We are about to find out who the New Orleans Pelicans are. And where they’re headed.
A five-game Western Conference road trip begins a 12-game stretch highlighted by matchups against nine teams currently in playoff position. The Pelicans salvaged a dispiriting December by tallying three consecutive wins this week over the lowly Cavaliers (twice) and Grizzlies, but what’s coming next is the make-or-break segment of the season.
It’s not just about the record. It’s primarily the trajectory and the timing.
Not only could a strong performance propel the Pelicans up the standings, it’s a chance to send the front office and ownership a message. Win now, and making a move to improve at the Feb. 7 trade deadline is a reasonable and responsible step to take.
Even if it takes sacrificing a future asset, success against this gauntlet would prompt the Pelicans’ brass to transfix their focus on the present. Despite the disappointing start to the season and the loaded Western Conference towering in front of them, this is the chance to make a statement.
The high hopes ushered in by October’s 4-0 start are not dead yet. They merely lay dormant, waiting to be revived by the next 12 games.
The trade deadline hovers just three days after this stretch concludes, leaving no room for a next impression.
Conversely, if the next three weeks go astray, and the Pelicans tally only a smattering of wins without gaining a foothold in the standings, it is plainly irresponsible for this franchise to deal another first-round draft pick for a short-term gain.
The risk will completely flip. If this roster isn’t capable of toppling a series of heavyweights now, then the Pelicans don’t deserve the immediate upgrade to take a puncher’s chance in the playoffs.
Because even an impactful talent injection would only get them into the postseason, rather press them into the upper echelon.
Whereas if the opposite holds true, the Pelicans flex through the next 12 games and throw themselves back into the thick of the playoff race, they ought to go all in.
Barring a complete disaster, the Pelicans won’t be sellers at the deadline. According to various sources, Anthony Davis isn’t going anywhere during the season, but the lingering specter of him potentially declining a super-max contract extension this summer hangs over everything this franchise does.
This stretch should provide the blueprint.
It could prompt the Pelicans to push their chips in for the chance to acquire another piece and take a grand stab at keeping the generational talent, or it could persuade them to stay conservative, hoarding their assets until they see what comes next with a potential mega-trade in sight.
So much of the franchise’s future hinges on that decision. And the decision hinges on the next three weeks of basketball.
The best news for now? The injury report is lining up right on time, removing any ambiguity and excuses about the results.
Point guard Elfrid Payton is back after missing 31 of 32 games. Nikola Mirotic returned Wednesday after sitting out for 12 games. E’Twaun Moore is expected to play within the next two games after being scratched for consecutive contests.
While there’s seemingly always another body waiting to fall, the Pelicans likely will take to the road for Saturday’s 7 p.m. tip in Minnesota with a healthy roster.
“We’ve never had a chance to see how good we can because we haven’t been healthy,” Davis said. “But when we are healthy, we will be able to see what our team can actually be like. And I think we’ve shown in the past two games and then (Wednesday) with Niko back, what we can be.”
And the Pelicans aren’t backing away from the challenge.
“I’ve been telling everyone that January is our month,” Jrue Holiday said. “We’ve got Niko back. We’ve got EP back. Guys are getting comfortable. This road trip is going to be tough, but it’s going to be fun.”
It’s also going to be crucial.
It’s rare to face such an obvious fulcrum in the span of an 82-game regular season. But the stakes are clear and the calendar is aligned.
“The goal is to win at least three (of the first five games), including this first one at Minnesota,” Mirotic said. “We have to set a tone. We know there’s no more time we can relax. It’s the second half of the season. We need to push. We need to step up. There’s a lot to play for right now.”
But for a team that’s 5-16 away from the Smoothie King Center, and has beaten just one team in playoff position in the past month, it’s an admittedly tall task.
“It is an important road trip, because we have been very terrible on the road,” Davis said. “To keep it real, we suck on the road.”
But this is the position the Pelicans put themselves in.
And the opportunity to change the course of their season, and potentially the franchise’s future, starts on Saturday in Minneapolis and continues until the trade deadline.
“We are in a position now where we have to win games,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We are going to have to, to get back into this race.”