Through injuries and trade requests, the New Orleans Pelicans have appeared a markedly different team the past few weeks, missing five of the team’s top six scorers and four of their five starters.
With the Minnesota Timberwolves in town Friday night for a primetime game on ESPN and the trade deadline now a distant memory, the team can start to regroup and potentially make a last-ditch effort to grab a playoff spot, currently sitting 5.5 games outside the eighth seed currently owned by the Los Angeles Clippers.
After potential trades to ship out all-star forward Anthony Davis failed to come to fruition by Thursday afternoon, the front office quickly squashed the idea that the Pelicans would sit Davis for the remainder of the season in order to preserve his health and trade value.
How much he’ll be used consistently is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt with the former No. 1 overall pick on the floor, New Orleans is back to being a version of the dangerous team that made a run to the Western Conference semifinals a year ago.
“Anthony out there gives us the best chance to win,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said. “He’s still going to come out here and play as hard as he can and give all he has, and I feel like he’s shown that ever since he’s been here.
“This is his passion. That’s why Anthony is here, to play basketball. He’s obviously made it known that he won’t sign back, but he still loves the game of basketball, and I know he loves us as players.”
Holiday has continued to downplay the turmoil's effect on the locker room since Davis, through his agent Rich Paul, said publicly back on Jan. 28 that he will not sign a contract extension and requested a trade.
But he also couldn’t deny the benefit of the dust finally settling with 27 games left in the regular season, timed with the return of forward Julius Randle to the lineup in Wednesday’s 125-120 road win over the Bulls and the impending return of E’Twaun Moore, who is questionable for Friday night’s game with a left quad contusion after missing the last five games.
As several starters return to full health, the team will be charged with seamlessly adding two new pieces New Orleans picked up at the traded deadline in deal that sent forward Nikola Mirotic to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Stanley Johnson, the No. 8 overall pick from the 2015 draft, was at the team’s morning shootaround Friday morning after a whirlwind 36 hours. Wednesday morning, news broke of his former team, the Detroit Pistons, sending Johnson to Milwaukee for 2016 first round pick Thon Maker. Nearly 24 hours later, on Thursday morning with Johnson still in Detroit after an evening out to say goodbyes, he awoke to a phone call from current teammate and childhood friend Jahlil Okafor to learn he’d been traded to the Pelicans.
“I think it’s positive. I think you always want to be somewhere that you’re wanted, and I definitely think I’m wanted here,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to get adjusted and get things going on the fly because I want to play and get to know the system and not be too unfamiliar with stuff.
“I always thought the system here, how fast they play, would be beneficial to me as a player because it’s how I want to play as well. I’m excited to get on the floor with the guys, a lot of familiar faces and guys I respect from afar.”
Johnson hinted there’s a chance he could play Friday, but if not, he plans to be on the court for Saturday’s road game at the Memphis Grizzlies. The other Pelicans newcomer included in the trade for Mirotic, Jason Smith, was not yet with the team at Friday morning’s shootaround, and the team confirmed Friday they had waived forward Markieff Morris, who was brought over along with a 2023 second-round pick from the Washington Wizards Wednesday night for small forward Wesley Johnson.
Beyond the big questions directly surrounding Davis – How will the team reincorporate him into their pre-game video montage? Will his jerseys be back up for sale? How many minutes will he play? – the biggest unknown to discover in the coming days is how the trades and the regained health of key players affects the youthful growth the team has seen in players like Okafor and Kenrich Williams.
Okafor, who has started the last nine games after Davis went out with a left finger injury, is averaging nearly 31 minutes a game during the stretch while averaging 17.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game – all more than double his averages for the 2018-19 season. Williams, a rookie from TCU, is averaging nearly 34 minutes, 12.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game over his last five since Moore went down. He had appeared in just 14 games previously this season.
That juggling act will be a test for coach Alvin Gentry for a team that was seemingly forced to play its star player for its final 27 games, knowing they will all but certainly be Davis' last in a Pelicans uniform.
“I think we’re still trying to win,” Holiday said. “Maybe there’s a give and take. Maybe you don’t play him 38 minutes, I don’t know. I’m not the coach.
“If you want to develop guys, I’m sure we can find different slots. They can have some of my minutes. That’s fo sho.”