By Richard Fischer
The 2013-14 Pelicans season will not go down in the annals of NBA history. Outside of budding superstar Anthony Davis, the Pels are simply a less than memorable middle-of-the-pack team in a stacked conference.
A reloaded team that pushed just about all its chips to the middle of the table this past offseason suffered crippling injuries that caused preseason excitement to turn into mid-season disappointment.
Now the Pelicans are stuck in the Association’s no man’s land, if you will. They’re not good enough to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference but not bad enough to likely keep their top-5 protected first round pick that they sent to Philly for Jrue Holiday in July.
That’s not a good prognosis for any team that’s capped out and still looking to improve its roster this summer.
But instead of tuning this team out, here are a few encouraging signs Pelicans fans should look for to feel better about their team in the final few weeks of the NBA calendar.
1. Tyreke Evans has finally found his role
It took about 60 games (and at least 30 two long in the humble opinion of many), for head coach Monty Williams to insert swingman Tyreke Evans into the starting lineup, but the first-year Pelican can kiss the bench goodbye, and hopefully for good.
Since moving into the starting lineup in late February versus Phoenix – a game he was nearly late to because he got stuck in a hotel elevator, funny enough – Evans has seen an uptick in offensive production in just about every category.
In his first nine games as a starter, Evans has averaged 21.3 points, 5.9 assists and 5.9 boards per game in about 10 additional minutes per game. Sure, any player is supposed to contribute more when given more playing time, but he’s been much more selective picking his spots, and his 53.3 shooting percentage as a starter compared to 41.3 as a bench player proves that.
Evans seems to respond well to a starting role in New Orleans, and it appears the Pels will be best served keeping him there next season.
2. Potential emergence of Austin Rivers…
3. …and Jeff Withey
When injuries happen, somebody has to pick up the slack and the Pelicans need their youngsters to step up.
For New Orleans in the absence of starting point guard Holiday and center Jason Smith, second-year pro Austin Rivers and rookie center Jeff Withey have been thrust into much more playing time.
And both have shown impressive growth.
Making up New Orleans’ second unit, Rivers and Withey have made their case for rotation minutes next season when everyone is healthy and players get bumped back down the pecking order.
After being tasked with too much too soon as a rookie, many Pels supporters gave up on Rivers. Granted he was headed for one of the least efficient seasons in NBA history early on, but he started to show signs of before a wrist injury abruptly ended his rookie campaign.
The 21-year-old has seen consistent minutes since mid-February, and he’s made strides on both ends of the floor to the point that he isn’t an offensive liability and may be New Orleans’ best perimeter defender. If Rivers makes a similar jump in year 3, expect him to be a key bench cog in a run for the Western Conference playoffs.
As for the rookie from Kansas, Withey has shown toughness and grit beyond his years and appears to have a long future in the league as a solid center. He’s got nice shooting touch, but it’s his ability to fight with meatier centers for positioning and rebounding that is most impressive for a first-year player.
He has a long way to go to learn NBA system defense, but show me a rookie center that doesn’t.
4. Any good news regarding Ryan Anderson
Although Ryan Anderson hasn’t been officially ruled out for the season, you won’t be seeing the sharpshooter suit up for the Pelicans again this season.
But what’s more important is whether he’ll be able to return next season.
Anderson suffered a herniated disk when Gerald Wallace inadvertently elbowed him in the back of the head Jan. 3 in Boston.
Before his injury, Anderson was having a fabulous season, averaging 19.8 points per game on a blistering 40.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc. But you already knew he was a deadeye shooter. Anderson became a more complete player in all facets of his game including improved post moves, defense and rebounding.
His status for next season could be the difference between a playoff berth and once again the lottery.
And speaking of the lottery…
5. The NBA Lottery
Hope is still not lost for the Pelicans to have a pick in this year’s lottery.
It’s just incredibly unlikely.
The Pelicans will probably finish with somewhere around the 10th worst record in the league. If, for example, New Orleans finishes 10th worst, the Pels will have a 1.1 percent chance to have the first pick, a 1.3 percent chance to have the second pick a 1.6 percent chance to have the third pick and a zero percent chance to pick fourth or fifth.
It sure isn’t much to hope for.
But in the immortal words of Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?!”