As it was for past generations of Americans, the New Orleans Pelicans will try to forge a new identity by heading West.
Unlike trying to settle new land or search for rumored gold, the road ahead is straightforward. But it is certainly treacherous.
Friday night’s nationally televised 9:30 p.m. road matchup against the Denver Nuggets begins a 10-game stretch of Western Conference opponents, many of whom will be the Pelicans’ chief competition in the hardscrabble fight for the postseason.
Eight of those 10 opponents are .500 or better, including two games against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors and matchups against reigning MVP Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City and Southwest Division stalwart San Antonio.
“It’s a chance to separate ourselves,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “It’s a chance to test what we are as a team. So we have to come ready to play every night. Even though we should have been doing that in the first place. But, now we really have to come ready to play.”
The Western swing provides an added dose of consternation, considering New Orleans’ 8-7 record has been built almost entirely on the backs of struggling opponents. The Pelicans are just 1-7 against teams currently with a winning record, recording a lone win against the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-7) at home.
Every other Pelicans’ victory has come against teams in the bottom portion of their conference standings. Unless the Pelicans want to join them, they’ll need to discover some success against the best of the West.
“Obviously you’re going to be playing against teams that were either in the playoffs this year or are expected to make the playoffs,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “A lot of those games are at home, and so we have to play well and try to win those games, because you don’t want to try to fall into a situation like we’ve had here in the past, where you get off to such a rough start that you’re playing uphill all of the time.”
New Orleans will receive additional support from point guard Rajon Rondo, who is gradually building his minutes load while recovering from surgery to his left core muscle. Rondo was sidelined for nearly six weeks but in his two brief appearances has flashed his prominent ball-handling and passing prowess.
During his 14-minute outing in Wednesday’s loss to Toronto, Rondo dished eight assists to open teammates in the first half, finding cutters diving to the basket and shooters waiting on the perimeter. Thus far, Rondo’s recovery is still going to plan, and Gentry said the guard’s playing-time restriction will lessen, allowing him to play between 20 and 25 minutes.
“I still say we have got a long way to go...” Gentry said. “We are just now getting Rondo back, and he played 14 minutes so you can’t determine a lot. But, I think if you play 14 minutes and have eight assists, you’re going to have an impact on the game.
“We’re in a lot different situation now with him and his minutes going up. We are not the team right now we are going to be, but I think that’s the way a lot of people feel about their team.”
Without Rondo, the Pelicans cratered Wednesday, getting outscored 55-40 in the first 20 minutes of the second half, shooting just 44.2 percent from the field as a 14-point first-quarter lead deteriorated into a lopsided loss.
Not all of those issues are connected to Rondo, or to the caliber of the opponent. Several Pelicans players acknowledged they struggled to rotate defensively or close out on shooters, allowing the Raptors a series of open looks.
Now, as the Pelicans shift into one of the toughest stretches of the season, problem areas are magnified and so are the results. If New Orleans can tally some wins and maintain its place in the Western Conference standings, it could go a long way toward gaining an upper hand when the playoff chase heats up this spring.
“It’s a lot of small things that are becoming a big problem and hurting us during the games,” Cousins said. “But they’re very fixable problems.”