NEW ORLEANS -- Alvin Gentry has said repeatedly over the past month that he’s never seen anything like the mass of injuries the New Orleans Pelicans have endured this season in 27 years of coaching in the NBA.
They started before the season began, forcing Gentry, in his first season in New Orleans, to start Nate Robinson (waived two days later) and Kendrick Perkins in the Pelicans’ first game. They hit key players, such as Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter (all out for the season), and they hit their replacements.
Bryce Dejean-Jones, an undrafted free agent, signed his first long-term NBA contract on Feb. 19 and was pronounced finished for the season with a broken right wrist exactly one week later. “Welcome to the Pelicans” quickly became a common, macabre refrain.
All told, the Pelicans have lost a combined 229 games to injuries this season and trotted out 34 different starting lineups, the most in the NBA.
“It’s been awful,” Gentry said. “This the most frustrating season I’ve ever been through. It’s frustrating for the players, for the owners, for the management, and for everybody else. We did not anticipate the season going this way.”
Now, with the hopes of the dawn of a new era of New Orleans basketball starting this season buried in a pile of injury updates, they’ve struck the one player the franchise’s future rests squarely on.
Anthony Davis, one of the most accomplished 23-year-olds in NBA history, will miss the remaining 14 games of the season, Gentry announced Sunday afternoon. Davis has a torn labrum in his left shoulder that Gentry says has affected him most of the season and a left knee injury. He will undergo surgery to fix both, according to the team.
“He’s disappointed, he’s very disappointed,” Gentry said. “You know good and well that he loves playing and wants to be good. He feels a huge obligation to try to make this team better, try to get him back to where they were last year -- making the playoffs and stuff like that. We put up all the injuries on the board today, and we got a lot more guys in red than we’ve got in blue, and that’s never a good situation.
“It’s unfortunate to go through this after the momentum that they had last year and getting into the playoffs. The reality of it all is that injuries have decimated our season, and all we can do is continue to play hard and try to regroup.”
Although the Pelicans aren’t eliminated from postseason contention, Gentry’s comments over the past few weeks have basically charted the franchise’s stages of grief over what will wind up as a lost season. Gentry erupted in Houston nearly three weeks ago, saying that the Pelicans are not a playoff team. He expressed regret over the comment a day later but began openly discussing the future two days thereafter, including a declaration that Jrue Holiday, the team’s other foundational piece, would move into the starting lineup.
Shutting Davis down after 61 games played, thus hindering his chances of a $24 million bonus if he were named an All-NBA selection, feels like a worst-case scenario in a season full of disappointments.
But the announcement is less a nail in the coffin and more a necessary first step toward the future.
The sobering reality has been clear for some time. When Gentry went off in Houston, New Orleans’ playoff odds had already sunk below whole numbers. Even as Davis racked up gaudy totals and broke new statistical ground, they often came while a loss was being added to the ledger. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Pelicans had lost nine of their past 11. A surprising 109-105 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, the fourth-best team in the Western Conference, marked their first since Feb. 25 against a team that wasn’t the Sacramento Kings.
Davis, once the shining beacon of hope for small-market teams looking to compete with their metropolitan counterparts, was slowly becoming more of a symbol for wasted youth.
Ending Davis’ season early not only shows an acceptance of the current situation from a franchise that chose to surround him with fully formed 20-somethings rather than high lottery picks, but it puts them in a better position to rebound from the devastation next season, which the team quietly hopes will be the big breakthrough most have been waiting for since the summer.
Davis is the most precious natural resource in any roster construction: a transformative player still on his rookie contract (though the max extension he signed last offseason will kick in next season). Protecting him, even if it means putting him in a suit on the bench 14 games early, should be a top priority.
The next bullet point on that list is surrounding such a player with appropriate help. Taking a player off the court who's worth nearly eight wins to the Pelicans, who currently sport the sixth-worst record (26-43) in the NBA, will only help get to more pingpongs in the draft-lottery hopper.
And while no one in management is publicly rooting for Davis to be left off the All-NBA roster -- Gentry, for instance, reiterated that it’s hard not to place Davis among the 15 best players in the league -- his exclusion would give the front office even more cap space to finally find a worthy runningmate for him and Holiday.
It’s never easy to put your franchise player on the injury list, but in a month replete with loss and indifference, doing so could wind up being a much-needed win.
“When I left Golden State to come here, I thought it was the best job available,” Gentry said. “Of all the jobs out there, if I had an opportunity I still would’ve taken this job.
“It’s been frustrating, but the thing I think as a coach that I’ve got to do is continue to move forward. We’ve got to plan for the future, and I think we’ve got a bright future. We have arguably the best player in the NBA. We have some good pieces and we’re going to add some pieces, and we’re going to move forward.”