The first half of the New Orleans Pelicans' season hasn't gone according to plan. In the midst of a trying time for the franchise, what lessons can we take away, and how can we use them to predict the team's future?
A team that entered the year with playoff hopes is now reportedly shopping two of their biggest pieces in Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. The Pelicans are miles away from where they thought they'd be at this point in the season.
Who would've guessed that a team with this much talent would not only miss the playoffs, but begin to fall into the tanking conversation? A combination of injuries and mismatched talent have taken their toll on what should be a competitive team.
Amid all the negatives surrounding the Pelicans, there's a shining light looking to guide the team through the darkness. That light is Anthony Davis.
Davis has been everything the Pelicans hoped he would be when they drafted him No. 1 overall before last season. What they couldn't have expected was for his offensive game to be this good, this soon.
Currently averaging 20.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and three blocks per game, Davis has become a two-way force with few peers in the league. In fact, those numbers are great in a historical sense too. The only players to amass those averages over the course of a season are Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, two tremendous Hall of Fame big men.
Finding a big who can do the things that Anthony Davis can do is usually the hardest part of the team-building process. It's the reason teams consistently gamble on big men, even when they have medical concerns, a la Sam Bowie and Greg Oden. Joel Embiid, expected to be one of next year's top draft picks, has rocketed to the top of mock drafts for that very reason.
So despite the Pelicans sitting at 16-25, dead last in their division, there's a reason to be hopeful. The hardest thing to find is already in their possession.
Plenty of people shrugged off Jrue Holiday's All-Star appearance last year, marginalizing the accomplishment by claiming that he only made it due to the injuries of other guards. True as that assessment may be, he has produced at an equivalent rate for his new team.
At first glance, the counting stats have dipped a bit, with Holiday's scoring dropping from 17.5 to 14.3 points per game and his assists slipping ever so slightly from 8 to 7.9. Not enough to cause concern, but at least something to make note of.
That drop, though, is due to the burden of carrying a sorry Philadelphia team being lifted. As a member of the Pelicans, Holiday is surrounded by a lot more talent (see: Slide No. 1), and thus isn't asked to do as much as he did for the 76ers.
Where the Pelicans are seeing that pay off is in Holiday's shooting splits. He has seen his field goal percentage, three-point accuracy and free-throw numbers all improve this season, at least somewhat due to opposing defenses not being able to key on just him.
Whether he was worth giving up Nerlens Noel and a likely lottery pick for remains to be seen, but the Pelicans can rest easy knowing they have a quality point guard at the helm.
There was a lot of glitz and glam for the Pelicans during the offseason, with major acquisitions in the backcourt being supplemented by the completion of a new practice facility.
Note to GM Dell Demps: Maybe you should have picked up a big man who can play defense, too.
Any way you look at it, the Pelicans have been a train wreck on defense. If you favor raw point totals, the 103 points per game they allow ranks 26th in the NBA. That number probably gives them more credit than they deserve, because the Pelicans play at a slow, deliberate pace under coach Monty Williams.
Defensive rating, used to calculate the amount of points a team gives up in a 100 possession sample, accounts for the Pelicans dragging their feet up and down the floor. The result is a 110.1 rating, good for dead last in the NBA.
Although Davis is an exceptional player defensively, he has little help protecting the paint. When teams are able to pull him away from the basket using pick-and-rolls and stretch bigs, the rim opens up to all comers.
Even Roy Hibbert, one of the league's premier defensive anchors, has a stout David West by his side to help out. Finding a partner who can help Davis flourish on both ends should be at the top of the Pelicans' list of needs.
The good news: Eric Gordon's shooting percentages have normalized after a woeful campaign in 2012-13.
The bad news? Well, just about everything else.
For starters, the guy who once was looked at as a mortal lock to average 20 points per game is struggling to get to 16. While part of that is due to the timeshare he's facing in the backcourt, Gordon simply doesn't have the same juice in his legs these days. Injuries have not completely derailed his career, but they've diminished his ceiling immensely.
That drop off has made swallowing his bloated contract tougher to swallow for Pelicans fans and management. If this was the player we once saw on the Los Angeles Clippers, rewarding him handsomely for his services wouldn't be that big of a deal. But paying $15 million a year to a player who is hovering around a league average PER is maddening.
Had Gordon's career been wiped away by injury, we'd all be lamenting what could have been, but because he's able to carry on in a diminished state, the focus instead turns to how he limits the franchise.
It's the biggest reason why the Pelicans are trying to ship him out of town. Maybe with time, Gordon returns to full strength and becomes the player New Orleans thought they were getting originally. But it's unlikely they're going to wait long enough to find out.
Rather than get bogged down in all the doom and gloom, let's take a moment to remember that the Pelicans have plenty going for them as they push on into the future.
The biggest asset in their corner is youth. All five of Holiday, Evans, Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Davis are 25 or younger, with the latter not able to legally drink until March 11. It stands to reason that each of them will grow into better players, and at the same time, become more accustomed to playing with one another.
Putting playoff expectations on such an inexperienced group was probably a little misguided. Even with all this talent on hand, the Western Conference is excruciatingly tough. Thinking that a group of baby-faced players would immediately challenge for a postseason berth was optimistic to say the least.
That's a good thing. Although several teams—including Kevin Durant and the Thunder—loom large in the West, many of the conference's longest-running superstars are reaching the end of their reign. Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are just a few examples of players in the twilight of their career.
The hope is that this group of young guns in New Orleans will be able to step into the void left by these aging stars. It may be tough to imagine as the team continues to lose and rack up injuries, but taking the long view will save your sanity and leave a glimmer of hope for the days ahead.