The buzzword surrounding the New Orleans Pelicans in the offseason was continuity.
But the strategy of keeping the roster in place and adding a jolt of pace under new coach Alvin Gentry was born out of the roster shakeup the front office made during the 2014-15 season, which helped land the franchise its first playoff berth since 2010.
Midseason moves to add Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole paid dividends as the Pelicans made a torrid 18-11 run to close the season, nabbing the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference on a tiebreaker over Oklahoma City.
“We really liked the way we played at the end of the season last year when we had this whole group together,” general manager Dell Demps said in October. “We feel like, if we give them an opportunity to gel and play together in this system, then they’ll be able to play that way for a whole season and it gives us a great opportunity to have a really good season.”
That hasn’t come to fruition. Exiting the All-Star break, the Pelicans are 20-33. They are 6½ games out of the playoff picture, 12th in the Western Conference, and have the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Now with the trade deadline staring at them again, the circumstances from 2015 are similar, but the scope of the problem is significantly larger.
Last year, a deadline deal that brought Cole in exchange for John Salmons added an important layer of depth to the backcourt and helped smooth over a banged-up roster for the playoff push.
Now the Pelicans are without starters Tyreke Evans and Pondexter for the rest of the season, and the gap separating the Pelicans from the playoff contenders looks more like a widening chasm.
At last year’s All-Star break, New Orleans was two teams removed from the No. 8 seed but was only two games behind Phoenix and locked in a virtual tie with Oklahoma City. When Cole arrived to help fill a void left by the injured Jrue Holiday, things began to take a turn.
A month after the deadline, New Orleans surpassed Phoenix and began jockeying with the Thunder as the Pelicans’ record improved from 27-26 to 36-30. A month later, the Pelicans knocked off the San Antonio Spurs on the final day of the regular season to secure a playoff berth at 45-37.
“You really saw the potential of this team in the final few months of the season,” forward Ryan Anderson said this summer. “When you have this roster healthy and playing together, we can do some really special things and compete with anybody, any night. We just had that opportunity and we were desperate, so it became fun to go out and compete with our backs to the wall and know what was on the line every single night.”
That urgency didn’t translate to the 2015-16 season.
As the second half of the season opens Friday, the Pelicans hope to find that formula again. It may come via trade or a lineup adjustment, but considering their position, it isn’t likely to happen at all.
There’s still a glimmer of hope, because the front office remembers what this group was capable of late last season. There’s just no evidence they can replicate it.
“We have a lot of stuff to figure out,” Cole said. “We’ve played some games like a team that can go out and win against anybody. Other games, we just couldn’t get ourselves together. We know it’s up to us to make a run and we’ve done it before, so I know we can do it again. It’s just a matter of repeating what works.”