The New Orleans Pelicans can already set their sights on the NBA lottery. They're 0-6 with one of the league's worst offenses -- a 29th-ranked outfit that becomes even more of a garbage fire whenever Anthony Davis sits on the bench.
On Friday night against the Phoenix Suns, they blew a 5-point lead with one minute left and let 20-year Devin Booker soar for a career-high 38 points. A few days before that, they scored 83 points in a game that went to overtime (!) against a Memphis Grizzlies team that coughed the ball up 17 times. Most importantly, the Pelicans have squandered Davis' historic start.
It's been bad, and despite solid defense, Jrue Holiday, Quincy Pondexter and Tyreke Evans still not on the court and some favorable passing numbers, things may get worse before they get better. Lance Stephenson was a crunch-time ball-handler before he needed groin surgery. They have no presence on the offensive glass, little outside shooting (Buddy Hield can help turn that around … eventually) or individual shot makers. In other words, when your second best all-around player is on a one-year minimum contract (shout out to Terrence Jones) it means Davis' life is a lot harder than it has to be.
New Orleans looks miles away from taking shape. Against the Grizzlies, Alvin Gentry opened things up with Davis at the five -- where he had to guard Marc Gasol on one end and beat back Grit n' Grind's flickering embers on the other -- before starting the third quarter with Omer Asik on the floor. The Pelicans were outscored by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when those two shared the floor last year. In 80 minutes this season, their net rating is already down to -8.5.
Their offense is predictable and antiquated. Down the stretch of Friday night's meltdown against the Suns, the Pelicans posted Moore up on Devin Booker on two straight possessions in which Davis didn't touch the ball once. That'd be inexcusable if this team didn't have such a difficult time feeding their best player in spots on the floor where he can actually do something. Opponents like to front Davis with smaller wings and provide lengthy support from the backside. New Orleans doesn't have enough shooting to keep those help defenders honest.
It's an organization that's still crawling through a dark, depressing haze so thick not even Davis' mass production of highlights that make you sad Vine died can provide much reason for optimism. Heading into this season, New Orleans wasn't a lock to make the playoffs with so many new pieces still learning Alvin Gentry's uptempo system. But it'd be a surprise if it didn't have more than one head coach this season.
So, what's next? From the outside peering in, the Pelicans are in disarray, from ownership down to the training staff. After securing Davis with the top overall pick four years ago, general manager Dell Demps did a terrible job rushing a first rebuild around Davis' budding supremacy. The second rebuild lacks any offensive talent, athleticism or upside. "Win-now" mandates continue to lord over a franchise that badly needs to stop cutting corners.
Even though Davis is under contract for at least three more seasons, the goal is already less about building a stable foundation and more about making sure one of the greatest 23-year-old forces in NBA history doesn't spend his prime elsewhere.
What's the best course of action to prevent Davis from becoming this generation's Kevin Garnett -- a positionally transcendent hurricane whose peak is neutered on teams that can't escape the first round? Where do they go from here?
A few factors work in New Orleans' favor. For starters, pending changes to the new CBA, if the Pelicans let Evans and Holiday walk this summer, they can carve a path to maximum cap space and go shopping in a free agent class that's deep at the point guard position. Yes, this team is terrible and over the past few years most top players have prioritized winning above everything else. But no directionless teams have a magnetic star like Davis on their roster. What if Chris Paul wants to end his career where it started, alongside a younger/better version of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan? What if the Toronto Raptors flame out in the playoffs and Masai Ujiri hesitates to proffer Kyle Lowry with a five-year maximum contract?
These are aging All-Star point guards who at first glance don't line up with Davis' timeline, but both will still be good enough through the first couple years of their next deal to provide some two-way stabilization and locker room influence. If free agency doesn't work out, the Pelicans have their own draft pick, too. They can let Evans go, re-sign Holiday to a tradable contract and then pluck a franchise point guard (Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith) or franchise wing (Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum) to finally establish some forward-looking traction.
On the other hand, Langston Galloway and E'Twaun Moore are smart and scrappy; Solomon Hill and Dante Cunningham are OK and will look more comfortable in reduced roles. But none of these players can temper New Orleans' understandable anxiety. The clock continues to tick; each second more terrifying than the last. Sooner or later, free agency comes for us all. What if he goes home to resurrect the Chicago Bulls? What if the San Antonio Spurs lure him to team up beside Kawhi Leonard as LaMarcus Aldridge's replacement?
What if he demands a trade? It's way too early for New Orleans to consider dealing the big man, but they'll ultimately feel some pressure if this and next year are a total waste. The Pelicans have so far failed to provide any incentive for Davis to stick around, and other NBA teams have likely begun forging their own path to get him on their side.