There are 13 games remaining in this turbulent, chaotic and troubling New Orleans Pelicans season.
If the start of the 2018-19 campaign feels like a long time ago, it’s likely because there have been about five different iterations of Pelicans’ goals since the season tipped off in mid-October.
There’s the 4-0 start, when the team genuinely believed it would be competing for home court in the playoffs. But reality struck fast, leading to a rocky three months, marred by nagging injuries, close losses and mounting frustration as it simply tried to stay in contention.
Of course, the most famous turning point came in January, when Anthony Davis demanded a midseason trade, which the Pelicans declined to make, leaving a limbo period for the end of Davis’ era. At that point, the franchise just hoped to avoid complete disarray, which it accomplished.
Because despite the sideshow element of Davis’ participation, the Pelicans played in a fiercely competitive manner most nights, led by Jrue Holiday’s lauded effort and unprecedented production.
But now? As the season mercifully winds toward its final weeks?
The Pelicans have prioritized focus onto evaluating young players, particularly since Holiday was sidelined for at least a week while recovering from a strained abdominal muscle. It’s pushed undrafted swingman Kenrich Williams into becoming an offensive priority and allowed rookie guard Frank Jackson to play 30 or more minutes in consecutive games.
“I was really proud of Frank,” coach Alvin Gentry said after Sunday’s 128-116 loss in Atlanta in which Jackson scored 23 points in 32 minutes. “I thought this was overall one of the best games that he has played. Forget about the score, but just his overall game. I think the game is really starting to slow down for him, and this is the first time that he has really played competitively in two years. I like what he is doing and the progress that he has made.”
It’s was New Orleans’ third consecutive loss entering Tuesday’s 7 p.m. tipoff against the Milwaukee Bucks, who own the Eastern Conference’s best record. So, this stanza of the season isn’t getting any easier.
And despite all the twists and machinations this bizarre campaign has provided, this version of the Pelicans will probably be the last one seen until the 2019-20 season opens in October with an entirely re-made roster, built by an entirely re-made front office.
Because, oh yeah, in between all of those other shifts, the Pelicans also fired nine-year general manager Dell Demps, handing the interim reins to former consultant Danny Ferry, who has been charged with properly aligning the franchise to prepare for the upcoming transformation.
And the area the Pelicans have the most control over right now is properly evaluating everyone who is currently on their roster.
Not only are they hoping to gauge the progress of young players under contract for next season like Jackson, Williams, Cheick Diallo and Jahlil Okafor, but they’re hoping to build more internal intelligence on a sizable crop of upcoming free agents who might be brought back.
Players like Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Darius Miller and Ian Clark are playing important minutes as the franchise aims to see who should be retained and who should be let go when the offseason makeover commences.
“We want to be competitive,” Ferry said in February. “We want to go out and play hard every night. We also want to learn a lot about our group and the guys who are free agents who we have to make decisions on and we are going to learn about our young guys.”
And the best way to find out isn’t necessarily by just judging stats. It’s about seeing them in competitive late-game situations, something increasingly difficult to get without Holiday or E’Twaun Moore available.
The Pelicans have lost each game by double digits in Holiday’s absence.
So, while losses are helping lottery odds and carry scant negative consequences this late in a non-playoff season, there’s still an impetus to at least play competitively. And that’s a challenge considering the lingering Davis situation and the lack of seasoned talent available at this juncture.
Avoiding blowouts and listless performance is now the priority in this final version of this memorably sour season. It sounds like a low bar, and compared to October it certainly is, but it’s still an important one to clear as this prolonged season inches toward its conclusion.
“We just have to keep playing hard,” Frank Jackson said. “This is a really good opportunity for us and it’s something we need to take advantage of to keep getting better from it.”