Boiled down to its essence, this New Orleans Pelicans’ season is a beauty contest.
The grand prize is keeping Anthony Davis for the remainder of his prime.
And, right now, they’re just not good enough.
In order to prevent Davis from eschewing a $235 million contract extension and demanding a trade this summer, it’s been universally accepted the Pelicans must show one of the league’s most relished players a legitimate championship vision.
That doesn’t mean toppling Golden State this spring. It means a reasonable, yet challenging, expectation was put in place when this season opened.
Using last season’s momentum as a foothold, the Pelicans should leap into the upper reaches of the Western Conference and stake their claim as a franchise capable of competing with the best in the NBA.
That simply isn’t happening. Instead, the Pelicans are in an all too familiar place.
Focus always gravitates toward the stars.
New Orleans is 15-16. A piddling 12th place in the West.
Its past 11 results almost define mediocrity: Loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-loss.
It’s an identical record to this exact moment last season which came, eerily enough, by alternating results over the previous nine consecutive games.
So, in nearly every way, the Pelicans are right back where they were. And, in some circles, that’s fine.
Last season was successful. The Pelicans rode a pair of strong stretches to a playoff berth, and a stirring trip to the Western Conference semifinals, capturing newfound attention along the way.
But, repeating the 2017-18 season and becoming a rising, plucky underdog isn’t the purpose of this campaign. Instead, it’s about showing Anthony Davis this franchise is serious about competing on a higher plane, rather than fighting for a playoff spot and celebrating a second round exit.
Davis pulled no punches this summer, calling himself the most dominant player in the league. But those accolades won’t come from anyone else without championships or at least championship-contention, something Davis fully understands.
“It's a big part,” Davis told ESPN back in October. “Winning definitely helps everything. It helps with your legacy. It helps to be in the top of that list. So for me — yes, people see everything that I do. But not going forward in the playoffs, or going to the playoffs every three years, doesn't help my case.”
Davis is a two-time MVP finalist, a three-time first-team All-NBA honoree, and a five-time All-Star. He believes he deserves more than the scant playoff success he’s experienced, and so does the rest of the league.
Check in on social media or a myriad of NBA outlets after any Pelicans’ loss and you’re bound to find chatter about how Davis needs a new home. And it’s not just fans.
Media outlets dedicate whole segments to potential trade scenarios and reporting about what the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are stockpiling to send to New Orleans in case Davis opts not to re-sign.
The New Orleans Pelicans remained consistently inconsistent.
While many sources within the Pelicans insist Davis will not be traded this season under any circumstance, the perception is real. And the talk is not going away.
At least not until the Pelicans climb the standings.
And certainly Davis is partially responsible for their underwhelming results. Despite posting Top 10 rankings in points, rebounds, blocks, steals and minutes this season, he simply hasn’t been the NBA’s most dominant player and he isn’t finishing off opponents in clutch situations.
He also has help. Jrue Holiday is a bona-fide star and Julius Randle is dynamic in the low post.
But, that’s not the point.
This isn’t about what Davis, or anyone else, is doing. It’s about how Davis perceives the franchise.
No matter what criticism frustrated fans direct at Davis, everyone agrees it’s best for the Pelicans to retain him.
And at the moment, they’re losing the beauty contest.
The struggle was encapsulated in Monday night’s loss to the mediocre Miami Heat. He didn’t attempt a shot for nearly 15 minutes of the second half, as Miami stuck to a rarely-employed zone defense, used expressly to get the ball out of Davis’ hands.
Coach Alvin Gentry said Davis repeatedly made the right play, but it rarely resulted in points. Instead, New Orleans shot 16-of-44 in the second half, as wide open looks clanked off in every direction.
“Every time he got the ball they ran two guys at him,” Gentry said. “And, once again, AD is not going to force shots. So, he did what he was supposed to do.”
And yet, the team failed. The parable is too obvious to miss.
Nights like this, turn into weeks like this, and become months like this. While the Pelicans believe they’re capable of turning a corner and quickly vaulting into contention — especially when Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic return from injury — every day this stretches on is another day the Pelicans are losing an opportunity to present Davis with a long-term vision.
There are 51 games remaining. It’s plenty of time to pile up wins, safely secure a playoff spot and edge their way back ahead in the sweepstakes of Davis’ mind.
But, the bar of difficulty to do so is getting harder with each passing opportunity.
Because it’s about a vision. And the first 31 games of each of his seven Pelicans seasons has been a slog, and that memory could be indelible, no matter how this season ends.
Hope is not lost, though. A prolonged winning streak or transformational trade can flip perception on its head and perhaps leave Davis hopeful for what’s to come.
For now, though, they’re simply losing the beauty contest.