Lewis: Injuries make it tough to grade Pelicans season

Since he shaves his head and his goatee is closely cut, it’s hard to tell if Monty Williams has much more gray hair than when he became coach of the then-Hornets four years ago — especially after this season with the now-Pelicans, which ended Wednesday night with a 105-100 victory against Houston.

But certainly Williams, 43, showed signs of being more emotionally tested than he did in the previous ones, thanks to an avalanche of injuries that turned a playoff contender into a game but outmanned group of also-rans before mid-January.

“This is what you sign up for,” Williams said before Wednesday’s finale. “You want it to be emotionally draining all the way until June if you can. You can’t run from it, because it’s part of coaching.”

But, he admitted, others have shown concern.

Assistant head coach Randy Ayers checks on him — “more than my mom and dad,” he said — to make sure he gets enough sleep and brings vitamin drinks to his room on the road.

San Antonio coach Greg Popovich, for whom Williams both played and coached, checks on him regularly too.

And Williams admitted to some unusual (for him) feelings over the past few days.

“At yesterday’s practice, I got a bit emotional because our gym was off the charts,” he said. “Our coaches were talking about how abnormal it is for us to be in this position — not going to the playoffs and having our guys come into the gym and work as hard as they did.

“It got to me a little bit, and I had to get away and check myself because I felt like a lightweight for a minute before I got back into being an idiot (Williams’ term for being hard on the players). It was one of those moments that I took time to enjoy it.”

Indeed, even without Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon down the stretch, adding to an already lengthy list of sidelined players, the Pelicans impressed opponents with their intensity.

They led Houston into the final minute last Saturday when the Rockets needed a win to secure the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. And Monday, they broke an eight-game losing streak by beating an Oklahoma City team that would have nailed down the No. 2 seed with a stunning victory.

On Wednesday, with the No. 4 seed in hand, the Rockets rested three regulars, including All-Star guard James Harden, who torched the Pelocans for 33 points Saturday.

So put an asterisk next to that score, even if it earned the team a standing O from the Smoothie King Center crowd. It wasn’t like the Pelicans were playing with a full deck, either.

Despite the feel-good ending, the fact remains that that at 34-48 (a seven-game improvement from 2012-13), the Pelicans finished 15 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the unbelievably rugged Western Conference.

Would having Davis, Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith reasonably healthy (they missed a combined 192 games) have made up the difference?

Williams wouldn’t quite go there Wednesday.

“It balances itself out,” he said. “We lost some we shouldn’t have when we were healthy and won some when most people didn’t think we had a chance. But having so many games out definitely took a number of wins away. How many? It’s hard to say.”

So Williams presumably gets that ultimate mulligan for next season, which will be his fifth.

However, it seemed a little strange that on Wednesday, General Manager Dell Demps held his season-ending press conference a day early without Williams, who will speak more Thursday, or Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Mickey Loomis present.

Last year at the conclusion of Tom Benson’s first season as owner, the three appeared together to wrap things up.

The team said Demps had to be out of town Thursday, and Loomis presumably is hip-deep in Saints draft discussions.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t a joint appearance, and Demps gave a somewhat lackluster endorsement of his coach.

“It’s tough,” Demps said when asked to assess Williams’ performance. “With all of the injuries, it’s unfair to give a true assessment of that.

“With the pieces that he’s had and the way our players have developed, I think that’s a definite positive. ... I think he was put in an impossible situation, and I am happy with the way our guys competed.”

Demps later added: “I think we’re great.” But that wasn’t the way his first response came out.

Demps also talked about doing whatever it takes to find the pieces to add to the core group to turn the Pelicans into contenders, which in the West is no simple task.

Without a first-round draft pick and more contract constrictions that allowed the acquiring of Holiday and Tyreke Evans in the past offseason, Demps warned not to look for any blockbuster moves although he said the team would not be afraid to be aggressive.

Demps and Williams also have to decide if this is going to be an offensive or defensive-minded team. Right now, it’s built for offense, but it’s going to take defensive improvement to make the playoffs, much less advance in them.

That’s the kind of thing likely to give Williams more gray hair, especially since his involvement with the U.S. national team will prevent offseason rest and/or riding herd in offseason workouts.

But with all that’s happened, was he ready to finish things up Wednesday?

“No way,” he said. “I wish we had a lot more to go.”