The toughest part of the schedule is behind them, but there’s no sense of relief surrounding the New Orleans Pelicans.
Saddled with a disappointing 11-22 record, the mantra coming from every pocket of the organization is about mounting a turnaround and finding a way to recreate the consistent winning New Orleans enjoyed during the final six weeks of the 2014-15 season, when it racked up an 18-11 record to earn a playoff berth.
“This is where we have to start playing good basketball,” coach Alvin Gentry said Tuesday. “We are not really looking ahead. We just want to be playing good basketball, and it’s up to us to do that. We will take the results from there. But we have not played to the level we feel we can get to. We have had flashes of it, but not the consistency.”
And there’s urgency to find that reliability.
The door is wide open for the Pelicans to climb back into contention in the Western Conference and the next four weeks is set up as favorably as possible.
But can they take advantage?
The once-dominant West now features two teams holding playoff spots with records worse than .500, while the No. 6 seed wouldn’t even reach the top eight of the Eastern Conference standings. So, despite New Orleans winning a dreadful 33 percent of its games, it’s only four games out of the playoff chase and 6½ games out of the coveted No. 6 seed.
“Especially in the West, we know that by this time last year if we would have had this record (in past seasons), we would have been out,” point guard Jrue Holiday said. “But there’s still a chance for us.”
The Pelicans also have the added boon of facing the NBA’s easiest schedule in January, directly on the heels of playing the league’s most challenging nine weeks to open the season. New Orleans hosts nine of its 14 January games at the Smoothie King Center, and seven of those 14 opponents match up against the Pelicans on the second night of a back-to-back.
Half of the Pelicans’ opponents are below .500, and their 14 games in January combine for the worst average opponent net rating (minus-1.8) in the NBA, tied only with Oklahoma City.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans play just two back-to-backs — and even those are split between home and road venues.
Still, it provides no solace to the Pelicans, who have pieced together consecutive wins just twice all season and seemingly take a step backward every time they appear poised to turn a corner.
“The fact of the matter is, we are playing all NBA teams,” Gentry said, “and as you can see, on any given night, if you’re not ready to play, you have an opportunity to get beat. On the flip side of that, if you’re focused and ready to go, you should be able to play against anyone.
“We have a lot of home games, and that becomes the important part of it. We have got to start making a move right now.”
Pelicans swingman Quincy Pondexter could potentially suit up for his first game of the season tonight.
The Pelicans listed Pondexter as “questionable” on its pregame injury report, the first time he hasn’t been pronounced “out” in advance. Pondexter is recovering from offseason surgery on cartilage in his knee, but he has been able to practice the past few weeks.
“There’s not really a set date, but if I was a betting man or a guessing man, it’s probably a couple of weeks (before he returns),” Gentry said Dec. 31. “That’s just being on the safe side. We’ll see.”
Starting point guard Tyreke Evans is also listed as questionable after missing the Pelicans’ 105-98 win over Dallas on Saturday. It was the 18th game he has missed because of troubles in his right knee.
However, the one-game absence this week isn’t expected to linger like the one that required him to miss the season’s opening month, when he was recovering from arthroscopic surgery. Although Gentry said Evans didn’t practice for the second consecutive day, he insisted there’s no long-term concern.
“I’m sure he’ll play (Wednesday),” Gentry said. “There’s no reason for us to rush him. We just wanted to give him two more days (Monday and Tuesday) to kind of rest it and see. I don’t see anything that would keep him out for a long time.”
For the second time in less than a week, the Mavericks are forced to face the Pelicans on the tail end of games on consecutive nights. While New Orleans spent three nights at home waiting for its second game against Dallas this week, the Mavs hosted the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday.
But Dallas has been effective this season on short rest, racking up a 5-3 record in the second half.
And Gentry hasn’t allowed the Pelicans to fully relax on the three day break, taking Sunday off before conducting full practices the past two days.
“The last two days, we have practiced really hard,” Gentry said. “The ‘effort’ word hasn’t even come up because these guys have been really great. Every now and again, you have to push these guys to get them refocused on playing hard and executing. And that’s OK.”