The New Orleans Pelicans currently sit in 14th place in the Western Conference with a less than stellar record of 4-10. However, all of those wins have come in the last six games, so the team’s fortunes are most definitely on the rise. Similar to last season, the question at this point is whether the Pelicans can overcome an incredibly slow start and make a legitimate push for the postseason.
Since the 3-point era began, 25 NBA teams have started a season with eight straight losses. Only 3 of them — the 1984-85 Cavaliers, the 1996-97 Suns and the 2004-05 Chicago Bulls — wound up making the playoffs in that same season. Most teams that get off to horrendous starts are for good reason — they were genuinely bad!
So, what separated these three teams from the notorious pack and more importantly, can the Pelicans follow in their footsteps?
The 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers team didn’t have just a bad first few weeks, they were awful for the first month and a half of the schedule. On December 13, 1984, they had a 2-19 record!
The season looked seemingly lost before it began for the 33-year-old rookie head coach George Karl, but then something magical happened: they came together as a group. Led by World B. Free, a player who often clashed with those around him, the Cavaliers righted the ship.
After the 2-19 start, nothing overly dramatic changed for the Cavs. Weltman didn't make a significant trade. No high-profile free agents came to rescue the team. Karl didn't change his game plan.
Something just started to click.
The Cavs hustled their way to 34 wins in the final 61 games. That was good enough for fourth place in the Central Division and the No. 8 and final seed in the playoffs. The reward? A first-round matchup with the defending champions.
Admittedly, the Cavaliers did not morph into a raging inferno, but they did manage to give Larry Bird’s Celtics a scare. Of course, finishing with a 36-46 record isn’t a particularly significant achievement, but it goes to show that even after 1⁄4 of the season is complete, a team still has time to radically change the script.
The 1996-97 Phoenix Suns might be the biggest Jekyll and Hyde team of all time. They started 0-13 but had an 11-game winning streak late. They were the first team in history to record double digit winning and losing streaks within the same season!
Through the first 15 games, the Suns had just a solo win to their credit and one of the worst offenses in the league (Offensive Rating and team eFG% were 4th worst). After December 1st, however, that team went on to finish 39-28 and posted the 3rd-best offensive rating and 2nd-best eFG% during that incredible run.
A whole heck of a lot.
Jason Kidd, after being brought over in a trade and then healing from a broken collarbone, entered the lineup, and Danny Ainge, the rookie head coach who took over for Cotton Fitzsimmons after the team’s 8th straight loss, decided to play really small ball.
Bryant, who had been a starter, was sidelined in mid-March with a stress reaction in his right foot. Already undermanned at the power forward position, coach Ainge decided the best thing to do was play without a power forward - or, for that matter, a small forward. Looking at his roster, the rookie coach saw an overabundance of hot guards and decided to play them - all at once. And so "Small Ball" was born.
With a rejuvenated Kidd manning the point and a healthy KJ playing some of the best basketball of his career as he moved to shooting guard, the Suns had, arguably, the game's best backcourt. But what made Phoenix so deadly was that its backcourt extended into the frontcourt. While both KJ and JK could penetrate, Chapman and/or Person could spot up and knock down three pointers. And they all could run.
Although critics said the Suns would never be able to get away with a small lineup in the postseason, when teams have time to adjust and physical play is more evident, they almost did. Despite their final 40-42 record and seventh seed in the playoffs, the mini Suns would take the defending conference champion Sonics to the brink of elimination.
The Suns finished that 1996-97 season playing to one of their strengths and made some noise in the playoffs despite not advancing past the first round. To this day, I still fondly remember Chapman’s miracle shot.
The 2004-05 Chicago Bulls experienced one of the biggest turnarounds in history. Scott Skiles squad started a pathetic 2-13, possessing the worst offense in the league and a bottom 1⁄3 defensive rating.
As though a switch was flipped, that Bulls team would go on to finish the season with a 45-22 record, not on the back of some offensive turnaround (posted 6th-worst ORtg over this period) but riding a spectacular defensive wave (best DRtg over the final 67 games).
Skiles had a lot of fresh faces — Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Chris Duhon and Andres Nocioni were all rookies — to bring up to NBA speed and get them to play well together. Yet, he was able to accomplish just that.
“The culture that Paxson and Skiles had hoped to create—one which focused on teamwork, defense, and playing hard all of the time—had been established.”
Today, the New Orleans Pelicans sit just 3 games in back of the Los Angeles Lakers, the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Mathematically, they’re far from out of it, but it is perhaps more important to note that there might be parallels to all three storied teams defying the odds above.
The Pelicans could be ready to click, as evidenced by a 4-2 record in the last 6 games. The coaching staff has had the time to experiment with several different looks and lineups. They have been blessed with the return of Jrue Holiday, and don’t forget that Tyreke Evans may be joining the rotation just around the corner. Star power matters — even if you’ve already got Anthony Davis in the field of battle. And lastly, with so many new faces coming together for the first time this last summer, the team may only need an x amount of games in Alvin Gentry’s system before being able to reveal their true colors.
Moral: 68 games remain so truly anything can still happen.