New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams had just called a meaningless timeout with 8.1 seconds left and his team down 99-92 to a New York Knicks team that had lost 16 straight games dating back to Dec. 12. New Orleans failed to score after the timeout, and the Knicks won at home for the first time since Nov. 22.
A 2-3 road trip against Eastern opponents looks bad enough for a New Orleans Pelicans team with little to no margin for error as it chases the final spot in the Western Conference playoff race. The teams NOLA lost to on that trip, though, truly takes the (king) cake.
New Orleans fell to Boston, Philadelphia and, most recently, New York over its last five games to finish the first half of its schedule at 20-21. That’s not going to cut it in the West, and Pelicans players and head coach Monty Williams are feeling the pressure, knowing that the team can’t afford many more missteps if it wants to avoid the lottery.
“I think all the losses we’ve had on this trip have been pretty hard,” Williams told SheridanHoops on Monday after falling to the Knicks with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holliday (who did not talk to the media after the game per league policy) out with injuries. “We’re trying to compete in the West and the West is as difficult as it’s ever been. So every win is precious and we understand that.”
The Pelicans seemed to understand that on Sunday when the team shook off the loss to the Sixers and eked out a close victory in Toronto. The NBA-worst Knicks was only thing that stood between NOLA and a positive road trip, and the Pelicans came up admittedly flat and without energy.
“We need to get wins,” forward Ryan Anderson told SheridanHoops. “The West is a difficult conference, every night is a grind and there are a lot of great teams. So we need to get wins and this was a tough trip for us.”
New Orleans finds itself in 10th place in the conference, four games behind Phoenix for the final playoff spot. If it’s going to take around 50 wins to reach the playoffs out West, New Orleans has to go 30-11 during the second half of the season to reach that mark.
“We can’t keep playing back and forth where we win one game, lose one game,” said guard Eric Gordon. “We’ve been doing that the whole year.”
The back-and-forth nature of the Pelicans’ season is indicative in the team’s statistical rankings. It scores 100.5 points per game, 16th in the league, and allows 100.4 per contest, good for 17th in the NBA. It doesn’t get much more average than that.
For a team with Davis and Omer Asik patrolling and protecting the basket, it makes sense that New Orleans is one of the team’s top rebounding teams and a bonus that they rank in the league’s top half defending the three, but NOLA is lacking in other areas on D.
|NOLA D||Number||League Rank|
|Points Per Shot||1.22||20|
The Pelicans allow the fourth-highest opponent’s field goal percentage in the league and are lacking in points per shot and forcing turnovers, which is a shame because New Orleans has the personnel to be one of the league’s most dynamic offensive teams and could really thrive if they were just better than average on defense.
Having Davis and Asik means that New Orleans wants opponents to shoot at the rim. That goal has been accomplished, since NOLA leads the league in opponents’ field goal attempts within five feet, at 32.9 attempts per game. They have the 13th best field goal defense from that range. You would expect the team to excel at protecting the rim but instead, like the rest of the team, it’s just in that dreaded mediocre state.
The team traded first round picks in consecutive years to surround Davis, one of the league’s five best players, with Asik and Holliday. Those two are having good seasons, but the play of Gordon and Tyreke Evans could ultimately lead to the ouster for both Williams and general manager Dell Demps.
Gordon was acquired in the Chris Paul trade and Demps later matched a max contract offer sheet from Phoenix to keep the scoring guard aboard. This season, New Orleans is scoring 100 and allowing 111 points per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor.
NOLA sent Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez out to acquire Evans in a sign-and-trade in July 2013, and now Evans is still shooting a poor percentage from the field and the Pelicans are being outscored by nine points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor. To make matters worse, Lopez and Vasquez are playing well in key roles for Portland and Toronto respectively.
Gordon, who’s taken on a lead role with Davis and Holliday out, knows that there’s no room for any more losses to bad teams.
“It’s definitely slim,” Gordon said of the team’s margin for error, “that’s why we need to beat the teams that are having tough times.”
New Orleans recently traded beleaguered guard Austin Rivers, acquiring reserve guard Quincy Pondexter from Memphis. Pondexter was in a similar position last season with the Grizzlies, ultimately accomplishing what few Pelicans have yet to achieve— reaching the postseason.
“I know what it takes,” Pondexter told SheridanHoops. “And I’m trying to correct those things in this locker room and hopefully it helps us get some wins and back in the playoffs like I was last year.”
Right now Williams just wants the team to get healthy for the rotation to get settled, and he hopes that will help New Orleans get back on track. If they don’t put together a push over the next month, it could be too late for this team once again.
“We have to keep on winning because all the other teams are going to keep winning and for us, you know, we have to get on a winning streak soon,” Gordon said.
“Our backs are against the wall right now,” Pondexter said. “We have to come out and scrap for everything that we want.”
Everyone on the Pelicans seems to be feeling the pressure to finally make the playoffs, especially with the unknown repercussions that lurk after the season if the team is, once again, in the lottery.
In short: The pressure is most definitely on.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.