As Saints coach Sean Payton rode an imaginary dirt bike around an overjoyed locker room, team executives surely toasted the gridiron accomplishments nearby.
But just hours after the Saints commanded the nation’s attention by securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, in front of a captive and raucous Superdome audience, their brother franchise took another step toward crisis in relative silence.
As thousands of Saints fans gathered to dance under the Claiborne overpass, the Pelicans, who share ownership and executives with the Saints, were in the process of blowing a 19-point lead in Sacramento. It was their fourth straight loss.
Three days later, the streak extended to five, losing in Dallas when Anthony Davis’ pair of 3-point attempts rimmed out in the final 30 seconds.
With the Saints deservedly gobbling up so much of the city’s attention, it’s shrouded the monumental decision possibly looming across the street from their facility.
The Pelicans are 15-20, in sole ownership of second-to-last place in the Western Conference. This sample is no longer a blip, and it can’t be explained away by timing, schedules or other short-term issues.
No. This is real. And it’s getting awfully close to a crisis.
These 36 games fully reveal glaring problems for the current state of this team and perhaps the future of the franchise.
To preface any further discussion of the Pelicans’ plight though, keep in mind 46 games remain, and many precedents have been set for climbing out of similar holes. In fact, both New Orleans and Utah were in this position at this time last season, before rallying in the second half and reaching the second round of the playoffs.
Point guard Elfrid Payton (finger) and sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic (ankle) have missed extended time and should fortify the roster upon their return, perhaps providing the catalyst this team so desperately aches for.
But, for now, we must work with the evidence provided in the context of the current state of affairs. And it’s ugly.
The entire 2018-19 campaign was built around the concept of persuading Anthony Davis to sign a five-year, $239 million extension this summer. It required making Davis believe his championship vision could unfold in New Orleans.
The Pelicans wanted to build an image, using last year’s run as a stepping stone, to show him the lofty legacy he yearns to achieve could come to fruition here, despite the small market and scant history of success.
Instead, the Pelicans’ flaws have been exposed, laid bare for the entire league to see and pick at.
On the court, the roster is thin and flawed. Beyond Davis and Jrue Holiday, there are few impact players who can aptly complete their roles on both ends of the court.
When an injury to Payton — who was traded for a second-round pick last year and signed for just $3 million this summer — leaves a gaping, unfillable hole in the team’s rotation, it’s a sign of deeper problems.
And, every day the team fails to gain its footing, the louder the conversation gets surrounding Davis’ future.
While the Pelicans can offer Davis more money than any other suitor, the All-NBA stalwart publicly stated he’s more concerned with legacy than money, an obvious signal to the Pelicans he’s not returning unless he believes it can net him the kind of team success he needs to reach NBA legend status.
It’s very hard to picture that now.
So, what do the Pelicans do? As national media chums the water for potential trades and LeBron James makes public salvos for Davis to join him in Los Angeles, the inflection point is barreling towards the Pelicans.
Based on a variety of sources, the franchise still has no intention of trading Davis this season and hopes to add a piece before the trade deadline to bolster their hopes for a late-season run.
But, considering current circumstances, the odds are Davis will eventually turn down the extension and it will set the Pelicans up to make the most important move in their history.
Dealing Davis could give them an injection of draft picks, young assets and potential. It could even net them a young All-Star.
Ultimately, the Pelicans could dance around this situation in a good position. But, the options need to be evaluated carefully and a misstep could doom them into years of slogging through the NBA’s lower class.
And, as the Saints continue to dominate the local sports landscape, drawing record numbers of local viewers and an outpouring of adoration, how much support can the struggling Pelicans expect to generate?
The dichotomy between the two franchises has never been greater than it is right now.
And to put them on an even plane, it will require deft maneuvering and critical decision making from the people who straddle both sides of the Airline Drive parking lot.
This is a hugely important moment for the Pelicans. And despite the dancing taking place in football locker rooms, the looming doomsday scenario is still hurtling toward them on the basketball court.
There’s still time to fix it. But it can no longer be ignored or treated as an unlikely event.
For now, this is the Pelicans’ reality. And it’s time to make a plan.