Nets Pelicans Basketball

New Orleans Pelicans guard Elfrid Payton (4) goes to the basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New Orleans, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) ORG XMIT: LAGH108

It’s not too late.

But, it certainly isn’t too early to worry, either.

The New Orleans Pelicans know their tumultuous December and resulting slide into 14th place in the Western Conference standings isn’t an aberration or a small dip in a long season.

The calendar will turn to 2019 after Monday’s 7 p.m. contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the midway point of the season follows closely thereafter.

In the meantime, the Pelicans might be receiving a year-end bonus on Friday night, when point Elfrid Payton is expected to return to their rotation after missing 30 of the past 31 games due to a sprained ankle and broken finger. New Orleans was 5-1 with Payton available, and 11-20 without him.

But getting him back isn’t an automatic solution.

And simply pointing to how many games remain is no longer a viable argument on its own, because the disappointing 16-21 record they’ve built over the past 11 weeks will make a sizable impact on the Pelicans’ season no matter how they perform in the final 43 games.

“I don’t think anybody has lost faith in we are going to be a good team,” Gentry said. “We are almost 40 games in, though, and it gets to be a little concerning, because you’re very close to being halfway through the season. So, the only saving grace is there hasn’t been anyone in the West who has run off and left and usually at this time there are three or four teams that have really separated themselves from the pack, and that hasn’t happened.

“So, we still have an opportunity to get healthy. And we are going to have to go on a run at some stage to get back into the midst of it.”

Despite sitting in second-to-last place in the West, New Orleans is just 41/2 games removed from the No. 6 spot and just 81/2 back of the No. 1 seed. It’s much tighter than, say, two years ago, when the Pelicans were in 11th place at this time, but were 8 games out of the No. 6 spot and 151/2 removed from the top of the West.

While the position is disappointing to a team who expected to be firmly ensconced in the playoffs, its not entirely deflating.

“No one is going to make me believe we aren’t going to get this turned around,” Gentry said. “We are going to get some guys back healthy and get guys back in the roles they’re comfortable in. And there’s still a lot of basketball left to be played.”

This isn’t new to anyone associated with the Pelicans, who slogged through the first half of last season before reeling off 20 wins in their final 28 games to reach the playoffs.

However, this team has been through too much already to simply shrug it off.

And, after losing five of their past six games, including Friday’s 108-104 loss to the Houston Rockets, the Pelicans are not just playing from behind, but also trending in the wrong direction.

The concern was illuminated when Anthony Davis was asked if there’s a date the Pelicans need to have this turned around by, and he looked backwards.

“That point was six games ago,” Davis said. “We can’t afford to keep losing and digging ourselves a hole. We have to sprinkle some wins in there. We have to win three out of four, or four out of five, or stuff like that, just to get back in it. We aren’t that far behind, but if we keep losing we are going to dig ourselves a hole that’s too deep to get out of.”

It’s a simple problem, with a simple solution. But getting there is difficult.

The Pelicans have lost games in a variety of bizarre and gut-wrenching ways over the past few weeks, getting saddled with the label of the league’s worst crunch-time team.

And the opportunity to reverse course is still sizable, but rapidly shrinking.

“You can look on film and see what we did good to stay in the game,” Davis said after Friday’s loss. “But there are no moral victories. We lost. We are losing a lot. So we have to find a way to get it turned around. We have some games we should win coming up, especially on the road. We need to get our mojo going and get our confidence back on the road as well.”