Doesn’t this all feel a bit inconsequential?
The games. The standings. The day-to-day existence of this New Orleans Pelicans’ season.
As the window to the postseason winnows ever tighter, the focus of the franchise should be firmly planted on the future. And, of course, the future only goes as far as one question.
What’s going to happen to Anthony Davis?
Three months of losses have built a blockade from even picturing championship contention, making the Pelicans’ chances of getting Davis to sign his five-year, $239 million extension offer this summer increasingly unlikely. Yet, sources familiar with the situation believe the Pelicans are still motivated to do whatever is necessary to maintain even the most remote likelihood he recommits, and give themselves the best opportunity to retain him.
But at what cost?
A week ago, ESPN’s Zach Lowe described the Pelicans as the league’s most eager team to buy a piece at the upcoming Feb. 7 trade deadline, claiming they’re likely to deal their first round pick for the “19th consecutive year.”
Technically, it’s only been six straight drafts. But the point still stands.
Are the Pelicans really going to deal a first-round pick again, just to gain a short-term asset?
Considering New Orleans was blown out 126-114 on Saturday night, falling to a meager 22-28 on the season, tagged with their fifth defeat in their past six games, it will have to flip immediately and then somehow reel off a torrid 25-7 closing run to even match the record of last season’s Western Conference No. 8 seed (Minnesota was 47-35).
That’s right. 25-7.
So it would require finishing this season better than any team in the NBA has started it this year. Does anyone actually think that’s possible?
Perhaps, in a more bunched-up West this year, fewer wins will be needed to eke in the playoffs, but even then, is there any series of deadline trades capable of prompting this team to finish 22-10 based on what they’ve shown?
“I still say, eventually, we’ll be healthy enough and have enough guys that we’re going to make a run at it,” coach Alvin Gentry said before Saturday’s loss. “I really do. I told the guys not to get discouraged, still believe in our team, and I do think that we’re going to become healthy and we’ll be okay. We’ve proven that when we’re healthy, we’re pretty good.”
It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly unlikely. And there’s been scant evidence provided to show it’s a realistic hope.
So, mortgaging any future asset to improve the slim hopes of flipping the switch is downright irresponsible. It’s especially flummoxing when considering a meager playoff berth and likely first-round exit isn’t nearly enough to convince Davis to stay anyway.
So, what’s the point of even doing it?
The Pelicans need to think about what’s coming next and not be overly concerned about the dread coming at them now. It’s just about too late.
There was a chance to improve this roster in the summer. It was clear then they were lacking viable bench options and relying heavily on young players who have never won, like Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle, in the most critical season of Davis’ career.
And it was exposed during the opening few months of the season, when a series of injuries laid their depth bare, displaying a razor thin margin for error.
But, they couldn’t, or didn’t, act. Instead, the Pelicans waited to get healthy and waited out the trade market, hoping the demands for impact players would fall as some teams dipped out of the playoff race.
It just never happened. The Pelicans couldn’t maintain a healthy roster (in line with the franchise’s historical precedent), and all but six teams entered Saturday within five games of the playoff line, leaving a scant list of sellers for the past three months.
Therefore, the roster never improved. Thus, the team still hasn’t improved.
And with the trade deadline barreling toward the Pelicans in 12 days and their position steadily worsening, the scenario is only getting more challenging.
So, what can the Pelicans do?
They can sell some assets for picks, especially upcoming free agents like Randle and Nikola Mirotic, but it likely won’t net much. They can try to move a bad contract like Solomon Hill’s, which might require attaching a pick to it, freeing some salary cap flexibility on this summer’s books.
Most importantly, they can set themselves up for the realistic possibility Davis demands a trade this offseason and arm the franchise with assets capable of quickly rebuilding into a sustainable team, with a deeper, more well-rounded roster, capable of winning in multiple ways and not hinged on a single star.
This is not how anyone expected this season to go, especially after last year’s captivating late-season run and sweep of the Trail Blazers.
“This is not where we anticipated being at all,” Gentry said. “We thought and preferred to be fighting for home court and trying to see to see what we can do there. But, this is the hand that’s been dealt to us.”
Now it’s time to face reality.
And that means recognizing where this current path most likely leads to, and fully preparing for it.
Because, how can the Pelicans sell fans, who can see the writing on the wall, on a long-term vision, if they make a move with the express purpose of saving the remote shot of making playoffs this season?
Perhaps getting Davis and Mirotic back to health this week, and winning against the Rockets, Spurs, Nuggets and Pacers would shed some light on the team’s potential. It could prompt enough optimism to at least see what a blockbuster trade can do.
If not? How can trading a future asset for a current benefit truly help get this franchise to where it needs to be?
Perhaps the Pelicans will prove everyone wrong, and deal their first round pick for a young, sustainable star who can team with Davis perfectly, win at a record rate, and prompt the superstar to stay.
Because anything short of that fantastical scenario is irresponsible.