The clock is ticking. Everyone around the New Orleans Pelicans knows it, and, in some form, it dominates everything they do.
Anthony Davis, at very worst a top-five player in the NBA, can become a free agent the summer of 2020, and he can be offered (and possibly turn down) a wildly lucrative contract extension this summer. There have been longstanding rumblings that New Orleans, once faced with the reality of his pending departure, could have to trade him.
And, despite no indications other than joining Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports agency — the same that represents LeBron James — he’s been linked to the Lakers for most of the season.
Wins and losses, transactions, rotations — it all has to be viewed in the realm of how it could affect Davis’ long-term plans.
With Davis back in town Monday night to play the Clippers, there was more of an eye on the immediate. Coach Alvin Gentry didn’t have to say his team wasn’t trading Davis — something he did in December when New Orleans visited to face the Lakers.
No, the vibe around the Pelicans, at least for now, is that with Davis leading the way, they’ll try to climb their way back into the Western Conference playoff race.
“Having injuries and not playing the style of basketball we want to play, not having the record we want to have, we’re still in the mix,” Davis said Monday, and added, “We just have to turn it around quickly.”
New Orleans (21-23) had won three of four before running out to a 20-point lead against the Clippers. And while they came all the way back, New Orleans closed strongly thanks to Davis’ 46 points and 16 rebounds, and his supporting cast, which is finally back in full.
Their 121-117 win puts the Pelicans within 2½ games of Utah for the West’s final playoff spot and just 3½ games behind the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, who are tied for sixth.
Wins like Monday’s only strengthen the Pelicans’ plan for the rest of this season: to give their roster a real chance to play together, an opportunity they’ve lacked because of injuries to guard Elfrid Payton and forward Nikola Mirotic.
Payton played only his 13th game of the season Monday, and he’s important because he allows star guard Jrue Holiday to conserve energy and relieves him of having to turn the ignition for the offense.
And Mirotic, whom New Orleans traded for last season, missed the last month with an ankle injury and still is operating on a minutes restriction. At full strength, he’s a perfect big man to stretch the defense and complement Davis.
When healthy and together, New Orleans’ best players have been terrific. The Pelicans have won 10 of the 13 games Payton played. But without him and Mirotic, they sunk toward the bottom of the West.
As a result, the Pelicans remain unsure of what they actually have.
“That’s the toughest thing, to figure out where we are as a team. Usually at this stage, you pretty much are who you are after 41 games. But we have not had that team together at all,” Gentry said. “We’re still trying to find ourselves. We just don’t have 10, 12, 15 games to figure it out. We’ve got to do that. And, in some kind of way, we have to speed up the process.”
One thing that could accelerate the process is another trade, with the Pelicans bringing in more talent instead of selling off Davis.
NBA executives still think New Orleans will be aggressive to improve the roster; a starting small forward should be at the top of the wish list.
Wing help — maybe players like New York’s Tim Hardaway Jr. or Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore — would improve the roster but require financial commitments beyond this season.
Staying healthy would be the best bet for a team that’s not exactly talent poor with Davis, a bonafide superstar, Holiday, one of the most underrated guards, Mirotic and Julius Randle, who has continued to build on his late-season success last year with the Lakers.
The cupboards aren’t bare, and the team swept a playoff series last season with less talent after losing DeMarcus Cousins to injury.
“I guess that’s something people think. We proved some people wrong last year,” Holiday said. “I guess we have to do the same thing this year.”