Be patient with the Pelicans

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Rome wasn’t built in a day.

That’s all that I kept telling myself last Wednesday night as I watched the Portland Trail Blazers blast the New Orleans Pelicans – a game that felt like it was over before it even started.

The Pelicans were awful in every way on that night, and they truly looked like a junior varsity squad facing a varsity opponent in practice or a controlled scrimmage.

The team’s offense was bad, the defense was worse and the effort and energy level wasn’t all that inspiring, either. Add it all together, and it was an 18-point victory for a Blazers team that is predicted to finish on the bottom-half of the NBA’s Western Conference standings.

Looking at the schedule going forward, it may even get worse. The Pelicans play a murderer’s row of NBA opponents in the first month of the season – a challenging slate that just might see New Orleans go several games below .500 for the first quarter of the year.

But for as ugly as things might look in the present, I am here today to let basketball fans know that there will be a rainbow at the end of this early-season thunderstorm.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Pelicans are still heading in the right direction – even if the road the team is traveling right now is pretty bumpy.

To me, there are two reasons to be optimistic about the future.

The first is, obviously, Alvin Gentry.

Gentry is an upgrade over Monty Williams. That’s easy, and not much of a compliment. A well-schooled goldfish would have been an upgrade over Williams, who had absolutely no grasp for how to manage in-game situations as an NBA head coach.

But Gentry is an NBA coaching veteran who wins when he has serviceable talent in his cupboard.

Sure, right now it’s a struggle, and New Orleans is having a hard time finding its way. But the team is incredibly beat up, which has greatly watered down the talent pool that Gentry has to work with.

Omer Asik missed the first two games. In his absence, Kendrick Perkins started at center. That’s not a cruel joke. It’s true. Kendrick Perkins started. Yes, the same Kendrick Perkins who looks and moves like he’s 60, but is only 30. He’s the same guy who was relevant about seven years ago, but has since been among the 10-15 worst rotation players in the NBA. There’s no way Perkins starts for the Pelicans all season. He won’t even play at all once Asik gets back. Having an albatross like that in the lineup hurts New Orleans both offensively and defensively. When Asik gets back, the Pelicans will immediately get better in a big way.

On the perimeter, New Orleans is also a shell of itself with Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole nursing ailments. Evans is the team’s best playmaker – the guy who sort-of makes everything tick. Cole isn’t as good, but is the team’s best reserve guard.

Without those contributors, guys like Ish Smith and Nate Robinson are playing big minutes. Neither is NBA caliber, and neither can help this team long-term.

But even deeper than personnel is just the overall change in structure Gentry is bringing.

The Pelicans are struggling right now to adjust to Gentry’s style and tempo – a large reason for the team’s struggles. Williams wanted to play very slow. Gentry wants to play fast. Williams wanted the team to work the post and play tough, physical defense. Gentry wants to shoot 3-pointers in transition and get opponents in a shootout.

Against Portland, the Pelicans shot 33 3-pointers. That’s something they almost never did when Williams was the head coach. But it’s something that will be common under Gentry. The players on the floor now can’t execute the scheme, but the injured players who are about to come back will do a much better job.

Then, there’s Anthony Davis.

The second reason for optimism is the Pelicans big man, who is one of the best players in the entire NBA. Davis started the season slow by his own lofty standards, but that won’t last. He’s going to continue to average anywhere around 25-27 points per game with 10-13 rebounds. His frame has grown in the offseason. Davis is now at least 15-20 pounds heavier.

With bigger arms has come a bigger offensive arsenal, as well. Davis shoots 3-pointers now, and he shoots them well.

That’s a frightening thought for opponents who already had their hands full when dealing with Davis.

The NBA season is an 82-game grind and a lot of the Pelicans toughest games will come in the first month of the season.

Don’t let the slow start and growing pains fool you. This is a good basketball team with good prospects for the future.

Be patient.

Don’t give up.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and New Orleans will have a good season before it’s all said and done.