HOUSTON — Early is turning late in a hurry for the Pelicans.
Throughout a mostly sluggish start, the Pelicans have been quick to point out that the NBA season is long, and that there’s time for a turnaround. But that season is shortening quickly. When the Cleveland Cavaliers visit the Smoothie King Center on Friday, New Orleans will play its 20th game, almost a quarter of its season.
The Pelicans sit at 4-15. They’ve lost four straight. And though they remain just 4½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, it’s not so early anymore.
“We’re taking steps,” coach Alvin Gentry said after a 108-101 loss to the Rockets on Wednesday night. “But every time we take a step and lose a game, that just puts us that much further back.”
So far, they’ve taken baby steps.
It might still be too early to judge the Pelicans, who in the past two games had guards Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole available for the first time all season. But the numbers suggest their progress to this point has been incremental.
In the first 10 games of the season, the Pelicans went 1-9. Over the past nine games, they’re 3-6. They’re scoring more points (up from 100.2 per game in the first 10 to 103.2 the past nine) and holding their opponents to fewer (109.4 in the first 10, 108.7 the past nine).
But while New Orleans has made some leaps — it’s scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions the past nine games after a averaging 98.6 in the first 10 — it hasn’t made enough of them.
The Pelicans’ defensive rating was 108.9 points per 100 possessions in the first 10 games, which included two against offensive juggernaut Golden State. In the past nine games, the Pelicans are allowing only slightly less, 108.5 points per 100 possessions.
And though the Pelicans’ record has improved, they still have fewer wins than all but two teams, the lowly 76ers and Lakers, who came into the season expecting not to be playoff contenders but to be in the hunt for the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft.
“It’s definitely tough,” forward Anthony Davis said. “But I have a lot of confidence in my team, and I believe that we can turn it around. We just got to put a couple of wins together and get our confidence back. Guys just got to keep playing hard.”
That starts on the defensive end.
Though they’ve hardly set the league on fire offensively — New Orleans is 15th in the league in offensive efficiency — the Pelicans have been set ablaze on defense. The 108.7 points they allow per 100 possessions is last in the league, almost two full points higher than the 29th-place Lakers.
The primary issue, Gentry said, is containing dribble penetration, being able to “line up and keep our guy in front of us for three or four dribbles.”
“We’ve gotten in trouble because we’ve had so many blow-bys that it doesn’t really give your defense a chance to adjust or rotate,” Gentry said. “So we’ve got to get better in that particular department, I think.”
But there are intangibles missing, too.
In their current four-game losing streak, the Pelicans are averaging 25.3 points per first quarter and just 20.8 in the fourth. They’re shooting 46.9 percent from the floor in the opening quarter and 31.3 percent in the last.
Over its past four games, New Orleans is averaging 11.3 assists and 5.8 turnovers in the first half and 9.8 assists and 9.3 turnovers in the second, the product both of bad second-half shooting and of stagnation in the offense after the opening minutes.
“I think what happens is that we get a little comfortable and the ball stops,” Gentry said. “ I don’t think it’s just the missed shots. I just think that we become ball stoppers, and we’ve got to be able to move it on.”
When the game gets tight, guard Eric Gordon said, “it’s like everybody separates.”
Davis said that’s more a product of players wanting to make big plays than it is of selfishness. Regardless of the cause, it’s hurting the offense.
But, Davis said, the offense isn’t the Pelicans’ problem. At least not the major one. As LeBron James brings the Cavaliers to New Orleans, the math says the Pelicans’ issues are on defense, and there’s no formula for fixing it.
“It’s just about heart now,” Davis said. “You’ve just got to go out there and want it, want it more than the other guy on the other team. In your head, thinking, ‘He’s not getting this loose ball’ or ‘He’s not getting this rebound’ or whatever, that’s what has to happen. That’s just guys having heart. And we got guys who can do it. We’ve just got to put in our mind that we want to.”