A blank injury report is a rare gift three months into an NBA season.
For Pelicans’ coach Monty Williams and his five-year tenure in New Orleans, it’s also unprecedented. For the first time in his career, Williams spent a January week looking over a robust, healthy roster.
Although he’s longed to play this late in the season with a full complement of talent, Williams has also discovered a dark side to his good fortune.
When starting shooting guard Eric Gordon returned from a 21-game absence after healing from his torn labrum, it threw a wrench into the Pelicans’ familiar rotation. New Orleans went 11-10 without its highest-paid player, including wins over Western Conference playoff stalwarts San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City (twice) and averaged 101.9 points per game along the way.
With reports leaking out of Yahoo Sports on Friday night that New Orleans is likely acquiring Memphis small forward Quincy Pondexter for seldom-used John Salmons as part of a three-team trade involving the Celtics and Grizzlies, it got even more complicated.
The Pelicans 10-man rotation became predictable over the Gordon-less 21 games. But when he returned on Monday, it forced Williams to scrap it and start over.
“I thought we did have (the rotation set) until Eric came back and then that kind of shuffled the deck a bit,” Williams said. “But I think with him being back now, and some of the changes that we’re making, I think we’ll get back to it. I don’t think it’s going to be a prolonged adjustment. Guys will get used to playing with certain other guys.”
Throughout the three-game week, the Pelicans showed no signs of rotation continuity as Williams mixed and matched units in search of a fit.
In Gordon’s first game back, the Pelicans used 11 players in a 92-85 home loss to the Washington Wizards.
That prompted Williams to announce intentions of shortening the rotation prior to Wednesday’s game in Charlotte. Only nine Pelicans appeared during the 98-94 loss to the Hornets, leaving Austin Rivers and Luke Babbitt bereft of any playing time.
Prior to Gordon’s return, Rivers logged fewer than 17 minutes only once this season and served as one of the Pelicans first options off the bench. Babbitt, meanwhile, had started 19 consecutive games before Wednesday’s loss, employed as a space-creating shooter.
Then, on Friday night, Williams pulled Evans and his 16.7 points per game out of the starting lineup in favor of the defensive-oriented Dante Cunningham. Evans, Rivers and Babbitt all checked in late in the first quarter on Friday’s win over Memphis, eschewing Jimmer Fredette who saw action in the previous two games.
Consistency, it was not. However, the tweak paid off the third time around.
“We have had chances to win games (before Friday), we just haven’t sealed the deal,” Williams said. “We had chances, we just didn’t play well down the stretch.
“It’s not a rotation thing. To me, it’s just about execution.”
When asked before Friday’s game, both Rivers and Babbitt said they weren’t warned in advance about Wednesday’s demotion in minutes.
“I think sometimes he does stuff to motivate people or test people,” Rivers said. “He does that with all of us. He has Tyreke starting and then not starting him. Coaches do that. We don’t hate coach or anything like that. We think he’s a great coach and he tries to motivate you or push your buttons to see what you can do.”
Williams agreed with Rivers and compared it to the methods Gregg Popovich used on Williams when he served as a reserve for the San Antonio Spurs in the mid-1990s. It’s unclear whether Williams is tinkering with his rotations in an attempt to optimize his lineups or send a message to some struggling bench players, but he said either way, the result should pay off in the Pelicans’ favor.
“It’s not purposeful motivation but you do hope a few guys get motivated when they don’t play as much,” Williams said. “Anybody who is a competitor, if they don’t play, that should be motivation enough.”