The struggles have been well documented since Zion Williamson strained his right hamstring in the Jan. 2 matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a swan dive in the standings, falling from a first place tie with the Denver Nuggets to a spot outside of the play-in tournament.
Solid victories, of late, have been offset by bad losses. The level of concern emanating from the team was low, if not downright nonexistent, for the longest period of time. However, that messaging has changed. Willie Green acknowledged he’s repeating himself far too often in front of media.
“We have to play with a better spirit to start games” the head coach said after Tuesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “It’s constant that I’m coming in here and saying that. When we don’t start with a sense of urgency, play fast and play with force, it demoralizes our spirit. We have to someway, somehow, figure that part out.”
The only remaining question, can the team stop making excuses, find a way to regroup and squeeze into the playoffs?
The most interesting comment stemming from that L.A. defeat came from Herb Jones a short while after Green spoke.
“I think playing hard covers up a lot of different mistakes. If you do get beat and you’re playing super hard, I think you can cover a mistake if you’re playing super hard. If everyone’s not playing super hard, it’s going to be tough for any team, if everybody’s not playing hard to start games.”
Jones couldn’t be more on target in his assessment. Everyone has not been on the same page. The starting lineup has typically been wretched as a lack of individual energy, focus and/or commitment has plagued team performance during the first handful of minutes.
Anthony Davis set the tone a few days ago, scoring the first eight points and 14 of the first 23 for the Lakers. Meanwhile, Brandon Ingram had nearly as many turnovers (two) as points (three) over the same timespan.
The offense has not been good since Williamson last stepped onto the court; however, the more troubling aspect has been all the glimpses of indifference. Case in point, Jonas Valanciunas was put on an island against Davis by his teammates.
During the first defensive possession, Trey Murphy failed to take a better, more determined route to get around Davis’ screen that he saw coming, thereby forcing Valanciunas needing to stay in front of D’Angelo Russell longer. Ingram, who was guarding Jared Vanderbilt in the dunker spot, compounded the problem by never moving and offering help once AD rolled freely to the rim.
Ingram was beat off the dribble by Vanderbilt on the following Laker possession due a clear lack of focus. This forced Valanciunas to give help, allowing Davis a wide open look from the corner 3.
After Davis nailed a long midrange shot over Valanciunas, the Lakers enjoyed back-to-back open looks from deep. Valanciunas, who was the last person to get back on defense, inexplicably left Malik Beasley wide open behind the arc. Then Ingram failed to rotate out to D’Angelo Russell in a timely manner.
The first 14 points for Los Angeles were too easy, especially considering it came within their half court offense.
On the other side of the floor, CJ McCollum failed to get a pass to an open Valanciunas underneath the rim, Valanciunas soon missed a bunny at the rim and Ingram was unable to connect with Jones in transition. In addition, the offense settled for three 3-pointers, two from Valanciunas and one from Jones.
Although the Lakers defense intentionally gave up those looks, the Pelicans offense didn’t have to hoist those shots. It’s understandable to be a good teammate by showing confidence, but time-score-situation dictated that the offense create shot attempts for New Orleans’ best players in their preferred spots.
Stars need to be stars when circumstances demand it.
And therein lies the problem: The Pelicans displayed too much lethargy on both ends in a near must-win against the Lakers and none of the players called out the rest of the team on it during the massacre.
According to CJ McCollum on his latest podcast, that’s no longer going to be an issue.
“I think we’ll be in a much better spot going forward. We had some good conversations today. We had some good talks as a team to kind of figure out how we want to move forward. Accountability is important. But then sometimes you just need to have those honest conversations to figure out what’s going wrong, how we can kind of right it.
“As the saying goes, it’s never as good as it seems, it’s never as bad as it seems. Considering our circumstances — obviously the ass-whooping we just took the other night — we’re still two games out of seventh. We still have a chance to accomplish a lot of things we set out to accomplish at the start of the year.”
From the opening of the @CJMcCollum pod, CJ was asking about someone from Pels org saying there is nobody in the locker room that holds everyone accountable pic.twitter.com/1Zy3JxQV9C— retroPels (@retro_pels) March 16, 2023
When Israel Gutierrez, a co-host of the CJ McCollum Show, mentioned that someone within the ranks of the Pelicans told him, “There’s a lot of guys on the team that hold themselves accountable, but not many guys, if any guys, who are going to hold everybody else accountable,” McCollum defiantly stated that’s no longer going to be an issue.
“I think we handled what needed to be handled today and that we won’t have to worry about that going forward.”
Fans desperately want to believe this. But they’ve heard similar versions of this song and dance since the start of January. The Pelicans are running out of opportunities to prove a genuine sense of urgency exists, as only 13 games remain on the regular season schedule. Fortunately, four winnable contests sit before them.
Starting tonight, the Pelicans will play a back-to-back set in Houston against the Rockets, and then they’ll come home to host the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets. None of these opponents have won more than 22 games on the season.
Posting a 3-1 record, or preferably 4-0, over this span is a must. End of story. Otherwise, the 2022-23 season may as well be finished for these Pelicans.
Who: New Orleans Pelicans (33-36) at Houston Rockets (17-52)
When: March 17, 7:00 p.m. CT
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, League Pass
Where to listen: WRNO 99.5
For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.