- Are the Pelicans a legit playoff team, a sneaky rebuilding candidate, or something in between? The next two weeks should tell us a lot about Boogie, the Brow and the future in New Orleans.
Basketball fans spent the entire summer buzzing and debating about what the West could be this season. The Wolves, Nuggets, Rockets, and Thunder each added All-Stars to their rotation. The Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs, and Warriors returned just about everyone from playoff rosters. Even the teams who lost superstars—the Jazz and Clippers—entered the year with a sneaky kind of curiosity and excitement, because they kept enough talent to give them hope. And then there were the Pelicans.
The Pelicans generated much of the same "6th place or 11th place?" curiosity that came with the Clippers and Jazz, but the excitement surrounding them was different. The buzz was never about what they could be together, but what might happen if they fell apart. Would missing the playoffs trigger a rebuild? If so, where would DeMarcus Cousins end up? How long would they hold onto Anthony Davis?
Now we're six weeks into the NBA season, and there are three developments to report. First, the West isn't quite as loaded as expected. It turns out that superteam chemistry doesn't materialize overnight (Wolves and Thunder), while injuries can short-circuit anyone's best-laid plans (Jazz, Grizzlies, Clippers, Nuggets). It's too early to dismiss any of these teams outright, but there's room for decent teams to survive in the middle of the West.
Second development: The Pelicans are looking pretty decent!
DeMarcus Cousins has been a minor revelation, Anthony Davis has been typically excellent, and they're getting just enough help from everyone else to succeed from night to night. Before a loss in Golden State over the weekend, the Pelicans had won 8 of 12 games. Even after the Warriors loss, New Orleans is sitting at 11–9, seventh place in the West, with plenty of time to overtake wounded competition like the 11–9 Nuggets or the mercurial Wolves at 12–9. Maybe concerns about the future of Cousins and Davis were overblown?
Third development: Perusing the New Orleans schedule, it looks like the next two weeks will go a long way toward answering our Boogie/Brow questions.
The Pelicans play that Wolves team Wednesday night. On Friday, they play the Gobert-less Jazz, a winnable game in one the NBA's tougher environments. Saturday, they travel to Portland to play a Blazers team that's arguably less talented, but currently two games ahead of them in the West. Then, next week, Cousins and Davis get a homestand against the Warriors, Nuggets, Kings, and the suddenly-feisty Sixers.
This is not an easy stretch. There's one likely loss (Warriors), two likely wins (Kings and Jazz), and four games that are complete wild cards. Then, a day after that seven–game stretch, the Pelicans will head to Houston on the second night of a back-to-back to deal with James Harden and the Rockets juggernaut.
If this team is coming off a 5-2 stretch when they head to Houston, that game could be a blockbuster matchup of two of the West's top four teams. Or the Pelicans could struggle the next two weeks—let's say 3-4, bringing them to .500 at 13-13—and on the second night of a back-to-back, Houston could blow them out to punctuate just how far New Orleans is from contending in the West.
There's reason for Pelicans optimism as they approach these tests. The problem in New Orleans the past few years has been a galling, almost-incredible lack of NBA-caliber players around Davis. But that's beginning to change. Cousins alone raises the floor for this team, and when he and Davis are clicking, they are as entertaining and dominant as any duo in the NBA. Davis has an offensive repertoire that's basically impossible to stop, while 2017 Cousins plays like a point guard half the time, bullying his way into the lane or pulling up for threes, and somehow it works.
Beyond those two: Darius Miller has been genuinely helpful as a shooter off the bench, E'Tuan Moore is rock solid playing 30 minutes per night, Jrue Holiday's game has stabilized after some uneven performances early on, and between Jameer Nelson and Rajon Rondo, there's 40 minutes of capable veteran point guard play.
Nothing in that paragraph screams title contender, but it's already more successful than anything New Orleans has had the past two years. Especially given the injuries elsewhere in the West, an average supporting cast should allow Cousins and Davis to carry them to the playoffs. If chemistry improves as the year unfolds, they could emerge as one of the best teams outside that Houston-San Antonio-Golden State mix at the top of the West. We could watch the beginning of that story begin this week.
There's reason for Pelicans skepticism, too. Because when Darius Miller and E'Tuan Moore are the solution, don't you have bigger problems? Six of the last eight Pelicans wins came against the Clippers, Mavericks, Hawks, Bulls (OT), Pacers, and Suns. They did beat the Thunder and Spurs, but in the past three weeks they were blown out by the Nuggets, lost to the Raptors twice, and the Wolves once. Against the NBA's best teams, the Pelicans still might not have enough.
And then we're back to where we were in October. If Cousins, Davis, and E'Tuan Moore can't push New Orleans past a doomed battle for the No. 8 seed, the questions surrounding Cousins and Davis will get even louder. Cousins is due to hit free agency this summer, while Davis will hit free agency in 2020, and together they're the two most talented potential trade targets in the NBA. If they can't contend together in the West, their trade value could at least make a rebuilding process far less daunting.
Nothing will be definitively decided after the next two weeks. Even if the team struggles, we'll still only be 30 or so games into the NBA season. Every team in the league has peaks and valleys over the course of the year. But I can't think of a more interesting team to watch as we move from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The Pelicans have been tough to read so far—their net rating puts them squarely in the middle of the league—and we're about to get some welcomed clarity.