Rendering a judgment on the New Orleans Pelicans season, and the team’s future, vacillates depending on if it’s gauged by the whole or just its parts.
Based on Thursday’s season-ending news conferences held by general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry, the franchise’s optimism is rooted in a three-week stretch of March rather than the entirety of a 34-48 season that closed Wednesday night.
It’s the fifth time in Demps’ seven seasons the franchise failed to reach the postseason.
And neither Gentry nor Demps said they’ve had formal discussions with team ownership about their job status. Both claimed to be going about their jobs, still under contract with the team, and evaluating the team’s progress with an eye on the future.
They also each pointed to starting the season in a hole due to Jrue Holiday’s 12-game personal leave, and then added the acclimation process after the acquisition of center DeMarcus Cousins was more difficult than initially expected.
But in an 8-3 stretch in March, when New Orleans rattled off wins over three playoff teams and Anthony Davis meshed alongside Cousins, the seeds of the Pelicans’ potential were on display.
“You want to evaluate the whole entire season, but I do think you have to break it into different segments,” Demps said. “Obviously, before the DeMarcus trade, after the DeMarcus trade, and I think it was really tough coming off of that trade.”
New Orleans was 23-34 before trading Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a top-three protected first-round pick for Cousins during the All-Star break. It was 11-14 after Cousins arrived, and 7-10 with him in the lineup.
On Thursday, Demps revealed Cousins was playing through a considerable amount of pain on his right Achilles' tendon, which caused him to miss nearly all of the All Star Game as well as the final four games of the season. Gentry was uncertain if it would require surgery but said the team will evaluate it.
So, the data isn’t definitive.
And by the time the Pelicans take the floor again, much of the roster could look different, starting with the status of point guard Jrue Holiday who entered free agency.
Demps didn’t hide his desire to bring Holiday back on an extended contract, and Gentry pointed out re-signing Holiday is the team’s top priority entering the offseason. But both recognized the final decision rests with Holiday, and the Pelicans are in the midst of an evaluation process for the variety of possibilities.
“Jrue has been with us four years,” Demps said. “We love Jrue. We love his family. Obviously, we would love to have him back. He’s got a tough decision to make. We’re going to let that process play out. He’s one of my favorite players. He’s a two-way player and a phenomenal person. We really enjoyed having him here.”
Forward Dante Cunningham is also likely to waive the player option remaining on his contract, pushing him into free agency along with Donatas Motiejunas.
It’s Holiday’s decision, however, that will truly swing the Pelicans’ needs this offseason. Demps and Gentry said adding shooting to the All-Star tandem in the post is a priority, but where it comes from, and how much cap room the team has to operate, remains to be seen.
“You have to look at the situation that if (Holiday) doesn’t come back, what do we do?,” Gentry said. “So you have to have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C and have everything aligned so if something unfortunate, like he decides to leave, happens, then you’ve got yourself covered. That’s what every team in the world would do.”
The larger question remains: Even if Holiday returns, is the Pelicans’ roster constructed to contend in a rugged Western Conference? The late March stretch would suggest they are, but the overall body of work is cloudy.
Even Gentry admitted the more realistic goal is attempting to leapfrog a handful of playoff teams, before setting sights on elite competition.
“There’s a big ladder we have to climb before we worry about Golden State and San Antonio,” Gentry said. “We have to try to get by Portland and Memphis and those teams, who we have to get ahead of, before we start thinking about the San Antonios and Golden States of the West.”