A year ago, the Las Vegas line for the Pelicans’ victory total was 40, a predicted dramatic improvement from the 27 games they had won the previous season. They wound up with 34.
This time, with Anthony Davis being heralded as the game’s emerging superstar, the much-needed addition of center Omer Asik and most importantly the return to full health of those whose injuries derailed the team’s nascent playoff hopes by early January last year, the number has jumped to, get ready — 41½, or 43 if you shop around a bit.
All that good stuff, and they’re just two or three games better than they looked a year ago? Barring NFL-like parity, that means another season out of the playoffs, the fourth in a row for those keeping track.
Except it’s entirely plausible.
While the Pels look better on paper and in person based on their showings in exhibition games, making headway in the Western Conference is about as easy as a visiting team winning on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
It’s not impossible, but you’d better bring your “A” game.
Small wonder then that, back on the day the Pelicans opened preseason camp, General Manager Dell Demps cautioned, “I don’t want to sit here and say the season’s a complete failure if we don’t (make the playoffs).”
But in the intervening weeks, there’s been an internal confidence building that the folks who run the sports books and most others around the league are underestimating the Pelicans.
“I feel really good about where we’re going,” coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve put in a lot of planning for the opportunity to move forward. We feel like we have a chance to compete, just like everyone else does. But it doesn’t happen just because we talk about it.”
For the normally reserved Williams, that’s the equivalent of guaranteeing a championship.
But Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha has noticed the upbeat mood on the basketball side of operations at 5800 Airline Highway.
“They look like they’re having fun over there,” he said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that in quite a while. I think the overall feeling is that we’ve done a lot of good things, we truly have a team of really good guys and we’re going to see the results.”
Williams would do well to hope so.
Since the Chris Paul-led Hornets made the playoffs in 2011, Williams’ first season, the now-Pelicans are 82-148, the worst winning percentage (.410) among the eight current coaches who have been with their teams at least three seasons.
In a league where, unless your last name is Popovich, the coach is always expendable, that’s far beyond the usual warranty. Small wonder any hot seat list has Williams at the top.
Lauscha also would do well to hope his prediction comes true. It’s his job to develop passion among what appears to be an indifferent community, even among those who would consider themselves fans.
How else to explain only 534 showing up for Saturday’s open scrimmage — free basketball! — at the Smoothie King Center?
Or the football analogies to describe the task ahead of the basketball team, the better to put it in language readers might understand?
“This organization has shown that it is serious about building our franchise both on and off the court,” said Lauscha, who added the Pelicans title to his football duties when Tom Benson bought the team in 2012. “It’s been a little hard since the team’s been here, especially when you consider they were in Oklahoma City for two seasons and (later) the league was running the team for a while. But we feel like we’re ready to take a quantum leap in building basketball excitement in this community.”
Certainly the team has made every effort to spruce up the Smoothie King Center, using Benson’s money to establish the Pelicans theme throughout the building — including the foul-lane logos, which are a first in the NBA.
Lauscha is particularly proud of partnering with SMG, which manages the arena along with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and Centerplate, the catering service for both facilities, to provide Disney-based training for the management and staff.
Walk into the SKC’s new team store, and if things aren’t too busy, you’ll be greeted and offered assistance by three people before you’re barely in the door.
But obviously the key to putting people in the seats — and not just having thousands of empties that belie the announced attendance — is winning. And the Pelicans — at least the healthy version starting the season — have the ability to be in the playoff picture come March.
Davis is an MVP-quality player if not this year, very soon. The three-guard lineup of Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday may not be ideal, but at least there’s plenty of firepower among them. Asik is a decided upgrade at center, and the return to health of Ryan Anderson is the X factor.
The rest of the roster doesn’t look as deep as last year’s, but that was the price to pay for Asik. Apart from health, the key to the season — and Williams’ future — could be how the team handles December.
It’s the busiest month of the season with 18 games, including 12 against 2014 playoff teams, and with eight of those on the road, plus the Dec. 12 visit by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Get to New Year’s Day in reasonable shape, and maybe we can talk playoffs. But not to Williams, at least not yet.
“When you think about stuff like that, you turn it into something really small,” he said. “It’s a big deal to make the playoffs. We have the potential to compete to make the playoffs. But right now, it’s not something even to talk about.”
Maybe not you. But we can.
And the view from here is 44-38, a 10-victory improvement from last season but falling just short of the West’s final playoff berth while showing enough for Williams to get another year.
Just don’t take our word and bet on it, though.