In a high-stakes season with direction of the franchise wavering, the New Orleans Pelicans' first 20 games, highlighted by an impressive Thanksgiving week, shed much light on this star-laden, but unproven, Pelicans team.
The past week, one of their rockiest of the season on paper, the Pelicans won games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns before Saturday’s 110-95 loss to the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The 3-1 week helped clear up a foggy picture of the Pelicans during this results-driven season.
New Orleans is 11-9 through 20 games and, for the time being, doesn't appear to be an afterthought in the loaded West, especially after wins against West stalwarts in the Spurs and Thunder before routing the lowly Suns on the road Friday.
It’s unclear whether the Pelicans' early winning record is transferrable into a higher volume of success. But New Orleans’ first 20-game sample size is far better than in their previous two pedestrian seasons: 7-13 through 20 games last season and 5-15 in 2015-16.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has avoided a massive obstacle that’s previously derailed the club off the playoff track in years past by winning early. He was asked repeatedly about the subject in the preseason.
“We have to avoid doing what we did last year and falling into a big hole,” Gentry said more than a month ago in October.
Of course, the schedule doesn't get much easier. The Pelicans are home for just one game, Wednesday night against Minnesota, before hitting the road for a back-to-back trip to Utah and Portland on Friday and Saturday. Then they return home to play Golden State for a third time.
That means New Orleans doesn’t gain much from moral victories, Gentry said, so Saturday’s loss didn’t do the Pelicans any good — not this season.
“I think you’re asking me if that’s a moral victory,” Gentry told a reporter after Saturday’s loss to the defending NBA champions, the Pelicans' second competitive loss to the Warriors this season.
There was a theme for the Pelicans throughout their two-day, two-game road trip, as Gentry explained after Friday’s 24-point win at Phoenix and again following Saturday’s loss.
In both wins and losses, the Pelicans articulated and understood where fault lied. The reasons for victory or defeat are often the same, with the result dependent on whether execution is positive or negative.
“I thought we started the game the right way,” Gentry said Saturday, after a loss. "And we were playing the way that you have to play against that team if you’ve got any chance at all of beating them. That’s to have good ball movement, not turn the ball over, good spacing on the floor and good cuts. I thought we did all of that and we did a good job defensively. Then we got away from that.”
Friday, after a win, Gentry said: “I think the best thing was that we started the game the right way. We had a couple of questionable possessions. But I thought, for the most part, we moved the basketball, took advantage of what they gave us and, you know, we managed the turnovers, because it’s gotten us in trouble. All of those were real positive."
It’s evident Gentry, and the Pelicans, know their winning formula: Minimize turnovers, swing the ball around the floor on offense to create cleaner shot attempts and move in synchronization within their offense.
New Orleans is 4-6 when it has 17 or more turnovers and 7-3 when committing fewer than 17. The Pelicans had 17 on Saturday.
“The difference in the game,” Gentry said.