Pelicans endure season of ups and downs

When the 2013-14 season began, the New Orleans Pelicans, with at least two big offseason acquisitions, appeared to be a team of much potential and promise.

When it ended, the Pelicans had the look of survivors after finishing with a 34-48 record, 12th in the Western Conference and 15 games behind the eighth and final playoff seed, the Dallas Mavericks.

“I didn’t have a number as to how many games we would win,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “But I thought we had an outside chance of making the playoffs, and I knew we’d have to win 48 or 49 games to accomplish that.”

It was a season that, unfortunately, never got into a rhythm for the Pelicans because of season-ending injuries to three key players — forward Ryan Anderson, the team’s leading scorer at the time, starting point guard Jrue Holiday and starting center Jason Smith, who missed a combined 160 of 221 games lost to injuries and illness by Pelicans players.

“There were injuries, inconsistent play,” Williams said. “But as the months passed, I just saw our team continue to grow. All of our games seemed to be nail-biting games, and that’s tough on any team, but especially a young team.”

Said point guard Brian Roberts, who replaced Holiday as the starter: “There were a lot of ups and downs. But we fought through it, and I think we proved to ourselves we can be a good team and be good players.”

The lulls were particularly tough, and served to undermine the season. Three eight-game losing streaks were tough to overcome. The first one, not so surprisingly came right after Anderson’s injury on Jan. 3.

The second one, which began immediately after the All-Star break, took away optimism for a successful second half after an encouraging stretch before the break. And the third one, which started just before a final tough Western road trip with 10 games left in the season, threatened to have a lingering effect into next season.

However, even during that slide, in which there were some close losses, Williams said he liked the team’s effort.

“We competed hard all season,” Williams said. “I was impressed at how our team went after our opponents every night. And, to hear the comments from (general managers) and coaches and players around the league talk about our team and being undermanned didn’t affect the way we approach the game — that was something I was proud of.”

Said veteran guard Anthony Morrow, who increasingly filled the leadership role as the season went on: “People know when you’re giving it your all. And, although we didn’t have a winning record, we played as hard as we could, we didn’t point fingers and we continued to work and get better.”

There were other developments of which to be proud, first and foremost the emergence of second-year power forward Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Davis became one of the league’s premier players, a Western Conference All-Star and one of the just four players averaging double-figures in both points and rebounding. He led the Pelicans in scoring (20.8) and rebounding (10.0) and led the NBA in shot-blocking (2.82).

Williams said there was a watershed moment for Davis this season in his becoming one of the league’s best.

“We were playing the Lakers, and they started going to Pau Gasol,” Williams said. “Anthony blocked his shot a couple of times. He didn’t need any help against him.”

That was the sixth game of the season. Davis scored 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked six shots. Then, with three key teammates now out, he immediately lifted his play defensively, with seven games in a row of four or more blocked shots. With the 60th game, he began a stretch of eight consecutive games with at least 28 points, a franchise record.

Roberts filled in admirably for Holiday and provided steady ball-handling and shooting. He won the league’s free-throw shooting title at 94.0 percent (125-of-133).

Oft-injured starting guard Eric Gordon played 64 games, his most since his rookie season, before being lost to a knee injury and then surgery for the final 14 games.

The season also saw the steady growth of second-year players Austin Rivers and Darius Miller and rookie center Jeff Withey, who can expect bigger roles next season.

However, other than Davis’ emergence, the next-biggest development was that of guard Tyreke Evans. Moved into the starting lineup with 22 games remaining to get more scoring from the start of games, Evans averaged 19.9 points, 9.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds the rest of the way. He ended the season with two particularly impressive games, including 41 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the season’s second to last game against Oklahoma City.

However, the Pelicans had their main lineup intact for only 12 games. And the lineup of Davis, Holiday, Anderson, Gordon and Evans, which was to finish games, played just 91 minutes together. One of the team’s growing pains after the injury involved and inability to hold leads at the end of games.

Williams said the Pelicans were beginning to jell into that potential playoff team at the 17th game of the season, taking a triple-overtime victory at Chicago on Dec. 2.

“Our game in Chicago was like a signature moment for us, and I felt like after that game we were going to go to a different level, but we just couldn’t get over the injury bug,” he said.

The biggest disappointment, Williams said, is that the Pelicans didn’t become the defensive team he wanted and expected, even before the injuries. After the injuries, the Pelicans finished 19th in the league in opponents’ scoring at 102.4, but more telling 24th in opponents’ field goal percentage (46.7). The Pelicans were a respectable 14th (14.0) in forcing opponents’ turnovers, which was to be a focus of the defense with Holiday as “the head of the snake” pressuring opposing point guards.