Stories to watch in Pelicans’ second half of 2013-14
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
A look at some of the key storylines that bear watching during the post-All-Star break portion of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2013-14 regular season:
1) The continued ascendance of Anthony Davis.
At just 20, Davis has established himself as a bona-fide star; he was already one of the most entertaining players to watch in the NBA as a rookie. Now the key for the first-time All-Star is to keep adding elements to his offensive skill set, which will make him an even more dangerous player. In recent games, he’s brought out an extended right-handed hook shot and displayed improved footwork on plays that free him for mid-range shots or scores around the basket. He was one of the NBA’s best finishers at the rim the day he debuted in the league, but if his game continues to become even more versatile away from the paint, look out.
2) Stiff competition.
If New Orleans (23-29) was a member of the Eastern Conference, the Pelicans would currently be the No. 8 seed and only four games out of homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Actually, if the Pelicans were in the East, they’d probably be in even better position than that, based on getting to play more games on their schedule against the weaker conference. New Orleans has gone 14-7 vs. the East thus far, a .667 winning percentage. The NBA always schedules more intraconference games down the stretch of the season, however, meaning the Pelicans have only nine East matchups remaining of their 30 games. For New Orleans to approach the .500 mark, it will have to be much more effective against its own conference (9-22 prior to the All-Star break). That will be no easy task with a combined 10 games remaining vs. Oklahoma City (2), San Antonio (1), Houston (2), the Clippers (3) and Portland (2). Those are the West’s five best teams record-wise.
3) Can the Pelicans build on recent success, despite missing three key players?
Immediately after Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Jason Smith were all sidelined by injuries, the Pelicans went through their roughest stretch of the season, an eight-game losing streak (it didn’t help that Indiana, Miami, San Antonio, Houston and Golden State were on the schedule). Since a Jan. 18 home loss to the Warriors, however, the Pelicans have gone 8-5, including 4-3 on the road. The remaining healthy players seem to have gradually adjusted to their greater responsibilities, a big reason behind an encouraging four-week span. For example, point guard Brian Roberts – who experienced a bigger role increase than anyone, due to Holiday’s injury – is averaging 16.2 points and 5.6 assists in the last five games. Pelicans such as starting center Alexis Ajinca and reserves Luke Babbitt, Austin Rivers and Jeff Withey all likely will get opportunities to play that no one foresaw prior to the injuries.
4) Individual and team improvement.
With 30 games remaining, the Pelicans have a chance to eventually get back to .500 for the first time since they were 11-11 in mid-December. It will take an 18-12 finish to complete the regular season at 41-41. For now, the Pelicans are taking a one-game-at-a-time approach, trying not to look too far ahead. “We’re just trying to get better,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “We have some time still to make some improvements, individually, as a team and with our record. But right now I’m just concerned about tomorrow’s shootaround.” New Orleans is 7.5 games out of eighth place in the West. “We really can’t focus on that right now,” guard Eric Gordon said on the current gap in the standings between NOLA and Golden State. “We’ve got to take it game by game and see how we do.”
5) League leaders.
After trailing only the fast-starting Roy Hibbert early in the 2013-14 season, Anthony Davis ranks No. 1 in the NBA in blocks per game, at 3.07. Hibbert has slipped to third in the meantime, with Serge Ibaka moving into the second spot at 2.56. Davis has a very good chance to unseat Ibaka, the NBA’s two-time defending champion in the category. Drawing much less attention but impressive nonetheless is Anthony Morrow’s pursuit of the three-point percentage crown. Morrow shot 48.0 percent from three-point range in the unofficial first half of the season, trailing only Jimmer Fredette (49.3). Morrow has been red hot recently, going 10-for-15 in February.