Ted Lewis: Better may not be enough to get Pelicans in playoffs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Layne Murdoch Jr. photographs Pierre the Pelican for NBA photos at Pelicans Media Day in Metairie, La. Monday, Sept. 29, 2014.

Monty Williams could feel fortunate Monday. He was occupying only the second hottest coaching seat on Airline Drive.

Make that the third hottest if you count Rob Ryan.

While Sean Payton was trying to explain why his supposedly Super Bowl-bound Saints were the most under-delivering team in the NFL this season, Williams was able to express confidence that his Pelicans have a chance to compete for a playoff berth, and his immediate boss was saying that just coming close might be good enough.

The Saints and Pelicans may have the same ownership, but at this stage, decidedly different standards of success.

“We want to make the playoffs; no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Pelicans General Manager Del Demps said during the team’s media day Monday, which just happened to coincide with Payton’s Cowboys postmortem. “But I don’t want to sit here and say the season’s a complete failure if we don’t.”

So there.

“Close, but no cigar in ’15!”

Yeah, that’ll inspire fans and sell tickets.

Which is what the folks in charge of the Pelicans business operations are urgently trying to do.

Team President Dennis Lauscha, who holds the same title with the Saints, recently told the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce about the need to build enthusiasm for the Pelicans to the level of the Saints.

“We have the most avid fans in the NFL,” he said. “We have to have the same thing with the Pelicans.”

Putting a better team on the court, Lauscha went on to say, was obviously the best way to do that.

That sounds like marching orders from Tom Benson: “Win now.”

Of course, that was the message last year. But an unbelievable run of injuries destroyed any postseason aspirations.

The final record of 34-48 marked the third straight losing season for Williams after his first team, featuring Chris Paul and David West, went 46-36, and was eliminated in the first round of the 2011 playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Since then, the Pelicans are 82-148, and Williams, who is tied with Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau as the league’s fifth-longest-tenured coach with the same team, is last in winning percentage (.410) among the eight current coaches who have been with their teams for at least three seasons.

Of that group, only Dwane Casey of Toronto also has a losing record, and his team made the playoffs last year. So did Golden State, but that didn’t keep Mark Jackson from being shown the door.

“I’m very appreciative,” Williams said Monday, acknowledging his situation. “I certainly don’t take it for granted.

“There’s been a lot of stuff you can’t control, and it’s not like we planned to have all of the stuff happen to us the last three years. That’s just sports.”

It is.

Another part of sports is that it’s a new season. And by all indications, the Pelicans will be better.

Going into his third season, Anthony Davis has fulfilled the hopes of the Pelicans when they made him the No. 1 player in the 2012 draft. ESPN recently rated him the sixth-best player in the league.

He’s a superstar who’s only getting better.

The rest of team’s core — guards Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, and forward Ryan Anderson — also returns. And with the unfortunate exception of Evans, at least they’re starting out healthy.

Plus, center Omer Asik, acquired in exchange for next year’s first-round draft pick, is being looked on as the defensive-minded, rebound-grabbing, rim-protecting, floor-spreading addition that was sorely lacking last season.

All of the above mentioned players are in their primes. Asik is the oldest of the group at 28.

That’s a solid scenario for success — except for one thing.

Demps was only being realistic when he said the Pelicans can be improved but still fall short of the playoffs. They have the misfortune of being in the Western Conference in which it took 49 victories last season, 15 more than the Pelicans had, to squeeze in as the eighth seed.

Three other West teams — Phoenix, Minnesota and Denver — won more games than the Pelicans but didn’t make the playoffs either.

There’s no reason to think anyone in the West, from league champion San Antonio on down, will decline. In fact, it might take more than 50 victories get in.

“We wanted to win last year, just like we did the year before,” Demps said. “But in the West, it’s very tough. So we’ll see.”

Another ringing endorsement.

But there are reasons to believe that Williams is more solid footing than his situation might indicate.

For one thing, he is well-liked by management from Benson on down, maybe more, if what you hear is correct, than Demps.

He has a close relationship with Davis, one made even stronger by their spending time together on the U.S. team in the recently-concluded FIBA World Cup in which Williams was an assistant coach.

“Our relationship has definitely grown,” Davis said Monday. “I can talk to him about anything, and he can come to me about anything inside or outside of basketball.

“We have that relationship in the gym as well, but sometimes you’ve got to get away from basketball to really get to know each other.”

In an era when accommodating a superstar is the model for success (with the exception of San Antonio), that’s good for a job security.

Also, Williams appears to be growing as a coach.

He talked during the offseason about loosening the reins on the offense.

And Monday, Williams spoke about how being part of the national team’s coaching staff — he will be an assistant on the 2016 Olympics team — has improved him as a coach.

“Just being around different styles, talking to different players, it just rubs off on you,” he said. “Any time you’re in an atmosphere like that where the practices and the games are a high, high intensity level, you just get better.

“I was more confident coming out of film sessions, practices and games just hearing what the other players and coaches said about me and the way we operate here. That affirmed some of the things we do well, but it also gave me the opportunity to get better in the areas we need to improve.”

Of course, a poor start to the season, whether injury-aided or not, and a half-empty Smoothie King Center could still result in a quick hook for Williams, especially if nerves are frayed over on the football side of operations.

But on Monday, at least, he wasn’t being asked what he was thinking about with that fake punt.