Less than a month into the season, the Pelicans are already talking like a team on the brink, and coach Alvin Gentry is running out of patience. After Sunday's loss to the Knicks, Gentry identified the team's rebounding and communication on defense as areas of improvement, before issuing a challenge to his team. "We're the only ones that can dig us out of this," Gentry said. "We don't have any excuses. We can play hard and compete, and if it works out, then fine. If it doesn't work out, then that's fine too. But we're not doing that. We're not competing at the highest level we can."
Early into a season filled with optimism, the Pelicans sit at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 1-10 record. Injuries have contributed to the team's slow start. On opening night against the Warriors, the Pelicans' starting five included Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Perkins is out three months with a pectoral injury. Robinson was waived after two games. Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter are both out with knee injuries, with Evans not expected to return until December. Norris Cole has a high ankle sprain with no timetable for return. The Pelicans have been so ravaged by injuries they were granted a hardship exemption and used it to bring back Jimmer Fredette last Monday.
"We can whine and mope around," Gentry said prior to this past Friday's loss to Toronto. "But I'm not sure what that would do for us."
There are a few hopeful signs. Omer Asik finally made his debut last week after missing time with a calf injury. Jrue Holiday is also back but is on a minutes restriction, and Anthony Davis missed two games with a right hip contusion before returning on Sunday in New York, where he finished with 36 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks while shooting 14-for-26 from the field and making two of his four three-point attempts. Even as the Pelicans struggle, Davis continues to be dominant whenever he's on the floor. On the season, the 22-year-old is averaging 25.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
Against the Knicks, Davis contained rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis, drew the assignment of guarding Carmelo Anthony at times, was dominant on the offensive end and was running the floor, hitting corner threes. After the loss, Davis was visibly frustrated in the Pelicans locker room, with a towel draped over his face, staring solemnly into the distance for several minutes, before asking a team employee for a pair of scissors to remove the ice packs on his legs so he could head for the showers. His mood remained unchanged when he spoke to reporters.
"It feels great to be back but that doesn't mean anything," Davis said. "We still lost."
His teammates were equally perturbed. "It's the same tale," said Eric Gordon, the only starter to have appeared in every game this season. The players feel like they're close, on both ends of the floor, but even in mid-November, this feels like a team running out of time.
The Pelicans secured the eighth seed on the final night of the season last year, beating the Spurs at home to beat out the Thunder on a tiebreaker. Meanwhile, the last team with a start similar to the Pelicans this year and make the playoffs were the 2004-05 Chicago Bulls, who finished with 47 wins after an 0-9 start. To match their win total from last season, the Pelicans will need to finish 44-28. In the West, the schedule can be relentless, and staying healthy remains a day-to-day challenge for this team. On Tuesday, Davis left in the first quarter against the Nuggets with a shoulder injury and did not return. The Pelicans will face the Thunder and Spurs this week.
The Pelicans are built for beyond this season, in a sense. Davis signed a five-year, $145 million extension this summer, giving the team a bonafide franchise player for the foreseeable future. The supporting cast, even when healthy, is not good enough to make this New Orleans team a title contender in the West, which begs the question: Given the team's slow start, would the Pelicans be better off having a write-off season that would allow them to select in the lottery and potentially add another star to the mix to pair with Davis?
Gordon and Ryan Anderson are free agents next summer, while Evans and Holiday -- who are on contracts that are at worst manageable once the cap shoots up this offseason -- have deals that expire after the 2016-17 season. There's wiggle room for the Pelicans to shake up their roster around Davis, a possibility general manager Dell Demps would be wise to explore if the playoffs are out of reach for this Pelicans team. Again, it's early, but finishing out of the top eight in the West would be disappointing, but perhaps not the worst-case scenario for this team in the long-term.
Still, if the season is to be salvaged, improvement will have to come on both ends of the floor. The Pelicans were a top-ten offensive team last season, but ranked near the bottom on defense. In the first ten games this season, the defense has regressed further, allowing a league worst 108.9 points per 100 possessions. On Tuesday, the Pelicans allowed 115 points in a home defeat to the Nuggets. Meanwhile, Gentry's emphasis on getting the team to play more up-tempo has worked. Per NBA.com, the Pelicans are one of the top teams in the league in pace, averaging 100.1 possessions per game, a dramatic increase from last season when, by the same metric, they were the fourth slowest team in the league. But playing faster doesn't mean playing smarter, a point not lost on Gentry.
"We have to move the ball," he said. "When we decide to do it on our own, we're going to struggle."
Added Davis, "We have to play desperate. I think we'll figure it out."
They'll need to, and soon. Halfway through November, the clock is already ticking.