The New Orleans Pelicans made a big decision on draft night last summer. Packaging their lottery pick (or Nerlens Noel, as it turned out to be) in a deal for All-Star Jrue Holiday set them on a fast rebuilding track, one quite different from the likes of the 76ers, Bucks and Jazz. Instead of sitting Noel for the entirety of the season (who is still recovering from a torn ACL) and losing an innumerable amount of games in the hope of getting yet another high draft pick so they could build their team around a twin towers of lanky Wildcats, they set their sights on making the playoffs for the first time since 2011. When that trade was coupled with the acquisition of somewhat-sought after free agent Tyreke Evans and the steady progression of their number one overall pick in 2012, the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched. However, that dream was soon squandered as they quickly fell behind the eight ball due to a heavy dose of dream killers: injuries. Here’s a list of the fallen:
- Ryan Anderson (toe, herniated disc) and Jrue Holiday (stress fracture), two players who were expected to shovel a huge chunk of the scoring load, played in a total of 56 games.
- Jason Smith missed 51 games as a result of a knee injury that required surgery.
- Anthony Davis dealt with a few nagging injuries, which kept him out of 15 games.
- Eric Gordon managed to stay healthy for the Pelicans’ first 68 games of the season, but tendinitis in his knee kept him out of the lineup from March onwards. He has since had anthroscopic surgery on that knee, and while Monty Williams said it was just a clean up, anytime “Gordon” and “surgery” are used in the same sentence, there’s a reason to be concerned.
- Tyreke Evans missed 10 games thanks to some ankle and shoulder issues.
As a result of all of those bumps and bruises, the ideal starting five of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis played just 61 minutes together. That’s depressing.
In the bloodbath of the Western Conference, where a slight slip sent teams tumbling down a steep hill of anguish, the Pelicans had to shift their focus early on when the injury bug swept through their team. Life goes on, after all, and with the loss of his starting point guard and fire-flame throwing sixth man, the weight of carrying the team fell squarely on Anthony Davis’ broad shoulders — which led to quite a few losses. For all his talents and still untapped potential, Davis isn’t yet the type of player who can win you 40 games by himself. Nevertheless, his progression into a star was one of the few bright spots in their injury-riddled season. He fell 12 blocks shy of becoming just the sixth player over the last 40 years to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and one steal per game — an impressive feat for a player in his second year. (Had he accomplished that, he would’ve become the youngest member to join that exclusive club). He also joined Damian Lillard as the first draftees from the 2012 class to become All-Stars. And while the Most Improved Player award is tainted by an ambiguous set of criteria in its own right, he finished third in the race — a testament to the big leap he made.
Though Davis wasn’t able to translate that into a lot of victories, the Pelicans can confidently put their chips on him becoming the perfect cornerstone of their franchise. At the tender age of 21, he’s already made significant improvements to his game and there’s still plenty of room to grow. That’s what they were looking for in 2012 — a franchise player to fill the void Chris Paul left when he was traded to the L.A. Clippers before Christmas of 2011 — that’s what they’ve got, and now, they can build around that.
The good news is that despite posting one of the worst records in the Western Conference, most of the pieces are in place for them to build a formidable squad. After an incredibly slow start, Tyreke Evans found his stride following the All-Star break, leaving reason to believe that his Rookie of the Year-form wasn’t just a one hit wonder. (His numbers shot up the chart when he was a starter. There’s some food for thought). Anthony Morrow proved yet again that when he gets minutes, he’s capable of putting up big numbers — he shot 45.1 percent from three, knocking down 88 in 76 games, and averaged 16.1 points per 36 minutes. Austin Rivers actually looked like a basketball player at times, which is promising given how fond the Pelicans were when they drafted him with the 10th pick two years ago. In the 22 games Ryan Anderson was healthy enough to play, he put up career numbers, and while he was unlikely to sustain those, his ability to space the floor were a nice compliment to the rest of the starters. But the bad news is there’s still a ton of work to be done.
There were some growing pains in the Pelicans’ inaugural season, largely because that long list of injuries quickly derailed their chance of flirting with a playoff birth and prevented them from developing any sort of rhythm. There wasn’t a lot of time for Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday to iron out the creases, and the team ended up with a myriad of lineup changes and mirrored that of a defensive wasteland. It’s unlikely — actually, scratch that, there’s no way — that Lou Amundson, Greg Stiemsma, Jeff Withey, Darius Miller and Luke Babbitt are in the Pelicans’ long-term plans, but there they were, getting staple minutes in regular season games. Nevertheless, there were some signs of life over their 82 games, like when they went on a five game winning streak in March, dismantling the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers. The potential is there, but where they go from here is a little hazy.
General manager Dell Demps has a lot of money tied up in Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson, and while at least three of them seem to be good compliments to Anthony Davis, the team is still yearning for a scoring small forward and a center that is capable of doing Robin Lopez-like things. (Oh, they traded him away for Jeff Withey, a second-round pick and cash? Sigh). It’s therefore tough to evaluate how successful or disappointing this season for the Pelicans was. The injuries certainly accelerated Davis’ growth and it helped a few players settle into their roles, which could, soon enough, pay dividends, but the end of season result reflects the need for something. Whether or not that is simply a healthy roster, an off-season trade (Eric Gordon, anybody?) or the acquisition of a new coach remains to be seen. But for now, all we can do is cross our fingers and take a moment to remember the 2013-2014 New Orleans Pelicans — a season and team we will probably remember as the one when Anthony Davis developed into a fire breathing dragon with goals of taking over the world.