NEW YORK — It’s time to worry about the Pelicans. That was the only conclusion to be drawn on Sunday afternoon, when New Orleans slunk off the floor at Madison Square Garden after suffering the team's ninth loss in its first 10 games of the season. This, despite the return of Anthony Davis, who, after missing the previous two games with a right hip contusion, scored 36 points in 40 minutes. This, despite holding an opponent under 100 points for the first time this season. This, after being outscored 19-0 in second chance points and committing an ugly 18 turnovers.
Said Davis after the defeat, ““It feels great to be back, but it doesn’t mean anything. We still lost. I just want to win. I could have 42 points, two points, one point, zero points, I just want to win. Right now, we’ve still got to find a way to do that.”
The easy answer to New Orleans's struggles: Injuries, and lots of them. Through 10 games the Pelicans have sent out nine different starting lineups. The walking wounded include Tyreke Evans (knee), Quincy Pondexter (knee), Norris Cole (ankle) and Kendrick Perkins (pectoral) and at various points has included Davis and Jrue Holiday. Ish Smith and Toney Douglas were late preseason signees and Jimmer Fredette was plucked from the D-League just days after going No. 2 overall in its draft. All the mixing and matching of the lineups, says Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, has forced players into awkward positions.
“We have had to put guys in positions where they haven’t been comfortable but we’ve had to do that because of the limited players we have available,” Gentry said. “Every guy on the team has been great at trying to do everything we have asked them to do. Until we get our guys back we have to do whatever we have to.”
It’s more than just injuries, though. The Pelicans have been bad defensively. Really bad. Some numbers: New Orleans is No. 30 in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They are No. 29 in opponent field goal percentage (47.4%), No. 29 in defending the three (37.9%) and tied for No. 29 in points allowed in the paint (46.6). Injuries have hurt—Cole and Pondexter are superior on-ball defenders and any absences by Davis removes an elite shot blocker from the lineup—but there is no excuse for a team this talented to be this porous.
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Where do the problems begin? On the ball. The Pelicans have been woefully inept at defending dribble penetration. The team has either not fully grasped the simplified defensive schemes implemented by assistant coach Darren Erman or isn’t fully engaged in executing them. “We’re half a step off on a lot of things and in this league a half a step off means you give up a basket,” Gentry said. “We drill it every day and we work on it every day. I still think we will be a pretty good defensive team. We don’t have to be No. 1 but you have to be in the top half of the league if you’re going to be a good team. I told the guys [that] we tried it the other way in Phoenix, where we were really good offensively and struggled defensively and that’s not a good recipe for being successful in this league. You’re much better off being in the top 10 in both categories rather than being the very best in one rather than the bottom tier in the other one.”
Gentry voiced concern about another ongoing problem: Turnovers, and lots of them, particularly recently. “We had been pretty good at not turning over the ball and we have been turning the ball over a little bit more and when you do that you get teams in the open court,” Gentry said. “The toughest thing to defend in this league is a turnover. We have to take care of that situation too.”
Is it fixable? Some of it. The return of Pondexter and Cole will help, and the Pelicans should adapt to the new defensive system with time. And the schedule—which has been loaded with eight games against last season’s playoff teams, including pairs of games against Golden State and Atlanta—will get easier. Still, even in an 82-game season, New Orleans is dancing near dangerous territory. It’s taken at least 45 wins to get into the playoffs in the West in each of the last three years, including the Pels' 45-win team last season. New Orleans rough start means it likely will have to win 61.1% of its games (44-28) the rest of the way.
The wild card in all this is Holiday. A steady, defensive-minded point guard is less a luxury than a need in the Western Conference, where Stephen Curry gives way to Chris Paul, who is followed by Russell Westbrook, who precedes Mike Conley. At his best—and let’s define ‘12-13, Holiday’s lone All-Star season in Philadelphia, as his best—Holiday can be an impact player. But a leg injury has dogged Holiday since being traded from Philly in 2013, limiting him to 74 games combined the last two seasons. And though he was ready on opening night, Holiday still rarely practices, per league sources, and is on a 20-25 per game minutes restriction. As good as Davis is, a healthy Holiday is arguably just as important for New Orleans's postseason hopes.
Standing a few feet from the Pelicans locker room on Sunday, Gentry tried to strike an optimistic note. Many pegged Gentry as the perfect coach for a young, athletic team, with one scout going so far as to tell SI.com before the season that Gentry’s system alone was worth 4-5 more wins. No one, Gentry included, anticipated this kind of ragged start. Yet Gentry remains resolved that once the Pelicans are at full strength, they will look like the team they were expected to be.
“You can have a pity party for yourself or you can go out and compete and try to figure out a way to win,” Gentry said. “I think these guys have kind of done that. It hasn’t shown up in the win/loss column but I am happy with the effort we played with.”
Curry and Thompson's magic number
Of all the gaudy numbers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have posted in their NBA careers, there is one they will be chasing for a while: 574, or the record for the number of starts by a backcourt duo held by Detroit’s Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Curry and Thompson have 242. Asked if he thought the two could eventually own that mark, Thompson smiled.
“That would be pretty cool,” Thompson said. “It would show that we could both be successful together for a long time. But that’s a long ways away.”
Indeed. Right now it’s easy to imagine Curry and Thompson playing together for more than a decade. Neither seems to have a particularly big ego and Thompson appears comfortable in a secondary role alongside the NBA’s reigning MVP. And winning certainly helps. Still, things can change. In early 2004, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were the centerpieces of a Lakers team that had won championships in three of the last four seasons. A year later O’Neal was gone, traded, in part due to an ongoing feud with Bryant.
|<p><u><strong>NBA backcourt duo</strong></u></p>||<p><u>Years</u></p>||<p><u>Games</u></p>|
Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars (Pistons)
Clyde Drexler/Terry Porter (Blazers)
Magic Johnson/Byron Scott (Lakers)
Kobe Bryant/Derek Fisher (Lakers)
Rolando Blackman/Derek Harper (Mavericks)
Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson (Warriors)
Now no one is comparing Bryant and O’Neal to Thompson and Curry; the massive personalities of the Lakers stars dwarf those of the Warriors duo. Still, Thompson is 25, an All-Star and an NBA champion, with another ring very much within reach. Could he imagine himself wanting to go elsewhere and see what he could accomplish on his own?
“Winning is so much fun, man,” Thompson said. “It’s one thing to put up numbers and be the top guy on a team and it’s another thing to sacrifice and be on the best team in the NBA. I’ll take the latter every time. We have a lot of guys in this locker room who could be franchise players for other teams. That doesn’t matter. At the end of the day people are going to remember championships. That’s what it’s all about.”
Luke Walton was a rookie on that ‘04-’05 Lakers team. The Warriors interim coach got a firsthand look at the disintegration of a dynasty. Could Walton see a similar situation evolve in Golden State?
“It didn’t get bad in L.A. until we lost towards the end,” Walton said. “We started having some internal issues. I don’t see this team having any of those type of issues. There’s no way to tell, obviously. Contract stuff can come up. But that’s not the type of locker room that it looks like. If I were betting, I’d say it won’t happen."
Can Walton see Thompson being satisfied with his role for the long term?
“Klay is a star on our team,” Walton said. “We try to run him off and get him as many shots as we can. He has a green light to shoot whenever he wants. I think he is happy in his role. If I was playing in this team, I wouldn’t go anywhere. This is a fun team to be on. You get out and run, you play defense, this is what you want out of basketball. Hopefully they break that record.”
Five questions: Hornets' Frank Kaminsky
SI.coms caught up with Hornets rookie Frank Kaminsky, who is averaging 3.2 points in 10.2 minutes per game, at shootaround on Tuesday.
Chris Mannix: I saw you getting extra reps behind the three-point line. How much of an adjustment have those few extra feet been?
FK: "It hasn’t been too bad. I’m just a creature of habit. I like to make sure I’m doing as much as I can to make sure they are going in. The only thing that really changes is when you get tired you have to rely on your legs more than you did in college. I noticed that early in training camp. Once your body gets fatigued you have to use your legs more in your shot. For a guy like me, I’m used to using a lot of arms when I shoot. It’s one of the small things you have to adjust to that really makes a big difference."
CM: The NBA what you expected?
FK: "It’s a little bit different than what I expected. I’ve never played seven games in 11 days before. I like it though. I like the constant games and not having to sit around and wait three or four days between games. It’s been fun for me. Defense has been the biggest adjustment. There are a lot of different ways you play defense in the NBA. In college you can get away with sagging off a person or not really helping on one person. In the NBA, you can’t do that. Picking up on the different principles was a little difficult at first, but I’m getting more comfortable with it."
CM: Strange going from the vet playing big minutes to a rookie having to earn them?
FK: "That’s been a tough adjustment. But we have good guys on this team, people that are trying to help me. They don’t ask me to do anything crazy or anything like that. I really like where I’m at. I’m still picking up new things. I’m getting stronger. I weighed in at the combine at 230 [pounds] and now I’m up to 245. I like being up there in weight but at the same time I need to be comfortable with the weight. There were times in college where I got up to a certain number and didn’t feel comfortable so I went down and started all over again. But right now I feel comfortable."
CM: Been hazed much yet?
FK: "I guess if you want to define it as hazing. I’ve had to go out in the cold and walk to places to get people food. Al [Jefferson] likes Potbelly and there are not always a lot of close Potbelly’s. You have to figure out where to go and get it. I’m Al’s rook. It’s an honor to be that. Plus I get to go and get food, too. So I’m not just doing that for him."
CM: You miss anything about college?
FK: "The atmosphere of being on a college campus. You live with all your teammates and all your friends. Here everyone is kind of grown up. They have their own lives and own things going on. College everyone is kind of on the same page. I miss that."
The Fine Fifteen
1. Golden State (11-0):Through the first 10 games, Stephen Curry scored 333 points. The last player to score that many to start a season? Michael Jordan, who scored 338 to open ‘92-93.
2. San Antonio (8-2):Kawhi Leonard has four 20-point games, a 30-point game and is averaging 21.9 points this season. Oh, and he’s a human blanket defensively. That’s an MVP-type of player.
3. Cleveland (8-2): Twenty points, three assists and two rebounds for Mo Williams in a win over the Knicks last week. Averaging 15.6 points on 47.9% shooting on the season. That’s a nice option with Kyrie Irving still working his way back.
4. L.A. Clippers (6-4):Of all the gaudy statistics piling up for Blake Griffin, this one might be the best: The Clips forward is shooting a career-best 43.4% from mid-range this season. You have to guard him out there.
5. Dallas (7-4):A two-point stinker against Philadelphia notwithstanding, the streaking Mavs have received a big boost from ZazaPachulia, who has four double-doubles this season.
6. Oklahoma City (6-5):That OKC would miss Kevin Durant’s scoring is one thing. That the Thunder would give up 100-plus points in back-to-back losses to Boston and Memphis is another. That defense needs some work.
7. Chicago (7-3): New coach, same Bulls. Chicago has been very good defensively (No. 6 in the NBA in defensive efficiency) while a work in progress on offense (No. 24). The good news: Derrick Rose (23 points, six assists in a win over Indiana on Monday) could be starting to come around, if he can stay healthy.
8. Phoenix (6-4):Good offense is nothing new in Phoenix. Good defense? That is. The Suns defensive rating (97.9) is the franchise’s lowest since '02-03.
11. Miami (6-3):That’s four straight 20-plus point games for Chris Bosh, who looks completely recovered from the blood clot that prematurely ended last season.
12. Boston (6-4):Brad Stevens better send Isaiah Thomas back to the bench before he gets too many starts to qualify for the Sixth Man award. If he does, Thomas (20.8 points per game) has that award sewn up.
13. Indiana (6-5): A one-point loss to the Bulls on Monday snapped a three-game winning streak, but Indiana looks more and more comfortable in the new small-ball lineup by the day.
14. Memphis (6-6): Three straight wins over Portland, Minnesota and Oklahoma City seem to have righted the ship in Memphis. But can the Grizzlies get enough perimeter shooting to compete with the best in the west?
Quote of the Week I
“It’s difficult for sure. Just crazy out there. There’s nobody out on the street. It’s scary because my family, my mom, my dad live in Paris. But you can’t be scared of it, just fight through it. I play for the Knicks and have to be professional. It’s a hard time, but we’ll stand strong and keep working.” — Knicks forward Kevin Seraphin, one of 10 French players in the NBA reacting to the horrific events of last weekend in Paris, where 132 people were killed and more than 350 wounded in a terrorist attack. Seraphin shaved Paris into the hair on the back of his head in honor of the besieged city, while at Madison Square Garden the French national anthem was played before the game.
Quote of the Week II
“I’m a big believer [that] winning is the best coach in basketball and losing is the worst coach in basketball.” — Kings coach George Karl. It’s been a strange week in Sacramento, one that started with a team meeting to discuss the Kings' 1-7 start and ended with Sacramento rattling off three-straight wins and DeMarcus Cousins being named the NBA’s Player of the Week. Karl is right: Winning is a cure-all. Win, and all the talk of locker room dysfunction, of a disconnect between Karl and GM VladeDivac, of an unpopular owner fighting a growing group of minority owners desperate to oust him will dissipate. When Cousins and Rajon Rondo—who has shaken off a sluggish start to post five straight 12-plus-assist games—play well, the Kings can compete with many teams. Can they be consistent? We’ll find out.
Tweet of the Week I
You got to love Dirk Nowitzki.
Tweet of the Week II
Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, whose game-winner against Charlotte last week was ruled to have left his hand a fraction of a second after the final buzzer. Regardless, the Knicks look like they have found a player in Porzingis. The long Latvian is averaging 11.4 points this season and, more importantly, looks completely comfortable on the floor. Porzingis is only connecting on 21.9% of his three’s but scouts that have seen his stroke believe that number is going to rise significantly in the years to come. When it does, look out.
14. The Sixers are 0-11 and embark on a six-game road trip after Wednesday’s game against Indiana. Should they lose them all they will return home for a Dec. 5 game against the Lakers with a chance to break the Nets record for the worst start in NBA history.
13. Swung through Memphis last week and had a chance to ask Marc Gasol about his decision to very quietly re-sign with the Grizzlies last summer.
“It was a matter of first, me wanting to be here and believing it was the right thing to do,” Gasol said. “If the answer was no, then it would open up many different options. If the answer was yes, all the other options were automatically out of the picture. 'Yes' felt like the natural thing. Every time we talked about it at home, it just led to talking about what we were doing here, the legacy we created and wanting to see what we are doing finished. I think every conversation always led to that. About how much the city means to me, how much my teammates mean to me, how much this franchise means to me. At the end of the day, I felt responsible for that. There was a lot of attention and a lot of people wanted to talk, but this is where I wanted to be.”
12. Has anyone seen Houston’s defense? The Rockets have given up 100-plus points in every game this season. Worse, a team that looked engaged on that end for most of last season has not looked the least bit interested in playing it the first month of this one.
11. Won’t find a rowdier member of the Ricky Rubio fan club than me, but Minnesota can’t build around a point guard who shoots 20% from three-point range.
10. Interesting to see Yahoo! report that Grizzlies minority owner Steve Kaplan is close to acquiring a 20% minority stake in the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kaplan and former Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien led a group that tried to buy the Atlanta Hawks last spring. Clearly Kaplan is buying into the Wolves with an eye towards gaining a majority stake down the road.
8. One reason Lionel Hollins could survive a brutal season in Brooklyn? Hollins is close with Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, who figures to be a target of the Nets next summer.
7. Golden State has the best point differential in the NBA at +16.3. The next highest? San Antonio at 10.8. Breaking: Golden State is really good.
6. The Magic have a point differential of -0.3, the best of any non-playoff team and better than two (Detroit, Memphis) that are in the playoff field. Orlando lost some heartbreakers early in the season but have won four of the last six and are a team on the rise. Don’t be surprised if the Magic find a way to sneak into the playoffs this season.
5. Draft note: I’m preemptively getting annoyed at the NBA teams that are inevitably going to pass on Providence point guard Kris Dunn because he will be 22 next June. Dunn is an electrifying talent who has all the tools to be a dynamic NBA point guard. But there will be teams more interested in 19-year old projects than a player like Dunn who could step in and play right away.
4. Coming into the season, the Spurs knew they needed Patty Mills to play a big role backing up Tony Parker. So far, so good for Mills, who is averaging 8.1 points on 48.3% shooting, including 42.4% from three, in a career-high 21 minutes per game.
3. The Jazz are good enough without Dante Exum to be a playoff team this season. But man, do I wish we could see how good they could be with Exum, who is out for the year with a torn ACL.
2. Raise your hand if before the season you had Will Barton ranking in the top-five in the NBA in bench scoring. Raise your hand if before the season you even knew who Will Barton was. The Nuggets swingman has been a pleasant surprise coming off Mike Malone’s bench.
1. Appreciate all the support for the SI NBA podcast. We have a good one this week featuring Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap and Knicks beat writer Frank Isola. Check it out on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.