Dig Baton Rouge

Tanking Ain’t Easy

For any true Pelicans supporter, the 2013-14 season has been one heck of an emotional roller coaster.

The team seemly in rebuilding mode entering last offseason went for the quick fix by trading for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and sign-and-trading for swingman Tyreke Evans.

Add those two to the constantly improving Ryan Anderson, a star in the making in Anthony Davis and whatever you could get out of Eric Gordon, and playoff aspirations seemed to be a legitimate possibility.

Then the injuries came. And they came hard.

Holiday was lost for the final 48 games of the season with a stress fracture in his leg, and Anderson will all but assuredly miss the final 51 games of the season with a herniated disk. Starting center Jason Smith was also lost for the final 51 games of the season with a knee injury.

Davis, Evans and Gordon, along with just about every player on the roster have missed some time with injuries, too. Just like that, the season went from a hopeful one to yet another disappointing one.

In New Orleans’ acquisition of Holiday from Philadelphia, the Pels agreed to send their 2014 first-round top-5 protected draft pick to the 76ers as part of the deal. That means that if New Orleans falls in the top-five of the 2014 NBA draft – a draft class which pundits call the best and deepest in years – New Orleans would keep its pick rather than ship it.

That’s hope, right?

The desire to hear new commish Adam Silver proclaim someone among Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Dante Exum or many other top-flight prospects was enough to make many Pelicans wants want the team to “Concede for Embiid” or start “Riggin’ for Wiggins” or whatever other catchy phrase they could come up with to join an NBA epidemic called “tanking.” Call it planned short-term losing in the hope of winning for the future.

There was just one problem: Davis is just way too good to ever consistently lose games with him in the lineup.

The second-year pro has made a jump this season that even the most wild-eyed optimistic Pelicans fans didn’t think they would see this soon out of “The Brow.” Through the first three quarters of the season, Davis has logged the fourth-best player efficiency rating in the NBA – rounding out the top five with guys you may have heard of – Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Chris Paul.

Davis leads the league in blocks per game (2.93) by a wide margin and ranks in the top ten in rebounds per game (10.2), and on Sunday night became just the 18th player since 1985-86 to post a 40-point, 20-rebound game in a win over the Celtics.

But numbers just tell part of the story of the first-time All-Star. His improvement in offensive and defensive sets have been a work of art, and any basketball talking head will tell you that he will enter next season as a top ten – and maybe top five –player in the league.

Now that’s what I call hope!

Would it have been nice to keep the 2014 pick? Sure, but the emergence of Davis as a star is a darn good consolation prize.

Davis even fought through a broken hand suffered in December at the Knicks and a shoulder sprain suffered in February at Dallas. Rather than milking the injuries, he returned sooner than expected missing an amazing seven and zero games following those maladies, respectively.

Other young players have shown promise as well. Brian Roberts and Austin Rivers have been a nice offensive/defensive point guard combo in Holiday’s absence, and rookie center Jeff Withey – a throw-in New Orleans acquired in the Evans trade – has shown some real promise.

Of course, New Orleans can still keep its first-round pick if the team gets lucky in the NBA lottery, but there will likely be less than a 10-percent chance of that happening, while any hopes of making those odds more likely by tanking have been killed by strides made by Davis and others.

The Pelicans may not win the lottery, but they hit the jackpot with Davis.

 

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