These days, Elfrid Payton enters the Smoothie King Center with a garment bag draped over his shoulder.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ point guard is confined to a suit and the sidelines while he recovers from a broken left pinkie finger for the next several weeks. And it’s an admittedly frustrating experience.
“For sure,” Payton said Monday night. “It just takes time. That’s the worst part about it. So I’m taking it in stride and trying to be patient. It’s the first time I’ve ever broken a bone. I want to make sure when I’m back I’m still in shape and ready to play.
“But it’s hard to wait and hard to just watch. I want to play.”
Payton isn’t alone. The Pelicans want him back on the court, too.
But his finger isn’t supposed to be fully healed for another five weeks, meaning the Pelicans need to find a solution in the meantime. And recently, the answers have escaped them.
Without Payton, the Pelicans’ spotty ball-handling and inefficient passing has left them exposed to bouts of inconsistency. And it’s partly responsible for the season-long roller coaster they’re experiencing.
And right now, the ride is pointed downward, in the midst of a four-game losing streak their home game against the Washington Wizards at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“We have got to get our identity back,” Alvin Gentry said. “Our identity is that we are a running team that pushes the basketball and plays at a high pace. But, our pace has been dropping almost every single game.
“We have got to get back to being who we are, and that’s getting back to playing at a fast pace with the floor spread. And that creates opportunities for (Anthony Davis) where he’s not double-teamed.”
But to run at full throttle, the Pelicans need playmakers who can harness the speed while limiting mistakes. And that’s a difficult combination to find when Payton is stuck on the sideline.
While Jrue Holiday is tasked with most of the responsibilities, Gentry, Davis and even Holiday himself have made it clear they’d like to move the full onus of distribution off of his shoulders.
“Of course, in my opinion, (Holiday) is better off of the ball,” Davis said at Tuesday’s practice, as Holiday nodded alongside. “So, I think we are going to make some adjustments to that. But we’ll see how it goes.”
Currently, the options are limited. Gentry handed forward Julius Randle some of the playmaking duties, and tried to put backups like Tim Frazier, Ian Clark and Frank Jackson into a distributor role, but nothing has fully clicked yet.
Holiday even jokingly suggested Davis could run the point. Ultimately, an answer has yet to surface.
Looking beyond the current roster, the Pelicans have an open two-way spot. They could sign a younger player to help fill a few minutes of ball-handling per game for now, and then send him to the G League for added development when Payton is able to return.
Or, they could acquire a more seasoned point guard in a trade, but it would require sacrificing limited assets on a potentially short-term need.
Meanwhile, Holiday’s turnover numbers are skyrocketing as his on-ball usage grows. He committed eight in Monday’s loss to Boston, moving him to No. 2 in the NBA in turnovers lost this season (84).
And those mistakes have been a bellwether of the Pelicans’ success this season.
The Pelicans are 4-9 when they commit 15 or more turnovers, and 6-2 when they commit fewer than 15. And Monday’s 22-turnover performance allowed the Celtics to pile up 32 points off them, fueling the blowout.
“I thought the turnovers we had were really simplistic plays we just didn’t make,” Gentry said. “I don’t think we were trying to do anything really difficult or hard, they just played the passing lanes and we made bad decisions.”
It underscores the problem.
It’s not that the Pelicans aren’t playing hard enough. And they aren’t trying to do too much.
In their current state, New Orleans might not be fully equipped to play at a consistent level for a long period of time. Unless they’re able to rein in the errors, move Holiday into his ideal off-ball role and execute more reliably, these types of streaks could be an issue until January.
“I’ll take responsibility for the inconsistency, because I’ve got to get to the point where I find five guys who are going to play with consistency and follow the game plan and do what we need to do,” Gentry said. “That’s on me. And we’ll work at it.
“That’s all we can do. We can work at it. The one thing I do know, is no one is going to feel sorry for us.”