Is this the culmination?
It sure doesn’t look like one.
Instead, the most urgent year in franchise history is slowly revealing itself as yet another showcase of mediocrity in desperate need of a jolt.
The New Orleans Pelicans, who are slathered in one-year contracts, from the point guards to the front office and coaching staff, are 15-16 nearly 40 percent through the season. While there are months of basketball remaining and favorable Western Conference playoff possibilities in their grips, the optics facing this particular team at this particular moment are troubling.
For the first time in December, New Orleans slipped below the .500 bellwether, getting pummeled wire-to-wire by the Washington Wizards three days after blowing a 16-point, second-half lead to Denver.
“No effort, man,” is how DeMarcus Cousins diagnosed a hideous third quarter to reporters Tuesday. “That team came out and just wanted it more. I felt like we just kind of went through the motions as a team, and they just wanted it more, period.”
How is this still happening?
It’s a refrain they repeatedly harkened to earlier in the month as well, when the Pelicans blew five double-digit leads in the second half over a maddening 15 days. It’s almost inexplicable for a team bereft of successful history to routinely lose focus and produce a predictably uneven effort.
The margin for error is razor thin, yet the Pelicans insist on dancing along it, often getting burned in the process.
“We just have to come out and compete every night,” Cousins said. “No matter if it is the Warriors, the Wizards, whoever the case may be. We just have to come out and compete, man. Every night.”
This, ultimately, is still the problem.
Individually, the Pelicans are talented enough to contend with the NBA’s best. Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Cousins comprise a highly skilled, highly-priced triumvirate on par with the top end of rosters in Houston, San Antonio, Toronto and Boston.
Yet New Orleans has to squint upwards in the standings to find those teams.
Is it a lack of urgency? Or a lack of supporting cast? Perhaps a lack of pedigree?
It’s difficult to pinpoint at this moment, but the Pelicans’ plummet from No. 9 to No. 26 in defensive ranking in a year’s time surely reveals an issue. There’s a competitive ingredient missing from this collection, and it’s unclear exactly who can turn the switch.
New Orleans added respected veterans Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen, hoping to add a dose of maturity to the locker room.
Still, the inconsistencies persist.
In fact, coach Alvin Gentry vociferously called out his team’s killer instinct and energy in a dispiriting home loss to the Sacramento Kings two weeks ago. The Pelicans are 2-4 since.
And in a year when everything is on the line, each passing day and head-scratching possession turns disappointment into a lingering crisis.
The teeth-gnashing grew even louder Wednesday, when Davis made his first public comments regarding the state of the franchise and the endless chatter regarding his future, in an ESPN profile. For six seasons, this team has tried to build a playoff contender around him, and with the exception of being swept in the first round three seasons ago, the results have been horribly disappointing.
While Davis said he prefers to remain in New Orleans, he plainly stated winning is his only priority. And despite Davis’ appearances in All-Star games and All-NBA teams, the Pelicans haven’t won.
“Winning. That's it. That's how you're judged,” Davis told ESPN. "You can score, you can dominate. You can do whatever. But they calculate everything off winning. You know that. I know that. Everybody in the league knows that. I hear it all the time: 'Anthony is a good player, but he hasn't won anything. He's not a winner. He hasn't been to the playoffs in two years.' "
It was a pivot and an acknowledgement. Davis is holding the franchise (and himself) accountable for the team’s predicament, rather than playing his traditional role as loyal spokesman and diligent solider.
Couple that with the ongoing concern of whether the Pelicans can re-sign Cousins when he hits unrestricted free agency this summer, and it’s a volatile cocktail only soothed by on-court success. Several sources say Cousins would prefer to stay with the Pelicans, who can pay him more than any other team, especially if he’s able to reach the playoffs the first time in his eight-year career.
But if this season continues to devolve as it has the past week, it’s likely Cousins will look to a handful of outside suitors with extensive cap room and young surrounding talent.
Neither of those exists in New Orleans. The Pelicans are firmly pressed against the hard salary cap and have traded every first-round pick since 2012 in an effort to speed up the rebuilding process around Davis.
Yet, here they are.
For the Pelicans, the here and now is all they have.
If New Orleans misses the playoffs, Mickey Loomis may send a bulldozer across the parking lot on Airline Drive. It will appease some fans in the process, but, by then, what’s left?
Simply put, the Pelicans need to win now and everyone is just waiting for the team to realize it.