ultimately gave away.
Randle had a monster night, recording 35 points, six rebounds, and three assists in 40 minutes. But even that wasn’t enough to carry New Orleans to a win; the team fell 125-119. That loss perfectly encapsulated the palpable limbo the Pelicans are in, one that—like all other things with this team—stems from Davis. Since the All-Star break, Davis has been on a bizarre minutes restriction. He’s topping out at 20 minutes per contest, and he’s been held out of the fourth quarter in his past five games. “Everybody wants to play the fourth quarter,” Davis said at Wednesday’s shootaround. “Obviously it’s frustrating. I’ve never been a guy that has sat out in the fourth.” Davis requested a trade in late January, and when that didn’t materialize by the deadline, the league warned the Pelicans they could be fined if they held a healthy Davis out. Davis said he wanted to play. The Pelicans were better off not playing him. And so, out of those circumstances, this bizarre restriction was born.
The arbitrary nature of Davis’s limitation has had a ripple effect throughout the team. For many of the Pelicans’ younger guys, it’s created opportunity. Randle is playing about five more minutes per game since Davis’s restriction was implemented. Kenrich Williams, who played in only 12 games over the first half of the season and averaged 5.5 minutes a game, has played in every game over the past month and is averaging 30 minutes per contest. On Wednesday, Williams guarded LeBron on a few possessions and had no problem trying to contest one of his dunks—even though he ended up getting posterized. It’s easy for the undrafted 24-year-old to look at the Davis situation and see the bright side. He’s living it. “Man, I just look at it as more of an opportunity for me.”
Cheick Diallo has also seen his position on the team evolve. The 22-year-old power forward has moved from an end-of-the-bench guy to a role player the team is trying to develop. Over the past month, he’s averaged nearly double the minutes per game that he had through his first 30 appearances of the season. Ironically enough, Diallo said he’s been able to incorporate lessons Davis has taught him over the past few seasons in practice now that he’s getting more sustained minutes.
And rookie Frank Jackson may end up getting the most out of this situation. His minutes are up and he’s used that increased playing time to show he could become a more-than-useful backcourt player. He has unique playmaking and shooting abilities, and a willingness to use his freakish athleticism on defense. It’s no surprise that Jrue Holiday, who Jackson called the “team leader” at Wednesday’s shootaround, has taken Jackson under his wing—the two worked out together over the summer and have forged a stronger bond throughout the season. Holiday has become a mentor out of both desire and necessity. He’s always been referred to as a quiet leader by teammates, but given New Orleans’s recent circumstances, that leadership has become much more important.
“It’s conversations,” Holiday said on Wednesday. “Sometimes we cuss each other out, sometimes we encourage each other. … Getting to know your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, what they can work on, pushing them to get better and being encouraging. I feel like that’s a part of basketball, that’s a part of life, it’s the fun part to it. It’s Anthony too, even though he’s going through the situation he’s going through, he’s still on the bench encouraging, telling people what he sees.”
The situation he’s going through.
That was just one of the many ways Pelicans players referred to Davis’s status, his minutes arrangement, and the unignorable fact he had indeed requested to leave the team he’s still on. Watching Davis and his teammates interact, joke around, and discuss banal topics like music, you get the sense that the drama surrounding the trade request has largely been forgotten. In its place is an annoyance with the public-facing aspect of the ordeal, and the restriction of having the team’s best player on the floor for only 20 minutes a night.
Holiday said “it would be nice” to have Davis out there in a close game like Wednesday’s. And after the game head coach Alvin Gentry said he and “the people who make decisions” had made it clear to Davis what the plan was, and that they would be “steadfast” in sticking to it. Davis was asked about the topic, both at shootaround and after the game, and he gave tight-lipped answers, admitting that it was frustrating to not play full minutes, but also deflecting any real line of questioning to the Pelicans’ front office and coaches. Both of Davis’s media appearances on Wednesday felt like tip-toeing exercises between what he wanted to say, what he could say, and what he was sick of talking about. “I just play basketball, that’s it,” he told reporters, before channeling Marie Kondo when asked about his mental state: “I don’t let anybody steal my joy.”
There is a purgatorial feeling to this Pelicans team that’s hard to shake. Even with Danny Ferry now at the helm, after general manager Dell Demps was fired two weeks ago, it’s unclear what the team’s identity or priority is. New Orleans is seven games out of a playoff spot and only five games out of a 42 percent chance at a top-4 pick in this year’s draft—bad, but not bad enough. The Davis situation has transcended any discussions about whether the Pelicans should tank harder or still try to win, but they appear to be operating in a contending mode. Less than an hour after Wednesday’s game ended, New Orleans waived Tim Frazier (notably one of Davis’s best friends on the team) and the team is reportedly set to add Dairis Bertans, a 40.2 percent career 3-point shooter, from the EuroLeague. It’s the type of move on the margins that a contending team, not a rebuilding team, would make. The Pelicans right now are neither.