In the opening game of the season, New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis was sensational, putting up a video game stat line – 50 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, seven steals and four blocks – against the Denver Nuggets. Then, in his second game, Davis had another terrific outing, going for 45 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.
The problem? New Orleans lost both games.
“It would have been more satisfying if we would have won,” Davis told reporters last week after his opening night effort against the Denver Nuggets. “The way I played, I’m gonna have to … probably not [get] 50 every night, but try to get somewhere along those lines every game to give ourselves a chance to win.”
There’s no doubt Davis is one of the league’s dominant players. He’s comfortably among the 10 best players and – given he’s just 23 – he should remain there for years to come. But given what the Pelicans have surrounded him with, will New Orleans be able to become a Western Conference power anytime soon? Or will Davis spend the first several years of his career in the same manner as another long, lanky former high school star from Chicago – Kevin Garnett – posting ridiculous numbers while struggling to carry his team into the playoffs?
Two years ago, it looked like the Pelicans were on the rise. Not only was Davis outstanding, but there were several talented surrounding players either in or entering their prime years – Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Quincy Pondexter and Ryan Anderson. New Orleans won 45 games, made it into the playoffs as the eighth seed and was competitive in all four games of a first-round series sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Then an assistant on that Warriors team, Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry saw the potential New Orleans possessed. So, when the Pelicans chose to move on from Monty Williams after the 2014-15 season, Gentry jumped at the opportunity to take over a team with one of the league’s best players on its roster.
The team Gentry inherited, though, has yet to resemble the team the Warriors battled in that playoff series. Holiday, Evans and Pondexter have all had recurring injury issues, including at the start of this season. Holiday is away from the team while his wife, Lauren, recovers from brain surgery. Evans missed most of last season and Pondexter missed all of it with knee issues, and remain weeks away from playing.
Gordon and Anderson, meanwhile, both left in the summer as free agents, accepting large offers from the Houston Rockets to head a few hours west on Interstate 10 to play for Mike D’Antoni.
All of that has left the Pelicans trying to muddle through the opening weeks of the season with a depleted roster. When healthy, Holiday, Evans and Pondexter could easily be starting, and certainly within New Orleans’s top six players.
“It’s just part of what goes on in this league,” Gentry said. “Obviously I would’ve loved to have them [healthy], because the team we played when I was at Golden State was a very good basketball team, and a young basketball team, really. It was really at that age where you want to be. Most of the guys were between 26 and 29 years old, which is right where you want to be, and unfortunately it just hasn’t worked out that way.”
But even if the Pelicans get healthy, it remains unclear if this roster is capable of providing the kind of support for Davis to become a Western Conference threat anytime soon. With Gordon and Anderson leaving in free agency, the Pelicans bet big on former Indiana Pacer Solomon Hill with a four-year, $48 million contract this summer after an impressive first-round series loss to the Toronto Raptors last spring and gave a four-year, $34 million contract to guard E’Twuan Moore.
The idea was to find some tough, two-way players to give the Pelicans some added heft. Once Holiday and Evans are available, those types of signings will look more palatable. At the moment, though, it’s left Davis with virtually no secondary scoring.
To that end, Lance Stephenson — who wasn’t even on a team on Labor Day, and then signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Pelicans last month — has become a crucial cog in Gentry’s rotation as one of the few shot-creators and potential scorers. Meanwhile, Davis is playing next to a starting center in Omer Asik who is a virtual non-factor on offense, but is signed for another two seasons beyond this one and has a partially guaranteed third as a player option.
With a difficult opening schedule – the Pelicans played the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs on back-to-back nights over the weekend, and have 13 of their first 22 games against playoff teams from last year – New Orleans will be hoping to avoid the same kind of 12-loss death spiral with which they opened last season and never recovered.
Even as Davis is in the first year of the five-year max contract extension he signed last summer, the clock is already ticking in New Orleans to prove this team is capable of winning around one of the league’s most remarkable talents.
“We just have to keep working at it,” Gentry said. “One thing I’ve told the guys is that no one is ever going to feel sorry for you in this league, so you can do one of two things: you can feel sorry for yourself, or you can just go in and compete like crazy and see what happens.”