Lewis: Win or lose, Pelicans are making strides _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SHERRI MILLER -- New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) breezes by Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) during the first half at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Sunday, March 15, 2015.

For most of us, April 15 means the day you’re supposed to have your income tax form sent in.

But for the Pelicans, this day has been circled on the calendar since the NBA schedule came out last summer: the regular-season finale against the San Antonio Spurs at the Smoothie King Center.

“We knew this game was going to mean something,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said Wednesday after a film session with his team. “But we never thought it would have been this important.”

Man, is it ever.

Game 82 has become Game 7 for the Pelicans, who, to make the playoffs for the first time in five years, have to beat the defending world champions — who, instead of resting their starters, can be counted on to be going all out because they have something to gain by winning as well.

Yeah, we know Oklahoma City, with whom the Pelicans are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, has to beat Minnesota for the Pelicans-Spurs result to matter.

But considering that the T-Wolves only have to tank one last time to secure the best shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft and that Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook is off double secret probation (Thank you, Roger Goodell, er, Adam Silver), the chances of the Thunder blowing it are about as good as my dunking over Anthony Davis.

So the Pelicans are up against it. Basketball-Reference.com gives them only a 37.1 percent chance of knocking off the Spurs.

And yes, they have only themselves to blame for being in this position.

Those six home-court losses to teams with losing records (Oklahoma City has two, the last on Nov. 21) are likely to offset the Pelicans going 3-1 against the Thunder to win the tiebreaker.

But that’s part of the growing process by a team with the league’s sixth-youngest roster, and that’s with only one of their own draft picks, the aforementioned Mr. Davis.

Only a handful of players from that roster have playoff experience, something that’s invaluable regardless of how intimidating a first-round series against Golden State would likely turn out.

The other part of the equation is that making the playoffs would be a symbolic step forward in legitimizing public perception of a franchise that, as Williams puts it, was stripped of its parts while undergoing the onus of being under the league’s stewardship, only to hit the daily double of getting Davis in the draft and getting Tom Benson as its owner within a two-month period in the spring of 2012.

“We felt that this would be the year when we would have a winning record and have a good chance to get into the playoffs,” Williams said. “And right now, we have that shot.”

Win or lose Wednesday, this season has legitimized General Manager Dell Demps’ philosophy of rebuilding through the acquisition of young talent by trades or free agency instead of relying on the draft.

Davis, certainly the exception to the rule, is the only player on the roster who was drafted by the Pelicans.

It’s not the most conventional method, and there are always moves that can be questioned — two lottery picks for suddenly injury-prone Jrue Holiday comes to mind.

But right now, only 12 of the other 29 teams in the league have a better record than the Pelicans, and storied franchises like the Lakers and Knicks are struggling to find their way.

The Pelicans will finish at least 10 games better than they did last season. Only four other teams can beat that figure.

Thanks to reigning league MVP Kevin Durant being out for all but 27 games this season, the bar for making the playoffs in the West is probably five or six games lower than it should have been, but those are the breaks of the game.

The Pelicans have had more than their share of injuries as well; but right now, they are as healthy as they’ve been all season.

And even losing Wednesday will not mean a back-to-the-drawing board dismantling of the team.

“We’re trying to build sustained success,” Demps said Wednesday. “We’re growing, and we’re getting better.

“But we want to be good for a long time.”

To be sure, Demps and Williams have benefitted from patient ownership.

This is the fifth season for both in a league where turnover is common and rebuilding is no quick nor certain thing.

There has been no declaration that Williams or Demps will be back next season.

While Demps’ strategy looks to be working, the jury may still be out on Williams’ ability to guide team from the edge of the playoffs into contender status. He’s yet to receive an endorsement despite the team’s improvement.

On Wednesday though, Williams was deflecting his personal satisfaction in the team’s accomplishments.

“My job is to do the best I can go give our players a chance to have success,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the people around me doing well.

“If our guys can succeed in front of our fans, I think that will give me an unspeakable feeling I can’t describe.”