Beyond all of the hype, drama and headlines circulating around Anthony Davis’ future, the New Orleans Pelicans have a larger problem on their hands.
They can’t win.
And, more dispiriting, they can’t close out a game.
The Pelicans are the worst clutch team in the NBA, tallying a putrid 5-11 record in games that are within five points in the final five minutes. In these scenarios, they’re outscored by an astounding 28.6 points per 100 possessions, the worst net rating.
“I think our big problem right now is that we can’t seem to close games,” coach Alvin Gentry said. "We play even or we play a little bit ahead, but come crunch time we’ve got to be able to make shots. We’ve got to be able to come up with stops. We’ve got to be able to make free throws.
“For some reason we haven’t been able to do that this year very often, so that’s why if you look at the (overall) point differential, it’s not very much at all, but we put ourselves in a position where we just cannot close games. We’ve got to do a better job of closing out games.”
It’s a stark contrast to last year’s Pelicans, who rode the two-man games of Davis and Jrue Holiday to routine crunch-time success. New Orleans led the NBA in clutch wins last year (30-20 record) by controlling the pick-and-roll at both ends when the game slowed down in the final minutes.
It’s all withered away, though.
And this week has been particularly troubling.
Friday night’s 112-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers was not only the Pelicans’ third straight defeat, it was the latest chapter in a string of late-game moments marked by shrinking away from the stage at the worst possible time. On this occasion, New Orleans pulled a double-digit deficit down to 101-98 in the final seven minutes, before quickly allowing the Lakers’ lead to balloon back to 11.
In Milwaukee on Wednesday, New Orleans held a 107-106 lead with less than six minutes left. From then on, the Bucks outscored the Pelicans 17-9 to cruise toward a win.
“We’re just not closing games,” Anthony Davis said after Friday’s loss. “We had a lot of open looks tonight and missed them. Actually, in our last three losses we had a lot of open looks and just not making them. I know we still have guys out. I think when we’re healthy, we’re a much better team.
“You know, we haven’t had a chance to play with our full lineup since our first four games. It’s tough. Guys are playing a lot of minutes who usually don’t play a lot of minutes, so it’s a lot on them.”
When asked to diagnose the issue, Gentry couldn’t pinpoint an answer. So, he’ll keep searching for a solution on Sunday, when the Pelicans tip off against the Kings in Sacramento at 5 p.m.
Considering New Orleans currently finds itself in 13th place in the rugged Western Conference and 5-10 over the past 15 games, there’s urgency to get the problem corrected quickly.
First, though, they need to decipher exactly what the late-game issue is.
“I’m not sure right now,” Gentry said. "I have to look at this again and really observe and figure it out. We're getting good shots. We’ve got to make them, obviously. We can’t have blown defensive assignments, not in the last two or three minutes of the game.
“We’ve got to have some of the bounces bounce our way. We’ve got a ball down there, we’ve got three people down there, LeBron (James) comes up with it and he ends up getting fouled. Those are the kind of things that I think some kind of way we have to eliminate.”