How much does Elfrid Payton matter?
It's the existential question facing the New Orleans Pelicans right now.
The point guard’s absence has been the only common thread through the Pelicans’ six-game losing streak. So it’s fair to ask how much his sprained ankle altered the team. Remember, the Pelicans opened the season with four straight wins, only to fall into disarray, tumbling to 4-6 overall.
“We miss him a lot,” coach Alvin Gentry said of Payton. “What he does is, it would put Jrue (Holiday) back in his natural position, and it gives us a good player back on the floor who is a defender and made a lot of plays for us. He has the capability of getting to the basket and creating plays for people.
“So, yes. We miss him. We miss him a lot.”
That then begs the question: When will he return?
Payton said he isn’t certain, but he confirmed his lingering ankle problems involve deceleration, landing and cutting.
His recovery been incremental. Payton participated in Tuesday’s practice drills, which left many among the Pelicans optimistic their point guard could return this week.
But Gentry said he doesn’t expect Payton to play when the Pelicans host the Bulls at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Smoothie King Center.
“I think Saturday (against the Phoenix Suns) is a possibility,” Gentry said. “We just have to see. He did stuff for the first time (Tuesday) and it was pretty good, but he would have to come in tomorrow and show a lot more improvements as being able to stop, turn and plant and all of those things.”
Payton landed awkwardly on his right ankle midway through New Orleans’ lopsided loss to the Utah Jazz on Oct. 27, and without him, the once free-flowing and versatile Pelicans have been torched by several Western Conference foes.
On its face, getting MVP candidate Anthony Davis back from an elbow injury to play next to a full-strength Holiday should be enough to tally wins — especially just months removed from reaching the Western Conference semifinals.
So Payton’s outsized effect is somewhat perplexing. The Gretna native was traded to Phoenix for a lowly second-round pick last season and was signed by the Pelicans at nearly the minimum salary this summer.
Why do the Pelicans consider his absence so impactful?
“It’s a lot,” forward Nikola Mirotic said. “It’s offensively and defensively, too. He’s a big-time guy. He can guard. He can rebound. Offensively, he can really read the game. He can penetrate and pass the ball.
“He was a big part of those first four games we won at the beginning of the season. So we just can’t wait to have him back.”
In a limited sample, Payton’s performance supports those claims.
In his four healthy games, Payton not only averaged 14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists, he also helped fill out the Pelicans’ backcourt. His ability to play on the ball allowed Holiday to be more aggressive, rather than the past five games when he committed 21 total turnovers while thrust into the role of lead distributor.
It trickles down from there.
In Monday’s 122-116 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans was outscored 28-12 in points off turnovers, allowing their fast pace to be turned against them. And as the Pelicans recalibrate their rotations without a partnered point guard in the backcourt, they had to redefine their expectations of everyone else.
“I think with Elfrid there, it will alleviate some of the ball-handling responsibilities on (Holiday),” Gentry said. “It will put him back in his best position. You know, he’s our best cutter, and he finds a way to get easy baskets that way. So when Elfrid comes back, I can really see that helping Jrue.”
In the meantime, all Payton can do is rest, rehabilitate and watch.
“For sure, it’s frustrating,” Payton said. “It’s frustrating because I know I can help. I try to help in other ways and tell them what I see out there and learn as much as possible by what’s going on out there, so I can hit the ground rolling when I get back.”