New Orleans Pelicans enter final 12 games with continuity in question
BRETT MARTEL | The Associated Press
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Pelicans forward Solomon Hill hopes New Orleans can sell its fan base on the benefits of patience and continuity — tough as that may be for a team on the brink of missing the playoffs for a second straight season.
Recently, though, the Pelicans have begun seeing more of the results they expected when they traded for 6-foot-11 All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and put him in their front court alongside fellow All-Star Anthony Davis.
The Pelicans have won four of five — with three of those victories coming by double digits.
With 12 games left, the Pelicans might not be able to make up the 4+ games in the standings separating them from the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But they might be able to show the type of promise ownership needs to see to justify allowing the current regime of general manager Dell Demps and affable head coach Alvin Gentry more time to get it right.
“Hopefully we can just try to save this framework, whether we make the playoffs or not,” said Hill, who has averaged around 20 points in the Pelicans’ past two games while getting increased ball-handling opportunities in Gentry’s up-tempo offense.
Hill added that he “most definitely would like to” see Gentry and his staff back next season, along with the current core of the roster, which includes free-agent-to-be Jrue Holiday.
“Everybody says coach’s offense is a players’ dream, and now he has the certain pieces to implement it,” Hill asserted after Monday’s practice. “We really have a good framework to sustain this.”
The Pelicans traded three guards and this summer’s first- and second-round draft picks to Sacramento for Cousins. Gentry warned that it normally takes time for a team to play efficiently after making such a significant lineup change during the season. That was the case for New Orleans, which lost six of its first seven games with Cousins in the lineup.
For Gentry, New Orleans’ recent success has stemmed not just from improved chemistry, but also a concerted effort to involve more players on offense. The Pelicans had six players score in double digits in a victory over Minnesota on Sunday. Cousins scored 15 points, well below his season average of 26.5 points, but New Orleans scored 123 and won by 14.
In each of their past five games, the Pelicans have scored at least 100 points, eclipsing 120 three times, albeit once in overtime.
Gentry said the Pelicans must understand that Cousins and Davis might not get as many shots as they did before the Feb. 19 trade, and that “when we get other guys involved in the game, that’s when we’re really better as a team.”
Another challenge has been figuring out how to fit Cousins, 270-pound, post-up player, into the run-and-gun style Gentry prefers. What the Pelicans have done recently is have Davis defend more near the perimeter so he can get out quickly in transition. If an early scoring opportunity doesn’t develop, New Orleans can pull up while Cousins, who often trails the play after defending down low, works his way into a half-court set.
“We’ve been playing with a lot of good pace. We’ve been getting the ball out quick and pushing it down the floor, getting some easy looks,” Davis said. “When we don’t have that, we try to play inside-out.”
What Cousins, who is under contract for more season, makes of the team’s recent form is unclear. The mercurial big man has avoided meeting with media since the middle of last week.
Gentry agreed with Davis that the Pelicans are “back to playing at a pretty good pace … and we’re figuring out ways that we can keep that pace.”
Gentry also has been pleased by his team’s resolve to make a late-season run, no matter how improbable its playoff chances are. One thing the Pelicans have going for them is they have three games left against Denver, which currently holds the West’s final playoff seed. They also have one game each against Dallas and Portland, who are between them and Denver in the standings.
“With this group, they’ve all continued to have confidence and feel like … we can be a playoff team,” Gentry said. “Until we’re mathematically eliminated, we’re going to still have that goal.”