Who would have thought that, at this stage of the season, the Saints would have a losing record and the Pelicans a winning one — with one of their victories coming against the defending NBA champions on their home court?
Well, certainly few would have believed the former.
But as for the latter, the Pelicans are exactly where most expectations had them: not the best team in the league or the conference or even their division, but certainly far better than where they’ve been over the past three seasons amid a total roster makeover accelerated by the emergence of a rising superstar. And thus far — knock on wood — they haven’t been derailed by crippling injuries.
“It sure feels good to have all of your guys,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said after Wednesday’s 109-102 victory against the Los Angeles Lakers. “We like our record right now, and we like the ability to win a big road game.”
Of course, Williams could have added that we’re only seven games into an 82-game season, that at 4-3 the Pels are only tied for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference and that after Friday’s home game against Minnesota they’re facing a four-game road trip featuring a pair of back-to-backs that will be a real test of their mettle.
But still …
This is a team with a lot to like about it:
-- Anthony Davis: Living up to preseason hype is difficult but, if anything, Davis has exceeded it.
His numbers — 24.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game — not only exceed last year’s averages but are among the best in the past 30 years at this stage of the season.
Only David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing have had similar starts. That’s pretty good company. Davis’ player efficiency rating leads the league.
Beyond the totals, Davis has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated — his strength added to the length that was there coming out of college, his confidence in his midrange jumpers, his ability to ignite the defense with a block, a rebound or a deflected pass and his knack for being in exactly the right spot to finish a play.
After Wednesday’s game, Kobe Bryant compared AD to Pau Gasol. Others have put him in the Tim Duncan-Kevin Garnett pantheon.
And he’s only 21. As Chris McKendry put it on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Thursday, “Apparently the future is now.”
-- Jrue Holiday: He can score (15.1 points per game), he can dish (6.6 assists) and he doesn’t turn the ball over (1.7 per game). He also blocked Kawhi Leonard’s shot at the buzzer to secure the victory at San Antonio.
That’s the kind of point guard the Pelicans gave up two No. 1 draft picks for a year ago, and he’s playing at a higher level than he was last season before a stress fracture cut his season short after 34 games.
-- Tyreke Evans: Too small for small forward? Well, he’s averaging a career-high 6.8 rebounds. And after a miserable shooting night Monday at Memphis — 2-of-14 — Evans bounced back against the Lakers by going 8-of-16 while dishing out 11 assists.
-- Omer Asik: The much-needed acquisition from Houston is doing what was hoped of him — pulling down 10.7 rebounds per game while contributing 9.1 points.
For Davis, he’s providing the floor spacing that enabled him to increase his offensive and defensive range.
“He’s great in the paint, and he really works the floor on defense,” Davis said.
Of course, there are detriments.
Eric Gordon’s shooting continues to be abysmal (19-of-66, .288). Gordon has the ability to play his way out his slump, but when? He remains a team player and, if disappointed about going 2-of-8 against the Lakers on Wednesday, Gordon can take solace in the fact that he helped limit Kobe to a 10-of-28 night.
But right now, he’s only starting because the bench is so thin.
Obviously Ryan Anderson provides instant offense (16.5 points per game), but only Austin Rivers is getting significant minutes behind him.
It’s telling that Alexis Ajinca, Jeff Withey, Luke Babbitt and Darius Miller had 43 starts among them last year. Now they’re barely visible. If there are injuries to the starters — and they will come — somebody’s got to step up.
Regardless, the players will tell you there’s excellent chemistry on this team, both on and off the court. Williams wants to wait for another 20 or 30 games before confirming that, though.
For now, the immediate task ahead is learning how to win on the road, especially in the Western Conference. Next week’s games at Portland, Sacramento, Denver and Utah will be a good proving ground.
“It’s so tough; it’s unreal,” Williams said. “This is the toughest I’ve ever seen the Western Conference. You’re not going to have any cakewalks. That’s why you’ve got to play 48 minutes every night.”
That’s also why Saturday’s victory at San Antonio is one of the biggest of the Williams era — although, as Williams pointed out, the goal is to turn big wins into merely good wins.
Enough of doing that and, when the Spurs come to the Smoothie King Center on April 15 for the regular-season finale, it won’t be the end of the line for the Pelicans.
Maybe Tom Benson’s other team will get its act together, too.