Alvin Gentry might not have expected to talk about a few things Tuesday evening. The 2004 NBA draft surely had to be among of them.
Before Tuesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets, the New Orleans Pelicans coach was asked a variety of things — one being if he remembered that draft.
The year featured some of the final breaths in the modern NBA’s history where the league’s hottest topic circulated around 1) the popularity and craving of two centers and 2) whether to draft an unproven, extraordinary prep talent in Dwight Howard or take a rugged, safer veteran choice in Emeka Okafor.
Since then, no longer are centers the NBA's rarest and most coveted talent. And no longer can a high school super talent leap straight into the NBA.
“I don’t even remember where I was 14 years ago,” Gentry joked in response.
The Orlando Magic took Howard at No. 1. The Charlotte Bobcats snagged Okafor with the next pick. Fast forward 14 years and here we were: the duo battling in the low post after their careers have swerved enough to land them in the Smoothie King Center in 2018.
“Emeka looks good,” Howard said. “I’m really happy to see he’s back. I know it’s been a (while) for him. He’s been battling some injuries and stuff like that, but I’m happy to see him back on the floor. … For me, I’m just extremely happy that he’s healthy and that he’s playing with a lot of confidence this year. “
Howard, an eight-time All-Star, is putting together his best offensive season since 2013-14. Okafor, a 35-year-old journeyman who was four full seasons removed from the NBA because of an injury, has since rejoined New Orleans out of the franchise’s necessity in DeMarcus Cousins’ absence.
Beside Nikola Mirotic and of course playing second fiddle to the excellence of Anthony Davis, Okafor’s role-filling success is gaining growing attraction in the Mirotic-Okafor tandem the Pelicans acquired to clean up from the devastation Cousins’ injury left behind.
New Orleans is 12-7 since Cousins’ Achilles snapped on Jan. 26 with a heft of the 10 wins via its month-long winning streak from February into March.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said Tuesday. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
As an aggressive rim protector, Okafor has refilled the big-bodied presence Cousins maintained. Mirotic replaced Cousins’ ability to stretch the floor with a similar style, one able to sink the 3-ball.
Mirotic’s rangy ability helps the Pelicans play with the same expanded space and blazing pace they used en route to climbing to the fifth seed in a crowded Western Conference postseason race.
To maintain a postseason spot with 15 games remaining, the Pelicans (39-38) must keep winning, continuing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at San Antonio (38-30) — a fellow conference team in the hunt.
"Each game is going to be very important from now until the end," Mirotic said.
In the trade that sent Omer Asik out of town and to Chicago, Mirotic played his first game as a Pelican on Feb. 3. Okafor joined the club two days later — his first NBA stint since 2012-13. Bolstered by Davis' historic February, New Orleans is 9-4 in games the pair has played together.
The Pelicans invested a pair of 10-day contracts into Okafor, whom successfully filled the void well enough, Gentry said, the team elected to sign him for the remainder of the season.
“I mean, he’s been really good,” Gentry said Tuesday. “Obviously, I think he’s a story.”
And Mirotic? He’s settling in, Gentry says. In 16 games with five starts, the 6-foot-10 wing is averaging 14.2 points and 8.0 rebounds in 30.3 minutes per game.
“I think he’s been fine. He’s struggling with his shot some, but I think that’s the case when you join a new team at sometime and you try to find your way.
“He does a lot of other things for us, too. Even when he’s out there, if he’s not shooting the ball well, he creates spacing because they guard him. He does things for other guys if he’s not shooting the ball well. I like his energy and I like the way he competes.”
The New Orleans Pelicans (39-28) take on the San Antonio Spurs (38-30) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at San Antonio's AT&T Center. Here are three things to know:
1. SPURNED THE SPURS
New Orleans is 2-0 against San Antonio this season with a 107-90 win on Nov. 22 and a 121-116 road victory on Feb. 28. In the Pelicans’ February win, New Orleans erased a 15-point second-half deficit. Before the loss, the Spurs were 211-0 in the past 10 years when leading by at least 15 points in the second half at home.
2. 15 TO GO
New Orleans (39-28) is fifth in the crowded Western Conference postseason race with 15 games remaining. The Pelicans are among seven teams with either 28, 29 or 30 losses — all of which are vying for one of six final postseason positions.
3. SLIDE NO MORE
The Pelicans ended a two-game home losing streak with a 119-115 win against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday. The Pelicans are 18-14 at home and are 21-14 on the road.