As Monty Williams gazed onto the floor and across his bench in Wednesday’s playoff-clinching victory over the San Antonio Spurs, he saw a roster that didn’t just come full circle but actually filled in the hole.
The New Orleans Pelicans enter their first-round playoff series at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against the Golden State Warriors with a healthy rotation that is more versatile, productive and efficient than the one Williams worked with at the season’s onset.
Three moves — a free agency pickup and two trades — helped not only round out the roster, but allowed the franchise to patch over a litany of potentially season-derailing injuries and play its best basketball despite unending health concerns.
Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole proved to be vital cogs at various places on the court and points in the season, rising to the occasion as New Orleans surged from an 18-18 start to a 27-19 finish to outlast the Oklahoma City Thunder for the hotly contested No. 8 seed.
“It’s been a grind and it makes you think about all of the guys who helped us along the way this time of year,” Williams said last week. “We wouldn’t be where we are without them. They’ve given us so much.”
And the trio directly improved specific areas the Pelicans under-performed in before their arrival.
Cunningham, who was lurking in the free agent market Dec. 4 because of a dropped domestic violence charge, added defensive toughness and an ability to guard both forward positions, helping stem the tide of easy midrange scoring previously allowed by the Pelicans’ lackluster wing position.
Due to an abundance of injuries and a lack of frontcourt depth, Cunningham started 23 of 27 games in January and February, helping the lift New Orleans out of the mediocre morass it couldn’t escape during the first two months of the season.
“Dante does things that a lot of people don’t see,” Anthony Davis said in February. “He does a lot of stuff with help defense and is getting on the ground for loose balls and plays tough. We needed someone like him.”
But it was Pondexter who truly gave the Pelicans the wing option it desired. A three-team trade that forced the franchise to part with 2012’s No. 10 draft pick Austin Rivers, netted a struggling Pondexter on a four-year contract from the Memphis Grizzlies.
But almost as soon as he arrived in New Orleans, the version of Pondexter who shot just 23 percent from 3-point range and played just 18 minutes per night in Memphis was gone. Not only did he help shore up some of the Pelicans’ struggling perimeter defense, he spread the floor offensively, converting 44 percent of 3-pointers.
That perimeter threat filled an especially urgent need when Ryan Anderson, in the midst of the worst shooting year of his career, missed 17 games due to injury. As the Pelicans surged in the final month, Pondexter proved monumentally important, making a remarkable 54 percent of his 3-pointers over a 16 game stretch as New Orleans clawed its way back into playoff contention.
“We needed him a lot of ways,” Williams said. “His shooting changes the way teams can defend us and his defense changes what we can stop.”
But no one’s arrival correlated more with winning than point guard Norris Cole, who came from the Miami Heat as part of a trade deadline deal that involved four teams and a myriad of moving pieces. By the time the Pelicans dealt rarely-used John Salmons and waived two players, they were left with an experienced backup point guard who could solidify the position in the absence of Jrue Holiday.
Rather than having to play one of a series of players on temporary contracts (Gal Mekel, Nate Wolters, Toney Douglas), Williams had to option to call upon someone with championship experience who could log 25 minutes per night, score 10 points per game and solidify the once-dreadful Pelicans’ bench. Those attributes helped spur New Orleans to winning 18 of its final 28 games and earning its way to the playoffs.
It was the perfect concert of front office and coaching staff filling the necessary gaps without mortgaging the future to do so. General manager Dell Demps traded off of a pair of underperforming pieces for players who Williams fit snuggly into the system, prompting the best run of Pelicans’ basketball in five years.
“Those guys did a lot of for us, all of them,” guard Tyreke Evans said. “It’s almost hard to think about them not being here when you think about it now, because they’re so important to what we do.”