Injuries, and their response, defined first half of Pelicans’ season

When the 2013-14 season began for New Orleans’ NBA franchise, there were tempered excitement and expectations.

The team entered with a new nickname — the Pelicans — and with key additions in All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, swingman Tyreke Evans, guard Anthony Morrow and center Greg Stiemsma. And a refurbished New Orleans Arena was there to greet them.

And as we move past the season’s halfway point, there are encouraging signs — such as the development of second-year power forward Anthony Davis into one of the NBA’s young stars, averaging 20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and a league-leading 3.27 blocked shots. And guard Eric Gordon has rebounded from injuries to be a reliable starter.

“I think AD’s development this season has been really good for us,” coach Monty Williams said. “Eric has been better than people give him credit for.”

Despite all of that, plus the improved performance of some young role players, it has been a painful campaign for the Pelicans, who enter Saturday night’s game against visiting Chicago at 19-26.

And pain is the main reason the team has languished below .500.

Injuries and a few bouts with illness have caused the team’s players to miss 99 games. That has affected their chemistry and consistency.

During training camp, Williams and General Manager Dell Demps said it would take time for the four newcomers, plus rookie center Jeff Withey, to meld with holdovers Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith, Al-Farouq Aminu, Brian Roberts, Austin Rivers and Darius Miller.

“My guess is that we will see improvement in increments, and we probably won’t see a lot of improvement until about January,” Williams said.

That appears to have happened, but in a totally different way from what was expected. The Pelicans have won four of their past six games, riding a supporting cast thrust into lead roles.

Injuries to Anderson, Holiday and Smith have changed the makeup of a team that was pressing to forge an identity and is built on tough defense and up-tempo offense — styles of play that require depth.

“It is like we have a new team with those guys out,” Williams said. “The rotations are different just because the guys that are out play 30 to 35 minutes a night. Now you’re filling those minutes with guys who typically play 10 to 12 to 15 minutes. We have had to adjust our schemes and are just now starting to get comfortable with it. But I don’t want the guys to use that as an excuse.”

From the beginning, pain has had its hand in the Pelicans’ season. Anderson, who was second in the NBA in 3-pointers made in 2012-13, started the season with a broken left toe and missed the first nine games. The Pelicans went 3-6.

He returned with a bang, leading New Orleans to a 135-98 home triumph over Philadelphia on Nov. 16. With defenders forced to come out behind the 3-point line to guard Anderson, that opened the court for Evans and Gordon to drive. The Pelicans won six of their next eight games through Dec. 2, showing how they could play with a full deck.

But then backup center Stiemsma was lost Nov. 12 for six weeks with a sprained left knee. And Dec. 1, the bone leading to Davis’ left pinkie was broken when he hit his hand on the rim at New York in the middle of a three-game road sweep of Eastern Conference teams.

After the Dec. 2 game — a thrilling, triple-overtime victory at Chicago in which Anderson scored 36 points — the Pelicans lost six of their next eight. Davis was back for the last two losses in the stretch.

Just after he came back, starting center Smith missed a week with what was thought to be a bruised right knee. He sat out one game, then missed another week.

Evans, who missed six games in the preseason with a sprained left ankle, was in and out of the lineup in December and January.

That was only a taste of what the new year would bring. On Jan. 3 at Boston, Anderson collided with Celtics forward Gerald Wallace during the fourth quarter. Anderson, who was the team’s leading scorer at 19.8 points per game, was diagnosed with a cervical stinger, then a herniated disk. He could be lost for the season.

The Pelicans received more bad news when Holiday, on Jan. 10, was lost for a month or more with a stress fracture in his right tibia. Then Smith’s ailing right knee, on Jan. 18, was found to be the result of loose cartilage that had to be removed. He had surgery this week and is expected to be out three to four more weeks.

Holiday’s on-the-ball pressure was integral to the team.

“He was the head of the snake with regard to our defense,” Williams said. “He set the tone; it all started with him.”

Through all of that, New Orleans lost nine of 10 games.

“It was like we were in shock,” said backup point guard Roberts, who took over in Holiday’s absence. “It just all happened so fast and to so many guys who are key to our team.”

Davis, who had shown signs of being a leader in training camp, became more assertive — and he improved offensively, too.

Gordon, who had played in just 51 games the past two seasons, has only missed three games and is averaging 15.9 points. His strong drives to the basket have become a staple of the offense, and he has made big shots.

Roberts stepped up, averaging 13.4 points on 56.4 percent shooting (47.6 on 3s) in a recent seven-game stretch. And he has been a steady hand on a depleted team that is learning to help defensively with intensity and share the ball offensively.

“They are all learning to play off (Davis) and Eric,” Williams said.

In his second year, Rivers seems to have found his niche with drives to the basket; he looks confident and comfortable. The same can be said of small forward Aminu’s improvement as a shooter. And Miller, buried on the bench before the injuries, has gained Williams’ confidence with his shooting and defense, which he was known for in college at Kentucky.

Withey’s play is the most recent positive development. With him playing at a high level, that forced Stiemsma to play better — and he has of late, getting nine points and 11 rebounds Monday in a win against Cleveland.

“Watching guys like (Roberts) and Withey step up when they weren’t expected to have been among the most encouraging,” Williams said. “We have shown great chemistry. Those are the things I’m pleased about, but yet I want more. And that’s what I’m going to push for.”

Under Williams, defense is expected to be the Pelicans’ strong point. The injuries notwithstanding, they have struggled all season. New Orleans ranks 22nd in scoring defense (102.0 points per game) and is 25th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (46.3 percent). The Pelicans are a middle-of-the-pack 15th in creating turnovers (14.2).

They are 25th in points allowed in the lane (43.4) and last in free throws attempted by opponents (26.4). That last stat is a sore spot for Williams.

“We need to play with more force at times and not whine to the officials when we’re fouled,” he said.

Also, the Pelicans went 14 consecutive games when they were outscored in the third quarter until Tuesday’s victory at Cleveland. They went 4-10 in those games.

More help is on the way.

Holiday is expected to return in the next week or two, and Smith likely will be back before the end of February. That will give the Pelicans more experience, leadership, talent and depth, which should bode well for the second half of the season.

That may bring it back to the central question surrounding the Pelicans when the season started: chemistry.

But even with their best sneaker forward, a run to a playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference is unlikely.