Thursday April 9th, 2015

With just a week remaining until the NBA's regular season is put to bed, the Western Conference lies in a knotted mess. The Grizzlies and Rockets—currently the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds—have identical records and an order currently settled by the third procedural tiebreaker. San Antonio, winners of nine straight, could finish anywhere between second and sixth. Somewhere in the mix will be Portland, which can fall no lower than fourth regardless of its record thanks to its status as a division winner.

No matchup is set in stone—not even the opponent of the top-seeded Warriors, who clinched position at the head of the Western Conference earlier this week. For that we can blame the Pelicans. New Orleans has withstood runs by Oklahoma City and Phoenix (the latter now mathematically eliminated) and lost a combined 93 games to the injury of four core players (Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon), all the while making modest gains in the standings. This team has every reason to be firmly in the lottery given its rotten luck. Instead, the Pelicans currently occupy the West's final playoff spot by way of their head-to-head tiebreaker with the Thunder.

It's natural to credit Davis, who has been as spectacular this season as any player in the league. But should the Pelicans make the postseason cut, they'll do so based on the startling competence of the team's other components. A six-game stretch without Davis spanning February and March may have saved New Orleans' season. In it, those other Pelicans stop-gapped and duct-taped their way to a 5-1 record. Every inch of that stretch now matters, leaving the fate of the West's final playoff spot—​whether the Thunder players realize it or not—with the likes of Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, and Omer Asik

Evans, in particular, has been nothing short of essential. New Orleans is not a team loaded with talent. It has a clear, self-evident superstar at its roster's apex and modest, near-stars surrounding him. Beyond that, the Pelicans have scrapped throughout the year to make the ends of the rotation meet. That would not have been remotely possible were Evans, who began the year starting at small forward, any less an appositional oddity—a wing player fully capable of taking over as point guard once a stress reaction in Holiday's right leg removed him from the lineup.

We are now well into month three of Evans' term at point guard and the Pelicans have gone 23-17 since. This is easily his best passing season on record. Evans still has his moments of self-assured over-dribbling, but by and large he's keeping his head up and moving the ball along its course. Since adjusting mentally to the responsibilities of running point, Evans has more consistently found teammates sliding along the baseline or down the lane opposite his drives. That's critical considering that New Orleans has little alternative but to put the ball in his hands. 

For as irreplaceable as Davis is, the Pelicans have seen a frighteningly similar drop-off since the All-Star break (net 7.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to a difference of 6.4 points for Davis) whenever Evans exits the game. This is more a representation of replacement than absolute value; New Orleans doesn't have a single player capable of maintaining a steady offense beyond Evans, making him the only ball handler standing between the Holiday-less Pelicans and doomed execution.

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Evans doesn't just keep the Pelicans flowing—he keeps them afloat. His use in this particular dosage is still provisional, though over the last few months Evans has earned some benefit of the doubt in the way his drives can contribute to a winning offense. Again he ranks near the top of the league in drives per game, as was the case last season. The difference is that since the break, Evans is creating more for others while posting a true shooting percentage of 53.5%. That mark ranks in the neighborhood of Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Victor Oladipo, and John Wall's season-long numbers. The common thread between those five should be obvious; for a ball-dominant player of questionable shooting range, Evans is about as efficient as can be reasonably expected.

Evans also offers a needed access point for Eric Gordon's personal renaissance. Gordon had slumped, limped, and pouted his way through the better part of his three previous seasons in New Orleans. Playing off of Evans and Davis, though, has allowed Gordon the chance to rekindle his long-range shooting. Only Kyle Korver has converted a higher percentage of his threes among qualified players this season, and like Korver, almost all of Gordon's long-range shots are assisted. Evans is the primary benefactor. With Evans on the court, Gordon's rate of threes attempted per 36 minutes jumps from 4.4 to 7.1. It's a simple causality at the root of effective chemistry.

Their connection works because of Gordon's commitment to moving without the ball. There are effective Pelicans lineups in which Gordon is the only three-point threat on the floor, buoyed by the team's designs for that precious spacing resource. Were Gordon to park on the wing and spot-up, New Orleans would be far too easily solvable. Shifting Gordon around through cuts and curls keeps a set fresh through play development, which either occupies defenders or springs Gordon free. Both are effective, though only to a point. If an opposing defense can chase Gordon off the line, he's proven soberingly incapable of converting his counter runners and drives on any kind of regular basis.

Together with Pondexter (shooting 45.5 percent from three since joining the Pelicans), Gordon has solidified New Orleans as one of the most accurate three-point shooting teams in the league. The latter was acquired at flea market pricing: For the ridiculously low cost of Austin Rivers and Russ Smith, the Pelicans acquired a small forward to round out their new starting lineup and balance the floor on both ends. It's not that Pondexter is an especially effective defender, per se, but he's long and mobile enough to allow greater freedom in the Pelicans' cross-matching. Evans is never a safe bet on defense, yet he will theoretically match up against explosive, skilled players most every night in his new position. Sometimes the defensive responsibility slides to Gordon instead, but it's not uncommon to see Pondexter check opposing point guards in Evans' stead—as he did Stephen Curry on Tuesday.

He isn't spectacular in that role, but to accomplish the goals of New Orleans' season he doesn't have to be. All that's necessary is that he, Gordon, Evans, Dante Cunningham, and Norris Cole somehow find a way to keep things reasonable defensively. So far they've brought that aim to pass: The Pelicans' overall defense has been a few ticks sharper since the All-Star break, a development that has pushed New Orleans into the top 10 in net rating during that same span.

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This is not yet a good defensive team, even with Davis flying around to end any shot in his reach. There are still too many kinks in the choreography and too many small advantages surrendered. Players like Pondexter and Cunningham are only sufficient, after all. Neither would be any team's choice of a first-option perimeter defender, and yet the Pelicans' circumstances have pushed both into that role at times.

Davis does what he can to cover the gaps, as does Asik. When both are on the floor together, the Pelicans at least have the size and length in place to seize the interior. That space is precious. Through its denial Davis and Asik can make the trials of their perimeter counterparts more manageable, pushing toward the right kind of winning balance. The trick is the offense. New Orleans has been able to piece together starting lineups that can account for the fact that Asik is an offensive irrelevant, though overall his presence on that end is still a considerable detriment. 

Lately, though, New Orleans has managed to bump its scoring with both Davis and Asik on the floor by about three points per 100 possessions. They've made it work through the permutations—those non-starting lineups that add in other non-scorers of limited creative faculties.

It's questionable whether that holds against New Orleans' remaining regular season opponents. Unsurprisingly, Western Conference playoff teams have been able to exploit Asik by helping away from him just enough in their coverage to obstruct an opponent's rhythm without risking a quick catch-and-dunk. Any slight disruption will do: a tip on the pass, a swipe at the catch, a contest on the shot, or even hanging out in the general vicinity. Asik just isn't a player that opposing defenses need to respect, and many of the West's better teams have figured out how to manipulate that fact into significant margins.

Two of those teams (San Antonio and Phoenix) await New Orleans on the home stretch. As is the case in a broader sense, the Pelicans don't need to find contending-level solutions to all of their current issues. They aren't there; this team will need to sort itself out in the long term, both in how its best players complement one another and in how it can better build up its bench. It's a group that can find the means to unseat the Warriors on one night and lose to the Grizzlies by 36 the next. Yet for now, the season comes down making do and getting by—the minor miracles that have kept the Pelicans alive to this point. New Orleans' last stand comes on the grounds of sufficiency.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

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