A dozen years ago, Chicago started 0-9. It appeared to be just another awful team in the post-Jordan Era – with another trip to the lottery awaiting at the end of the long tunnel that is an 82-game NBA regular season. But the Baby Bulls (quite miraculously) went 47-26 to finish 2004-05, earning a spot in the playoffs and a 2-0 lead in the first round before ultimately succumbing to the versatile Washington Wizards.
After an 0-8 start for the New Orleans Pelicans, conventional wisdom seemed to suggest that this squad was doomed to suffer through yet another rough season, another campaign with countless folks questioning how long before Anthony Davis is fed up with the losing. In the last 10 days, though, the Pels appear to be putting that notion to rest, beating the Bucks, Celtics, Trail Blazers, and Hornets to improve to 4-10.
Jrue Holiday made his much anticipated and impressive return to action on Friday against a Trail Blazers team seeking to halt a losing streak. Things did not go as planned for Portland, who were playing the second game of a back-to-back and shot below 40 percent from the field. Charlotte struggled as well on Saturday, shooting 41.2 percent from the field (though they did make 15 3’s and 21 free throws) while both teams played on the second night of a back-to-back. Cody Zeller’s absence was also a factor, but still the Pels emerged victorious in overtime.
Despite having not played in a real game since last season prior to Friday, Holiday had an absolutely sensational showing in this his first weekend back with the team. In their two wins against the Trail Blazers and Hornets, Holiday averaged a scintillating 21.5 points (on 54.8 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, and 55.6 percent from the free-throw line) to go with 8.0 assists, 2.0 rebounds, 1.0 steal, and 0.5 blocks in 26.5 minutes per contest.
It’s safe to bet that Holiday’s shooting percentages will come back down to Earth a bit while his free throws will start to find nylon more often. Nevertheless, this is the first time Jrue has been fully healthy to start a season since he was an All-Star during his last year with Philadelphia, so a breakout could be on the horizon for the crafty 26-year-old. Holiday wasn’t asked to cover lead guards much in his first two games back, and he may not spend as much time as he has in the past chasing guys like Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard around, not when Tim Frazier and Langston Galloway are out there with him. That might help him provide more regular contributions on offense, but it shows the versatility of Holiday that you can plug him in on bigger wings like Mo Harkless, Nic Batum, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and then let him cover Walker on the final possession of regulation.
Beyond any individual performances though, the retooled Pelicans are embracing and executing Alvin Gentry’s offense. While it’s still a work in progress, it has been a thing of beauty to watch New Orleans share the basketball lately. Of course, this is what happens when the team’s most notorious ball-stopper (Tyreke Evans) is sidelined and Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are no longer hunting for buckets in a contract year. The truth is the Pelicans have long had too many offensive-minded players who weren’t really moving the ball enough in Gordon, Anderson, and Evans. When Anthony Davis is on your team, I don’t care who you are, you should be ready and willing to pass the ball at every moment. In the time it has taken you to read this far, A.D. could’ve gone for 20-plus points.
Meanwhile, more importantly (since the offense was always at least halfway decent when healthy), the defense was a disaster with that core of players eating up heavy minutes. Besides the ball movement, that’s the most immediately obvious difference in watching this Pelicans club compete. When you look at the roster and realize they added guys like Langston Galloway, Solomon Hill, E’twaun Moore, and Terrence Jones to a core of long defenders (Anthony Davis, Holiday, Dante Cunningham), it’s no surprise that New Orleans leads the league in contested 3’s per game and is third in contested shots and sixth in deflections (16.6) per night, per NBA.com/Stats.
Quincy Pondexter could be close to returning as well. With the offense looking as pass-happy as ever after posting a season-high 31 dimes on Friday and then 27 on Saturday, the question is whether that apparent defensive improvement can hold firm. Right now, I’m fairly optimistic. With a healthy Quincy, the Pelicans would have eight rotation players with wingspans of 6-7 or above who boast the length and agility to cover capably against multiple positions and switch defensively without enabling serious mismatches for opponents. This allows Gentry plenty of room to be creative with his lineups in order to maximize the team’s abilities on both ends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, resident bruiser and starting center Omer Asik and rookie Buddy Hield were the only Pelicans who posted a negative plus-minus on Saturday, while no one ended up in the negative during Friday’s win. Those are the two bugaboos for Gentry, as well as the impending return of Evans, whose style has never fit in Alvin’s system. The return of Tyreke will be a serious challenge for Gentry, especially since the team is getting so much of Tim Frazier, who has been a real bright spot as a playmaking jitterbug and continued to thrive alongside Holiday in the backcourt. Hield hasn’t gotten consistent minutes and it’s because he is getting roasted on defense and failing to do the little things. Rest assured, his missed box out and subsequent squandering of a rebound that seemed to fall right in his lap had something to do with his quick benching on Saturday – it wasn’t the fact that he missed the few good looks he had on offense.
It’s still early, but the playoff picture is starting to take shape out West. The Clippers, Warriors, and Spurs seem likely to race out in front while the Thunder, Grizzlies, Rockets, Lakers, Trail Blazers, and Jazz have been inconsistent but above the rest. Among the bottom six squads in the conference, the Pelicans appear to be the most imminent threat to upset the order in 2016-17. Minnesota, Denver, and Phoenix are still very young and perhaps a year away from truly competing for a playoff berth, the Kings are the Kings, and the Mavericks are falling apart at the seams.
New Orleans has fought through adversity a lot in the Anthony Davis Era. They’ve won together, they’ve lost together. Mostly they’ve lost together. But they’ve tasted some success. In one of those injury-riddled years, Holiday returned for the season finale and gave the Pelicans the boost to beat the Spurs and make the postseason ahead of Oklahoma City. Per Joel Meyers and David Wesley, it just so happens that the last team to start 2-10 and make the playoffs was none other than the Philadelphia 76ers, who were starting a then 20-year-old point guard named Jrue. Can Holiday’s return spark a playoff run for the Pelicans once again? I don’t know. All I’m saying is, there’s clearly a chance.