The team is off to its best start in three years, and the franchise’s trajectory is on the upswing, but fans of the New Orleans Pelicans were vocally perturbed as the second half of the 2014-15 season began Wednesday night.
Although the team was greeted by a mostly full Smoothie King Center for the Pelicans tilt with the Lakers, it didn’t take much prodding to find an undercurrent of concern among the team’s supporters.
“Who knows what this team is going to do, except make me crazy,” Metairie resident Rickey Singleton said. “They beat the good teams and get you excited, then lose to the bad ones and make you angry. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The Pelicans’ inconsistency and unpredictability reached rarified air over the course of its recently completed five-game road trip through the Eastern Conference. Not only did they finish an underwhelming 2-3 on the trip, but the ledger looked backward.
Despite its two best players suffering through injuries during the majority of the trip (Anthony Davis missed the final three games, and Jrue Holiday played just 14 total minutes), New Orleans knocked off the East’s No. 3 seed, Toronto Raptors, and the surging Detroit Pistons. However, those were entirely overshadowed by losses to the lowly Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks, who occupy the cellar of the Eastern Conference standings with a combined 27-95 record.
The unraveling and unevenness lit up phone lines on New Orleans’ sports talk radio stations and blew up social media. Exasperated fans expressed their discontent as the Pelicans’ once-promising playoff hopes appeared to fade.
“It’s almost laughable, because every single show turns into people just talking about why (Pelicans’ coach) Monty Williams should be fired,” said Gus Kattengell, who hosts “The Sports Hangover” on WMTI-FM, 106.1. “We asked people what grades they’d give out for the first half of the season, and we got a ton of calls. And the highest anybody gave was a C. Most gave a D or an F. The No. 1 complaint was about the coach and the need to make a move.”
Williams’ job status is a daily topic on Twitter, Facebook and message boards as well, with fans commenting on a minute-by-minute basis about the fifth-year coach’s in-game strategy. Despite the team being on pace to tally its best record since 2010-11, it hasn’t been a salve for the sting of dimming playoff expectations, falling into 10th place Monday.
Mason Ginsberg, who writes for ESPN TrueHoop blog BourbonStreetShots.com, estimated Williams’ approval rating at “3.5 out of 10” and pinned much of the rancor on impatience and a historically rugged Western Conference.
“I don’t think the belief that this Pelicans team could make the playoffs is irrational, but the probability of qualifying for the postseason was likely overestimated by many of us,” Ginsberg said. “The Phoenix Suns finished last season with a record of 48-34 (matching the third-best record in the East) and still missed the playoffs. And heading into this season, the Western Conference was arguably even stronger. New Orleans could finish the season with a very respectable record and still be sitting at home when the postseason begins.”
And for some fans, that’s simply not good enough. Radio host Scott Alexander, who hosts his own show on KLRZ-FM, 100.3, said he’s routinely reminding fans about the difficulty of making the playoffs but understands the frustration they feel when the Pelicans knock off a championship contender one night and then fall apart the next.
“It’s all about expectations, right?” Alexander said.
While the dissatisfaction is easy to spot, it can also be seen as a positive step for the franchise, which has gained significant visibility in the past two years thanks to Davis’ emergence and the team’s locally driven re-branding.
It’s bred a more sophisticated NBA fan as well, according to Alexander and Kattengell, who said each of their shows present a distinctly smarter basketball forum than even two years ago.
“I can do a three-hour show where I can barely mention the Saints now, and 80 to 90 percent of the calls are Pelicans calls,” Kattengell said. “It’s not just generic stuff about who is good and who is bad, but people are really getting into the play-calling and rotations, which shows it’s more than just reading a box score.”
In the end, no matter how much hand-wringing takes place by the fans, Williams and the Pelicans say they’re blocking it out and still pushing as hard as ever to reach the postseason. If accomplished, expect a very different discussion over the airwaves and on the internet.
“You’ve got just play it out,” Williams said. “That’s part of coaching. You can’t stop and listen to all of the stuff going on. You have to play it out and we can make a run in the second half and put ourselves in a great position. That’s what we work for every day.”