On Monday night, the Pelicans put forth a valiant effort on the road against the Portland Trailblazers. Despite losing their best player to a hopefully-benign knee injury, they pushed Damian Lillard and company to the brink before coming up short in the closing minutes. DeMarcus Cousins exploded for 39 points and 13 rebounds to put the team on his back in Anthony Davis’s absence, and newcomers Ian Clark, Jameer Nelson, and Tony Allen made solid contributions off the bench.
That’s the good news. The Pelicans scored a moral victory against a team that made the playoffs last year. But let’s be frank. Anthony Davis or no Anthony Davis, the time for cheering moral victories is over. At 1–3, with their only win being a close-fought battle against a young Lakers team, the Pelicans need to start earning real victories. Right now, New Orleans looks like a far cry from a playoff team in the loaded Western Conference. If that doesn’t change—and fast—Alvin Gentry could succeed Earl Watson as the league’s next former head coach.
Currently in his third season as the Pelicans’ head coach, Gentry won just 30 and 34 games during his first and second campaigns, respectively. Regardless of the circumstances, including some Davis injuries and growing pains that come with significant roster changes, 34 wins in year two doesn’t exactly aid job security—unless you’re part of a Process-like rebuild. When Gentry first took the job, the Pelicans were considered an ascending team, not a bare cupboard. They finished 45-37 and made the playoffs before he took over. Having not sniffed the postseason since then, Gentry came into the season as a coach on the hot seat. Unfortunately, his team hasn’t done anything to change that perception.
So, why are the Pelicans looking so overmatched right now? Why is a loss at Portland being looked at as a “win” of sorts? For starters, well, look at the starters. Against the Blazers, Davis scored two points before exiting in the first quarter. Aside from that and the 39 from Cousins, the Pelicans got 22 points from the other three starters combined. Dante Cunningham played 28 minutes and didn’t score a point, finishing with a team-worst -19 rating. Everyone knew small forward would be a huge question mark for this team, but Cunningham has come up woefully short as a starter. While the sample size is small through four games, 25% from three won’t get it done in an offense that desperately needs outside shooting to complement its talented big men.
Not to be outdone, fellow starter E’Twaun Moore put up a goose egg of his own despite playing 27 minutes against the Warriors last week. To be fair, Moore only starts because Rajon Rondo is injured. Like Cunningham, Moore is not a legitimate NBA starter. He was unexpectedly thrust into the role, and, to be fair, he has had a few bright moments, including a 19-point performance in the team’s lone win against Los Angeles.
That leaves us with the last starter, the 126-million-dollar man—Jrue Holiday. Everyone knew Holiday was overpaid this offseason, but the Pelicans had little choice in the matter due to their lack of cap space to attract a better alternative. The hope was that Holiday would improve upon a solid, relatively healthy 2016-17 and continue to build chemistry with both Davis and Cousins. While he’s managed to fill the stat sheet in a variety of ways, the early returns on his huge contract are underwhelming, to say the least. You don’t pay $126 million for an effective role player at Holiday’s position. You expect a dynamic scorer and playmaker who can compete night in and night out with the elite guards in the Western Conference. Holiday hasn’t been in the same class as his All-Star counterparts.
When Holiday signed his contract, he became the key to this fun experiment. He’s the difference between a dynamic duo and a big three. So far, it looks like the Pelicans might have to settle for the former. If that’s the case, their playoff odds will be slim, and Gentry may not make it through the season. This team has too much talent—even if it’s almost entirely concentrated in two players—to accept anything less than a postseason berth as a success this year. Hopefully, Jrue can take his game to the next level before it’s too late. The future of his coach—and his franchise—are hanging in the balance.