From its inception back on June 21st until now, the 2019-20 season never promised to include title aspirations. That iconic phrase was instead touted to represent a fun-filled, wild ride into a promising future, mimicking Zion Williamson’s fiery and competitive personality perfectly.
“I think the thing I would say more than anything else is, trust us,” David Griffin said after the 2019 NBA Draft. “Stick with us through this. You’re not going to know in advance how the dots connect, but we’re going to connect them, so stick with us. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. And if you’re willing to invest in the long haul, let’s dance.”
The organization gave the city plenty to get excited about, from a renovated training complex to first-class hires to a trade coupe with the Los Angeles Lakers that was at the time thought to be one of the greatest hauls in NBA history.
The energy was infectious. 3,000 season tickets were sold overnight following one of the biggest lottery surprises ever.
The excitement only grew from there as the Pelicans won the rights to one of the game’s best shooters and rim protectors through trade and free agency in JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.
But somewhere between then and now, it feels like the organization has lost its way.
Sure, we’re partially to blame! We may have all been hungover from draft night, intoxicated from summer league standout performances, tipsy from the trade return and buzzed from free agency.
But the organization deserves to be held accountable.
Pelicans’ fans yearned for transparency from former general manager Dell Demps for years and finally got that with executive vice president and team hype man, David Griffin!
“Oh, we’re going to pursue wins from the get-go. We’re not here to facilitate spectating, right? I mean we’re here to beat people’s ass. That’s what we want to do.”
No one could have predicted the rash of injuries that swept through the Pelicans’ locker room yet again after hiring a first-class trainer, Aaron Nelson, to supplement the new team’s vision.
“I expect all of our players to play 82 games,” Swin Cash told me back in August. “That’s what the hope is. We have a great medical team (Ochsner). Aaron Nelson, what he’s been able to do so far and putting the team (needs) together. Checking that our performance is there, that our sleep is there. We’re focusing on all aspects to give all of our players to give all of our players the best support, the best quality care so that they can play all 82 games.“
However, there have been clear examples of miscommunicated expectation that has frustrated the fanbase involving both Zion and Derrick Favors.
I’ve BEEN SAYING THIS.. I said this November 21 during the Pelicans vs Suns game, only to be told by David Griffin the President of the Pels at Halftime “No No No, Zion will DEFINITELY be back mid December”, fast forward to December 3rd Mavs vs Pels I double downed and said again pic.twitter.com/9GJmJH92c4— Reggie Miller (@ReggieMillerTNT) December 11, 2019
Why would Reggie Miller publicly issue this statement? Forget for a moment about where this came from. Is there any semblance of truth here?
After doubling-down on the predetermined timetable (mid-December), Marc Stein released another dubious report partially supporting Miller’s sentiment.
For the Pelicans, there was resignation in some corners around them over the weekend that prized rookie Zion Williamson may have to wait until the calendar flips to 2020 to make his official NBA debut— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) December 9, 2019
“As I reported on @NBAonTNT,” Kristen Ledlow tweeted, “Zion Williamson ‘turned a corner’ this week. However, the team is erring on the side of caution and his return will ‘definitely’ come outside of the 6-8 week window initially projected.”
“From the very beginning, (the timetable) was put at a six-to-eight week recovery,” Griffin said on December 5th. “He continues to progress. He’s progressing very well. He feels very good about his process. Eight weeks is (still) several days from now. There has been absolutely no setback and no other mission afoot other than to get him back onto the court as soon as possible.”
The confusion is apparent.
Fast forward to the quandary now surrounding Derrick Favors.
Now, let me be clear — no one is trying to educate anyone on how to deal with a very personal grieving process. How Favors and his family continue to move forward following the loss of his mother belongs solely within the confine of their circle.
But when the excuse suddenly calls physical conditioning into question and the thought of potentially returning too quickly from injury, the team has failed to be clear over the past week.
Gentry said ayesterday he expected Derrick Favors to play.— The Bird Scouts (@HawtSportTakes) December 12, 2019
Today Favors said he is not physically in game shape.
He didn’t get in worse physical game shape between yesterday and today.
It’s perfectly fair for the media to ask what happened. Team created a miscommunication. https://t.co/jNgQRKlILn pic.twitter.com/jt1z7dfMQp
The Pelicans have suffered no shortage of blows from the national media. However, that can be partially blamed on the organization in that it has failed to provide local media all of the necessary details in a timely manner.
We all remember this in-depth piece from the Ringer’s, Bryan Curtis - Loneliest Beat in the NBA?
The public relations team has turned down opportunities to strengthen from within, giving local media the support needed to fight national conversation. Instead, fans have been forced to hear extremes like conversations about an eventual move to Seattle, that they didn’t matter before Zion, and they wouldn’t have a franchise in five years if not for winning the lottery.
If the Pelicans are to reshape their expectations and earn back trust from their fanbase this season, they’ll need to present a more unified stance and avoid leaking more and more misleading information to national writers who continue to undermine their statements. They’ll need to give strength to their own representatives who can educate the rest of the league on the truths behind the speculation.
Alvin Gentry and his coaching staff cannot force the players to exude effort in every game or in every possession. There are endless, quantifiable examples of Pelicans either consciously or unconsciously torpedoing possessions on both ends through bad execution, poor energy or both. But at some point coaching needs to be held responsible.
The Pelicans own the league’s fourth-worst defense, and boy have they been awful since opening night. Now the offense has cratered during the current 10-game losing streak, ranking third worst since their last victory. This squad is littered with players who should be able to contribute more on both ends of the floor despite all the injuries.
“I told the guys I’d be really disappointed if we weren’t a top-10 defensive team,” said Alvin Gentry in September.
During the offseason, defensive wizard Jeff Bzdelik replaced Darren Erman in hopes of revitalizing the defense much in the way he did while with the Houston Rockets. However the defense has been seemingly worse than in prior seasons.
Jrue Holiday is a first-team All-NBA defender. Lonzo Ball went from an 83rd-percentile defender with the Lakers to 20th with the Pelicans! (Cleaning the Glass) Josh Hart carried the third-best defensive plus/minus among shooting guards in 2018-19. The loss of Derrick Favors has been a considerable anchor, but even when he’s played, the Pelicans have still struggled with consistently slowing down opponents.
"Their (Pelicans) floor balance is so bad. That seems like a very easily coachable thing. I don't get it."@ZachLowe_NBA— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) December 11, 2019
"It's less than a sum of its' parts. You look at the team against Detroit, playing at home, you think they should win by 15 points, right?" @johnhollinger https://t.co/nLvcdI5SNd
The team has been quick to point to communication and youth as the principal shortcomings, which are valid arguments, but what about how clutch minutes have unfolded? Not counting Favors, there should be enough veteran leadership in Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick and E’Twaun Moore, right?
The Pelicans were the second-best clutch team in 2017-18 with 30 wins in 50 games and a net-rating of 7.9. In 2019-20, the team is off to a 4-11 start with a net rating of negative 29.8.
Offensively is where this Pelicans team has fallen apart in these instances, not defensively. In 56 minutes of action, they have an offensive net rating of 82.0 (29th) while shooting just 31.9 percent from the field (dead last).
Simply put, the Pelicans are failing on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, the players are continuing to make the same mistakes time and time and time again. At what point do we blame those who should be managing these mistakes?
“Stylistically what happened (in the draft) is all about Alvin Gentry and his system, and the fact that we know what it looks like to win at the highest level with Alvin,” Griffin said on June 21st. “And we went to the conference playing a system that nobody else played at the time. We know how to build to that system. So the synergies that exist there I think are really powerful. Not picking up the option was never in the cards. It was just a matter of when.”
Why did the Pelicans extend their head coach without any definable evidence as to how this new roster would respond to him? The team opted not to extend Ingram, and they opted for shorter-term deals to Redick and Favors. They gave themselves flexibility within the roster to grow around Zion, but not among the coaching staff?
Earning back the city’s trust is as much the responsibility of this coaching staff as it is the front office. We’ve seen this squad close games previously under Gentry. It’s up to him to teach them to do it again, but if not — and other areas fail to show improvement as well, it might be time to bring in a fresh perspective.
No one is pretending that the players don’t deserve a good deal of blame for the early season ineptitudes. The worst four clutch players (plus-minus) are all on the Pelicans.
It begins with Jrue Holiday. Holiday’s numbers have bounced back from his slow start but he is still coming up short in clutch. Lonzo Ball hasn’t taken the next step as many expected. Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram haven’t come through either.
After last night’s first half shellacking at the hands of the Giannis-less Milwaukee Bucks, JJ Redick passionately called for accountability. According to him, it wasn’t the first time he’s had to take such measures.
JJ Redick on why he spoke to teammates at halftime, with #Pelicans down by 23 pts: “These are conversations that have happened - this is not the first time we’ve had a talk at halftime. I would say emotionally sometimes you reach a tipping point. That’s the timing for this one.”— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) December 12, 2019
The Pelicans have the sixth easiest remaining strength of schedule, but the rest of December hardly promises a shot at redemption. If the squad is to return to form and pack the Smoothie King Center, they’ll need to overcome the odds soon as wins are not guaranteed against anyone.
How Everyone Has Failed Zion
And now comes the organization’s greatest failure in 2019-20.
All offseason the Pelicans preached patience, not just with its fan base, but with its greatest asset in Zion Williamson.
“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” Griffin once said. “Zion is going to be a part of learning how to win at a really high level, and if at some point the baton gets passed, in terms of who’s expected to carry us to win games, it will.”
“That’s not now. This is a 19-year old kid. So, we’re gonna take time with this.”
“We need him to be the ‘glue guy,’ Greivis Vasquez told me in July. “We got Jrue Holiday. We got a guy who should be in the running for the MVP next season, so the pressure’s not going to be laid on him alone, so I think he’s going to really have a great year.”
“Griff has been very clear with the fact that Zion’s coming in and we know that there’s a lot of media, a lot of attention — rightfully so for a top draft pick,” Cash told me in August. “But we really built this team around Jrue Holiday being our true leader. And we have a lot of veterans coming in looking forward to JJ Redick kind of inserting himself and his wisdom upon some of our younger guys. The load isn’t going to fall just on Zion.”
Zion now sits directly in the crosshairs as the potential savior of a franchise that hoped to shield him from such a burden. While fans despair over his absence, many would have expected the Pelicans could have remained patient, winning enough games without him. The dream was to avoid the Anthony Davis,” Got to play almost perfect,” scenario.
This doesn’t even take into consideration the meniscus tear he suffered before even playing a single regular season game. Was it a freak occurrence or do the Pelicans really need to explore shedding some of his 285-pound frame?
In 2019-20, Zion may not need to be perfect, but he will need to be healthy and he will need to be very good for the Pelicans to experience any redemption.
We were all a little too excited, overzealously expecting a run for the playoffs following the departure of the franchise’s greatest athlete ever. No one needed a pick-me-up more than fans from last season. However, it’s time to hit the reset button, not just as a fanbase, but as an organization.
The Pelicans need to change the way they coach, the way they interact with the media, and most importantly, with the way they play. The current product is just bad.
This fanbase has been asked to be patient longer than any other throughout its now nearly two decades of professional basketball. Unfortunately, they will have to remain so. The good news is that the Pelicans have a plethora of young talent unlike during past disappointments. They have a bedrock in Zion and Ingram. They also have multiple veteran trade chips should the worst continue to befall the franchise.
“Trust us. Stick with us through this. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. And if you’re willing to invest in the long haul, let’s dance.”
Pelicans fans have no choice but to continue to trust the process and hope the promises ring true one day, but everyone would feel a little better instantly if the organization starts putting out some of those troublesome fires.
For more, join Oleh, myself and Antonio Daniels as he tells us why the Pelicans can still get healthy and turn everything around.
"Antonio Daniels checks in to discuss Pelicans' early-season struggles, Zion and why they can get healthy and still turn it all around this season"— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) December 13, 2019
With @adaniels33 @OlehKosel @PrestonEllis @ArmchairMedia #nba #WBD @FOXSportsNOLA
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