Forgive the Pelicans and their fans if the celebration Saturday night looked like more than a regular-season win should merit.
The 128-115 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers was more than just a good night in a bad season.
It was, in many ways, representative of what the Pelicans envision when they finally move forward from the Anthony Davis era and pound the reset button on the way this franchise thinks, acts and operates.
The win wasn’t about talent. LeBron James and his “young core” of high-round draft picks are certainly more star-studded than a Pelicans group playing without Davis.
However, New Orleans ran the ragged Lakers right off the floor, despite playing on the second half of a back-to-back and with no playoff hopes on the line. Led by Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle, the Pelicans pushed, prodded and pounded Los Angeles for nearly the entire game, holding a double-digit lead throughout the fourth quarter.
Pelicans coach Alvin Genry didn’t shy away from calling this his team’s best performance of a roller-coaster season.
“I just thought we played and competed, and I thought we did a good job with the pace of the game, probably the best we have this year as far as keeping the pace going throughout the whole game,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Really I thought it was one of those total team wins. I think you can take all the guys that were involved in the game in some stage. They did something positive for us.”
And it prints a blueprint for how the Pelicans can recalibrate their roster and rebuild this franchise into a contender.
Unless the lottery balls fall in their favor again, this team and this market isn’t likely to attract another player of Davis’ skills. The three-time all-NBA performer and six-time All-Star is such an obvious talent and overwhelming figure to watch on the court.
But, with a handful of exceptions, his presence on the team didn’t lead to significant success. The franchise needs a roster built on a system, and a team willing to consistently play hard at both ends of the court.
It sounds simple, but it’s not an easy model to execute. It requires pristine scouting, clear-headed coaching and an organizational structure based on clearly defined principles.
It’s something the franchise often lacked when Davis and Dell Demps ran the show.
However, Saturday served as an example of what’s possible.
When Alvin Gentry last talked to the media before the All-Star break, he only wanted to talk to about the guys who played.
And some of the foundational pieces might already be in place, starting with Gentry and Jrue Holiday, who have shined through the rubble of the “dumpster fire” wrought over the past month. Without Davis on the floor, the Pelicans play with determination and pace, defending with vigor and sharing the ball with one another.
Are they perfect? Absolutely not.
The talent deficiency on many nights is too much to overcome, but when Davis missed time because of a finger injury and a team-determined “rest day”, Gentry has gushed about his team’s effort and privately expressed excitement over coaching a group so eager to play together.
"I really just try to come out here and play as hard as I can,” Holiday told Fox Sports New Orleans in his postgame interview. “I play for my teammates. I play for the fans and the city.”
The Pelicans have an extremely long way to go. Before any expectation of contention and franchise-shifting culture can even be discussed, they must first name a new general manager and trade Davis for a sustainable crop of talent.
But, for one night, it at least felt like a first step toward a refresh.
And, yes, of course beating LeBron and the Lakers after the national publicity nightmare they have hoisted on the franchise over the past few weeks made it even sweeter for those within the franchise. So, Pelicans’ fans took a few more minutes than usual to savor the victory.
It’s a cathartic scene so many sports fans in New Orleans have needed in the midst of a tumultuous 2019.
This rebuild will not be easy and it won’t be straightforward. However, there were enough signs on display Saturday night to at least see what hope looks like.
And, at this point, faith in the future is the best gift the Pelicans can ask for.