At this time of year, it’s common practice to categorize teams into tankers and non-tankers, but where a team is in mid-March isn’t necessarily where they were in October.
You have your teams who started the year constructed to be historically atrocious, now rounding spectacularly into form (Philadelphia). Some expected to be bad, but turned out pretty good (Phoenix, Toronto). Some hoped to be maybe-we-scrape-the-playoff-ladder-if-all-goes-well-but-we-know-it’s-a-rebuilding-year competent, then saw everything go straight to the terlit (Lakers).
Then there is the curious case of New Orleans.
Few teams were as aggressive last offseason as the Pelicans. Coming off a 27-win season, New Orleans traded the sixth pick in last summer’s draft (Nerlens Noel) and this year’s first-rounder for Jrue Holiday, then engineered a pricey sign-and-trade for Tyreke Evans. They went from a slow build to win-now almost instantly.
It hasn’t worked, and in the worst possible ways. First and most obviously, they haven’t won many games, but aren’t likely to lose enough to trigger the 1-5 lottery protection on the pick they owe Philly. Meanwhile, injuries – most prominently to Holiday and Ryan Anderson – have made it tough for them to know exactly what they have going forward.
It’s been tough, coach Monty Williams acknowledges, but not without a silver lining.
“For one, Anthony (Davis). I don’t think Anthony would be where he is if we had Jrue and Ryan and [other injured players] on the floor. I just don’t think that would have happened,” he said earlier this week. “I think this has been a blessing in disguise, in that he’s been able to stamp his claim as the franchise player, and now when those guys come back I think they know they have to adapt to his game.”
As will the rest of the league. Only 20 (for one more day), Davis has become a 20-10 player, is swatting almost three shots a game, sports the league’s fifth best PER and has lifted virtually all of his advanced metrics from his rookie season.
Particularly remarkable have been the consistently of his splits. Month-to-month, he hasn’t averaged fewer than 19.3 points or more than 21.6, no fewer than 9.4 rebounds or no more than 11.0. In no full month has his shooting percentage dropped lower than 51.3.
Davis buys Williams’ theory about circumstances accelerating his development.
“With Jrue and Ryan out, and Jason (Smith), it made me mature fast and try to become a leader faster. To learn how to handle situations faster. So there’s a lot of truth to that, and each and every day I’m more prepared for it,” he said. “It’s coming faster. teams are staring to key into me a lot faster than I expected. I have no choice but to figure it out.”
The problem for New Orleans is figuring out what to do going forward. Without two key rotation pieces available, GM Dell Demps doesn’t have the sample size to say definitively what the Pelicans will need to crack the top eight in an absurdly deep Western Conference. He probably won’t have a pick to work with, nor any real cap flexibility. To some degree, whatever tweaks he is able to make will be done with imperfect information.
“I don’t think we have to start over,” Williams says, but there’s a good chance the Pelicans will have to use next year as a do-over for this one.
At least they can be confident in Davis.
“One thing we can go into the summertime and say,” said Williams, “we know he’s the guy.”
To the rankings!