There’s refreshing purity to the end of this turbulent New Orleans Pelicans season.
Seeing point guard Elfrid Payton lead a group of three second-round picks (Cheick Diallo, Frank Jackson and Darius Miller) and an undrafted rookie free agent (Kenrich Williams) to an overtime win in Dallas on Monday provided a glimmer of unbridled enthusiasm for the future.
It wasn’t about a trade, or the salary cap, or the climb into the playoffs or even projecting what would make anybody on the roster happy.
For a few minutes, it was just a crazy basketball game, and the Pelicans were ecstatic to win.
It was especially sweet for this group, considering they elaborately blew an even better opportunity for victory two days earlier, when a five-second penalty and technical foul in the last seven seconds squandered a seemingly surefire win against Phoenix.
“It was great (to win), especially with what happened the other day,” Payton said Monday night, after compiling his fifth consecutive triple-double. “To be in a similar situation, as far as a close game and to be able to prevail is huge for those guys.”
Does it matter in the playoff chase? No.
But, nights like Monday at least help salvage some hope from the wreckage of a painful campaign and provide a demonstration of growth in the midst of chaos. And for a franchise searching for something to build upon, that kind of stuff matters.
Because the past six months have been truly bizarre.
In fact, this season’s journey is so unique it resembles a reverse life cycle. There’s a certain “Benjamin Button” quality to it all.
The season’s most serene moment undoubtedly came at its onset, when a 4-0 start was powered by optimism and peace of mind, just as many reach closure and harmony in their final days. It tumbled in the next few months, as sickness and injury piled up, battering the possibilities for a prolonged future in contention and sent the season tumbling toward despair.
Of course, the real body blow occurred when Anthony Davis requested a trade out of town in January, shattering even the opaque possibility of hope for the future. His desire to depart wasn’t the end or the beginning of the season, but it represented a crossed line, ensuring the team would never be the same.
Surprisingly, however, the rest of the roster was catalyzed by the Davis news. In fact, the season’s prime came in the weeks following his announcement, when Jrue Holiday led a plucky group of Pelicans to wins in Houston, Utah and Denver, competing to the buzzer on most nights and gaining the admiration of their fans in the process.
There was a joyousness to Holiday’s competitiveness in the face of oversized odds and supporters who were eager to move past the Davis era embraced it wholeheartedly. It was the Pelicans living their best life (of this season).
However, after Holiday suffered an abdominal strain that will likely cost him the final 15 games, the Pelicans essentially slipped into the developmental stage. And if the Phoenix loss was innocently tumbling down the stairs, beating the Mavericks was taking their first steps.
The Benjamin Button metaphor may be a stretch, but there is a feeling of rebirth in watching these beleaguered Pelicans at least play hard during their final few weeks, despite Davis’ specter still lingering for 20 minutes per game and the obvious existing incentive to tank for a better draft pick.
“All of those things I think are really valuable as far as growing experience,” coach Alvin Gentry said after Monday’s win. “Like I said, great to win the game but we have to look at the bigger picture and the bigger picture is that we’ve got to continue to get our young guys better.”
Ultimately, none of this might matter. What New Orleans receives in exchange for Davis this summer will do more to shape the future of this franchise than anything Jackson, Williams and Diallo can accomplish over the final nine games of the season.
But, there is a dignity in the desire to compete. And even if none of these players will likely headline the team’s future, they represent a fresh approach for the franchise.
After years of chasing overpriced free agents and making splashy trades, this current group is built around developing young players in the hopes of constructing a sustainable roster.
There have been a lot of losses, and several more are likely coming in the remaining few weeks. But, those games are less about the result than nurturing the youth of the roster, which brings us to the natural conclusion of the reverse life cycle, which this bizarre season has somehow become.
“That’s why I love the fact that we remain competitive, although most nights we are missing almost 50 points that we’ve had, that we have to make up,” Gentry said. “We’ve been competitive and these young guys have done a good job trying to make plays down the stretch. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
“Every time we take a shot or a game-winning shot that doesn’t go in, I’m reminded of what Michael Jordan said. He has taken over 9,000 of them and they only remember the ones that you make. You have to have enough confidence to shoot it regardless.”