In the wake of Monday's unveiling of their 82-game schedule, the New Orleans Pelicans can trim their focus down to just a dozen.
The team's first 12 games derailed each of the previous two seasons, crippling playoff hopes before winter even arrived. Those struggles have only amplified the urgency for a steadier start to the 2017-18 season, and now the Pelicans know exactly what they’re up against.
And those critical 12 games will provide another immense challenge.
The New Orleans Pelicans begin their pivotal 2017-18 schedule at the Memphis Grizzlies on Oc…
The Pelicans will play eight of their first 12 games away from New Orleans, embarking on three-game and four-game road trips after making a season-opening trek to the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 18. The home appearances aren’t painless, either: The Pelicans host both NBA Finals participants, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, in their first two games in the Smoothie King Center.
The season is long, but the first 12 games have proved to be a bellwether of late.
Last season, the Pelicans started 2-10. In 2015-16, they were 1-11. Both seasons ended well shy of a playoff berth.
On the other hand, the franchise’s past two postseason teams took advantage of the opening 12 games, starting 11-1 in 2010-11 and 7-5 in 2014-15. No New Orleans team has reached the playoffs without tallying a winning record in its opening dozen.
So, history suggests it’s imperative. And coach Alvin Gentry agrees.
“We just got off to such a slow start the past two years because we had so many guys out with injuries and other things, that we could never fully recover,” Gentry said in June. “We put together enough good stretches, and we beat some quality opponents and playoff teams in those stretches, but right when we would start to put together something, something else would happen and we just couldn’t climb out of it.
“It’s hard to make a move up when you lose so many games early, because your margin of error is so thin and you really need to string together a lot of wins in a row just to get back to even. And we could never really get there.”
While there are disadvantages laid out by the schedule-makers, there is also ample opportunity in the early going. Of the eight road contests in the opening 12 games, only one is against a top-four playoff seed from last season (Toronto on Nov. 9). The two prolonged road trips also include a handful of rebuilding opponents who aren’t projected to make the playoffs, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, are not rebuilding. The franchise has circled this season as a critical year, adding All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins via trade in February and signing former All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo in July.
Those two were added to a core of All-NBA center Anthony Davis and guard Jrue Holiday, who was rewarded with a five-year, $126 million contract extension this offseason.
While that collection of stars gives the Pelicans name recognition, which helped them land six games on ESPN and two on TNT, the time frame is tight and the window to be successful is small. Cousins and Rondo are on expiring contracts, meaning the Pelicans need to show progress this season, or both could leave for teams with better playoff chances.
So, again, the first 12 games are of the utmost importance as the Pelicans attempt to prove, to themselves and to the rest of the league, they are a force to be reckoned with.
“We need to get out to a better start next year; that’s definitely been a problem for us,” Davis said last month. “We were always playing catch-up, and now we know how important it is to start better.”