New Orleans rattled off nine consecutive victories between the end of the 2017-18 regular season and its sweep of the Trail Blazers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
During that prosperous stretch — Anthony Davis posted a double-double in all but one game, Jrue Holiday dropped a season-high 41 points, newly acquired Nikola Mirotic had his best performances of the campaign and coach Alvin Gentry set himself up for a well-deserved, two-year contract extension.
One offseason later, and, ugh... what happened to the Pelicans?
Things have been far from easy in The Big Easy, where the team’s four-game losing streak and 15-19 record ranks it second-to-last in the Western Conference. Davis reportedly met with LeBron James for a postgame dinner. Mirotic has yet to return to the practice court from a right ankle injury. Starting point guard Elfrid Payton will miss the rest of 2018 before re-establishing a timetable in 2019. Darius Miller — yes, Darius Miller — is starting.
The only way New Orleans can right the ship is by winning, and that it has not done once since Dec. 12. After blowing an 11-point lead and unraveling in the fourth quarter of a demoralizing loss to the Kings on Sunday, the holiday season grew gloomier amidst Gentry’s 4-8 clip in December.
A short-handed rotation is not the only hindrance to the Pelicans’ success, though, as they are arguably the streakiest team in the NBA. They won their first four games. They lost their next six games. They won six of their next seven games. They lost five of their next six games. Then they alternated between wins and losses for seven games before falling another four times in a row heading into Christmas — the day in which many believe to be the true beginning of the season.
Well, it might mark the beginning to the end for NOLA, a team that continues to plummet beneath the stacked Western Conference.
New Orleans has actually improved offensively, rising from the league’s 10th-best offensive rating (109.6) last year to the seventh-best offensive rating (113.1) this year. Julius Randle is averaging a career-high 19.3 points per game and filling the void left by DeMarcus Cousins.
The Pelicans’ have lost some of their defensive production, though, likely because of losing Cousins to the Warriors, Rajon Rondo to the Lakers and Mirotic to the injury report. Their defensive rating has tailed off from 14th-best (108.3) in 2017-18 to 23rd-best (or eighth-worst, 112.2) in 2018-19.
But this does not hang solely on the departures of Cousins and Rondo, who both have spent the campaign rehabbing substantial injuries anyways. Fourteen of New Orleans’ 19 losses this season have been in games decided by 10-or-fewer points, the latest four comprising the entirety of its four-game losing streak.
To take the lack of a "clutch" factor even further — the Pelicans are 5-12 in clutch games (a stat defined by NBA.com), and have a league-worst 83.8 offensive rating over 45 clutch minutes, a mark much lower than their overall 113.1 points scored per 100 possessions. Their minus-30.6 net rating in clutch minutes is dead last, too.
In simpler terms, Gentry and company are not delivering the decisive blow when they need it most. They are falling to the pressure of grinding out a tightly contested affair and playing poorly compared to their numbers in non-clutch scenarios.
From the drama with Davis to the injuries with Mirotic and Payton to the late-game mishaps with just about the whole roster — New Orleans is a mess. Times have changed since the once-promising-team toed the hardwood last postseason.
If the Pelicans are unable to get healthy and consistently perform well when the game is up for grabs, then Davis will find a new home sooner rather than later.