Too bad the Pelicans aren’t in the NFC South.
If they were, they could be printing playoff tickets already.
Instead, in the NBA’s Southwest Division being 7-5 at this point gets you — Are you kidding me? — last place. If the playoffs started today, the Pels would be on the outside looking in as the No. 9 team in the West.
And that’s going into Tuesday’s game against Sacramento and who knows how far beyond without shooting guard Eric Gordon, who suffered a torn labrum in Saturday’s victory at Utah. Center Omer Asik could be out Tuesday as well, with a pesky back that kept him out of the previous four games.
The Utah game was the final one of a four-game western road swing featuring a pair of back-to-backs. Pels Coach Monty Williams said he was happy to get the split, especially with his team twice bouncing back to win after losing the night before,
“It’s tough to do that anywhere,” he said. “For us to do with a lot of young guys on the squad, I think it says a lot about the remorse we have after losses, especially when we feel like we gave one away (at Portland).
“It carried over to the next game, and I think that’s something we can build on.”
It had better be.
The Western Conference is perhaps more formidable than predicted.
Going into Monday’s six crossover games, West teams were 45-21 against the East. That includes the woebegone Los Angeles Lakers, who are 1-11 against the West but 2-0 against the East.
If the Pelicans were in the East, they’d have the fourth best record right now with a much easier path ahead.
Call Commissioner Adam Silver if you’d like to argue about the geographic incongruity of that situation.
The West dominance has been achieved without the Kevin Durant-less and Russell Westbook-less Oklahoma City Thunder.
OKC has gone 1-5 against the East, but the Thunder should get a lot better once its two superstars return, which could happen for one or both of them when OKC visits the Pels on Dec. 2.
“They’ll probably run off about 10 in a row when those two get back,” Pelicans guard Austin Rivers said Monday.
“I still don’t think we’ve seen how good it’s going to be,” said Williams, echoing Rivers. “We’ve only played a handful of Western teams, but we can already tell the competition is pretty severe.
“The thing I’ve noticed so far is the crowds are crazy. In Portland, Sacramento, Denver, Utah — they all know their team has a chance to win and it’s indicative by the crowds that show up.”
Williams could have been sending a message to the laid-back Pelicans fan base. But that’s a story for another time.
What matters now is that the Pelicans are showing themselves capable of doing something necessary for any playoff team — winning on the road.
In the three seasons since the Chris Paul trade, the Pelicans have gone 3-19, 4-22 and 4-22 on the road against the rest of the West.
This year, last week’s two victories, plus the Nov. 8 one at San Antonio which is going to look as good in April as it does now, gives the Pels a 3-3 mark in such games. Continue to break even in those games, win more than you lose on the road against the East and win two-thirds of your home games (the Pelicans are 4-1 thus far at home) and you’re looking at a 50-win season.
And as the rest of the season goes, the road doesn’t look all that daunting.
Last week’s trip was the only one of more than three games against the West although there is a five-game Eastern Division jaunt in January (present combined record of those teams: 22-43).
There are six more road back-to-backs, but only one (Sacramento-Portland on April 4-5) is part of a longer trip (at the Lakers on April 1).
And those longer trips are not necessarily a bad thing for a young team that’s still getting to know each other on and off the court thanks to last year’s injury disruptions.
“When you’re at home, guys always have other things going on,” Rivers said. “But when on the road, especially on a long, cold trip like we just had, there’s not much to do but hang around the hotel with each other.”
Of course, it’s too early to know what kind of position the Pels will be in come April.
The time between now and New Year’s is daunting — 20 games, 11 of them on the road and 16 of them against 2014 playoff teams plus LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Smoothie King Center on Dec. 12.
For now, Anthony Davis is having an MVP season and the rest of the team has displayed the increasing maturity that’s needed of a contender.
That’s especially true in dealing with injuries.
The extent of Gordon’s injury is unknown, but if he’s out for an extended time, an already thin rotation will be stretched.
A year ago, given Gordon’s injury history, that might have started a “Here we go again” attitude on the team.
Not so this time, according to Rivers.
“These things happen, and we know they’re out of our control,” he said. “We’re not going to panic and let it get us down.
“Eric’s going to be back soon. Until then, it’s the next guy up.”
Not that there’s much other choice.