By virtually all accounts, the Pelicans are a long shot to return to the postseason after cracking the Western Conference field last season for the first time in the Anthony Davis era. History confirms as much: According to Elias Sports Bureau research, no team that started a season 1-11 has ever made the playoffs.
However, after four straight losses dropped their playoff odds to a mere four percent, the Pelicans played some of their best basketball of the season to win two straight, including a home win on Friday that ended like the team's brass dreamed up years ago: Jrue Holiday, the point guard they chose over building through the draft, serving the ball up to Davis, their franchise player, for a game-winning alley-oop.
New Orleans, with the sixth-worst record in the NBA, still has a better chance of a top-three draft pick (12.1 percent) than it does of making the playoffs (9.4 percent), according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index research. But it's also just four and a half games back of a top-eight spot heading into Sunday's slate, in a conference that only seems to become more muddled as the season continues.
If one wanted to make a case for a historic second-half surge by the Pelicans -- which is what it would take for a team that will be without the services of its best option at small forward for the entire season -- it would include the following:
They're getting healthier -- and better
Count Davis among those no longer willing to use injury woes as an excuse for the Pelicans' current predicament.
"We're not looking for anybody to save us, or for anybody to give us a pat on the back," Davis told ESPN last week, in light of the announcement that Quincy Pondexter would be out for the season.
But a few more healthy bodies have made a clear difference. The Pelicans were 4-13 (.235) through November as they plugged holes left by the absence of, at one point, five key rotation players with waiver-wire pickups such as Nate Robinson, Ish Smith and Jimmer Fredette (who in 3.3 minutes of playing time somehow amassed a minus-80.2 net rating).
Since Tyreke Evans' return on Dec. 1, though, New Orleans is 9-13 and tied with the Utah Jazz for the eighth-best net rating in the West (minus-1.8), per NBA.com/Stats. On its own, a .409 winning percentage wouldn't be good enough for a postseason berth, even among the bevy of have-nots that now make up the West, but it would place the Pels about a game behind eighth-place Utah.
It gets better. Despite an ugly loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pelicans are functioning like a playoff team in January. Since the calender flipped to 2016, the Pels are 3-4 with a net rating (plus-0.6) that ranks 16th-best in the NBA and seventh-best in the West, per NBA.com/Stats. The offense has been spotty at times (100.5 points per 100 possessions, 19th-best), but the defense, long the bane of this season, ranks fifth in the entire league (99.9 per 100 possessions) during that span.
Wash those stats down with large quantities of salt -- the Mavericks, for instance, sat four starters against them and the streaking Clippers were without Blake Griffin; both ended in losses -- but the Pels sat Davis (back contusion) for two of those games and Evans (right knee drained) for another.
Those other West playoff hopefuls don't have to dig themselves out of a such a big ditch, so playing on-par with, say, Sacramento likely won't help much. But the Pels rank 20th in Sunday's BPI, ahead of every current non-playoff team in their conference.
That's important considering ...
The schedule gets easier
The road has thus far been rough for the Pelicans, who have totaled the fourth-most away losses (17) this season. But they have more home games ahead than any other team besides the Cleveland Cavaliers, as noted by Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer, and the Pels play near-.500 ball (8-9) in the friendly confines of the glorious Smoothie King Center.
And after playing the fourth-toughest schedule to date, the upcoming stretch appears particularly favorable: Over their next 10 games, eight are at home, two are (short flights) away, five come against sub.-500 teams and just one comes against a team (San Antonio) with a top-10 record.
There are trades to be made
While leaving the door open for internal solutions, general manager Dell Demps practically hung an open-for-business sign on Friday with his first public comments since the season began.
"When you're in this position," he told the Black and Blue Report podcast, "you've got to look at any and everything."
Whether that means collecting assets for an offseason reboot or making a postseason push remains to be seen, but Demps' comment about the diminishing value of expiring contracts (of which the Pels have two big ones, in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson) and recent scuttlebutt linking them to Rudy Gay would seem to point to the latter, which fits the front office's M.O. in the Davis era.
Gay is an intriguing possibility. His contract ($13.3 million next season, $14.3 million early-termination option the following) would eat into the Pelicans' cap space and his defense (minus-0.61 defensive real plus-minus) and 3-point shooting (31.7 percent) -- two musts now in Nola -- have been inconsistent. But a wing made all the difference last season, and a unit of Evans, Holiday, Gay, Davis and Anderson could function like a Golden State Lite for coach Alvin Gentry, able to switch and run and bomb away.
Despite their struggles, the Pelicans, when healthy, appear to have a solid foundation in place: As noted by SB Nation's The Bird Writes, Holiday, Evans and Davis have a plus-23 net rating in 150 minutes together this season, per NBA.com/Stats, which would rank among the best big threes in the league. There's still the question of sorting out a suspect bench, but finding the right running mates to place around that trio would likely go a long way in a shallow field.
Davis has the look of an All-Star again this season, with per-game averages of 22.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and a 24.38 player efficiency rating, sixth-best in the NBA.
But even that's a relative disappointment considering the high bar he set last season. The 30-mark in PER had been crossed just 17 times in NBA history, and the 30.81 Davis clocked in at in his age-21 season will forever be minted alongside that elite group, located one spot outside of a top 10 that includes only three: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Things figured to only get better after Zapruder footage of Davis hoisting 3s made the rounds this summer, but with an unspectacular 27.6 percentage on almost two shots a contest from beyond the arc, the perimeter game is more of a wrinkle in his still-developing repertoire.
Perhaps as a result to the extra attention to the outside, Davis is shooting less within three feet of the hoop (30.7 percent of 2-pointers) and pulling down fewer offensive rebounds (2.1 per game) than at any point of his career, per Basketball-Reference.
"I don't have to [shoot 3s], but if I'm open, I'm definitely gonna shoot it. That's what Coach wants," Davis said. "I'm not gonna take five or six a game ... unless I'm wide open. But it's not gonna be off the dribble and just pulling up, or step-back 3s or anything like that. I try to stay within my limitations. But at the same time, if we run a play for me to shoot 3s, there's gonna be no hesitation -- I'm gonna put it up."
Indeed, Davis' most frequent and efficient offense comes the less he dribbles or holds the ball, per NBA.com/Stats, and 75.5 percent of his made shots have come off assists (up from 71.5 last season). Which makes the presence of the Pelicans' top two distributors -- Evans, who has missed 18 games with a still-lingering knee issue, and Holiday, who was on a strict minutes limit that included no back-to-backs until recently -- all the more important to his offensive success.
Considering his idea of celebrating Friday's winning slam included hitting the weight room immediately after, Davis seems willing to do his part to get back to rarefied air, too.
"We definitely didn't want to be in this situation," he said last week. "We didn't see ourselves in this situation. But it's basketball -- there's nothing we can do about it now. We just have to try to get back and get some wins going."