Handling The Pressure

By:
Published: November 13, 2016

The New Orleans Pelicans, for the first time in a long time . . . a very long time . . . quit last night.

The team will deny it. The players will deny it. The organization will deny it. A number of writers and fans will deny it or ignore it to grind irrelevant axes. I’m saying they quit, and I’ll stick by it.

I’m a fan, I don’t take any shame in that. Nor do I think it takes away from my ability to analyze and write about the team with an objective perspective, but it rather motivates me to look at the team from all angles rather than simply hardening my heart. No knock on other writers, but I’m fine embracing both parts of my basketball life, and I’ll quit before I have it any other way.

As a fan, I can deal with losses. I can deal with loss after loss after loss. I can deal with a hopeless team. I can deal with frustrating close near-victories.

I can’t deal with quitting. I especially can not deal with quitting on the court. It goes against everything that I hold closest to my heart as a fan and as an analyst, and it is the one thing . . . the only thing . . . that really stands between me and enjoying my team.

What Happened

Saturday night, the Pelicans were doing fine against the Los Angeles Lakers. They were up 1 at the half and things were ok in many phases of the game, but the Lakers were shooting a high percentage. Much of it was from Lou Williams, who was just killing it. Standard issue: perimeter defense.

Davis went down, left the court, and went to the locker room for a few minutes. He had a good line, but from the start of the game it was clear, and I was commenting on it in real-time, that Davis was not pushing it, seemed off. He returned to the game, and he was not even his first-half self. In the less-than-6-minutes he was out, the Lakers went on a 16-4 run. Los Angeles had gained 2 net points in the first approximately 4 minutes of the quarter, but poured in a net 12 points in the next 6 minutes. That’s not good defense, but it’s not something you fail to see here and there in a game of runs. Again, this is not good.

4 points in 6 minutes for an offense is abysmal, however.

Even if Davis is some defensive anchor and the leader and all that kind of stuff, it in no way explains the deepening struggles of the struggling perimeter defense, nor does it explain the far more egregious offensive lapse. I’m not sure if I can call it a lapse because the offense has been so bad, and bad to the point of hurting the defense, as it did under Monty some.

This, however is not the bad thing. The bad thing is what happened after Davis returned. In the 2:35 left in the third after Davis returned, the differential did not change, showing the bleeding stopped, each team scoring 5 points in that span. Davis scored none of them. Davis was in for the first 9:35 of the fourth, then finally sat, during which time the scoring differential was 29-21. Davis was next to no help on the defense, collecting just 1 defensive rebound, and missed nearly all his jumpers, which he was settling for even more than early in the game.

Some were upset that Davis was even playing. Without knowing the medical specifics, I can see why there would be concern, but I can also see why the team and Davis would be ok with him playing. However, when he’s playing like that, just sit the guy. However, it is clear that the offense is nothing without Davis, and that the team has committed to getting Davis his stats, and I get why. This series made that explicit, though it was present, if less apparent, earlier.

Following Davis’ exit from the game, with the Pelicans down 113-92, the reserves gave up a 13-7 2:35-long garbage time. I know it’s garbage time. I called it garbage time.

To be clear, Davis does not appear on the injury report for Monday’s game against the Celtics.

The Pressure

The team’s play when Davis went down was unacceptable. The decision to play Davis for so long in the fourth was unacceptable. The reserves’ play after Davis exited was unacceptable.

This is all on Alvin Gentry. I know Gentry is in a bind. I know his job is not easy. I also know that losing is different than quitting, and quitting is what happened. The decision to play Davis, besides the overarching “play-D” strategy, was in part a reaction to the fact that the team fell apart without Davis. Some of this was, as Mason astutely pointed out, playing lineups with no real continuity. Necessity is a factor in this, but it’s Gentry’s job to be prepared and to have the team prepared. There are only so many hours in the day, so many minutes each game, but playing Davis the most minutes in the NBA (376) and 5th most minutes per game (37.6, behind the league-leading 38.7) at the time of this writing (per basketball-reference.com)¬†even accounting for missing time with injury, though overtime games do pump this up a little, perhaps, means you are less prepared to deal with his loss. The plan is to play Davis, Davis wants to play, and Davis playing more now increases the chances of winning now, so, they play Davis. There were decent chances to win more games than they did, so the strategy is valid, but it did not pan out. That may be luck, but it may be on the coaches or on the players and the coaches. Both paths lead to Dell Demps, by the way, so this issues goes at least this high, and I think higher.

As I said, it’s a bind, I get it, but it’s his job to be prepared for an injury and manage when it happens. Last night, it was a spectacular failure.

I have never been more disappointed in the Gentry era than I was last night.

I sincerely hope the team bounces back when Jrue returns. The lineups can stabilize, there will be more talent on the team, and people will slide into their more correct roles.

The losing has added to existing pressure. At bottom, no team, even one with Anthony Davis, is aiming at a title. Sports writers whose job it is to get sports fans to read are hesitant to bring this up, as are teams themselves, as their job is to aid and abet the willing suspension of disbelief of this truth. This is an entertainment business, and the way this entire thing has played out has not improved business. If Jrue were not ready to come back, there may have been a PR-move to ax someone, if not many someones. With Jrue coming back soon, there is a stay of execution. Not much is going to be gained by letting someone go this week as opposed to next, but there is a ton to gain if the plan just “clicks” once the pieces are in place. If it fails when Jrue comes back, what’s the difference in canning people then instead of now?

However, the pressure, and it’s real, creates an unstable equilibrium. The pressure has to be removed. Winning some will do that. Playing well will help, even if not as much as winning. Management / Ownership removing the pressure on the business side would help, but those issue may be real. Or very real.

The other alternative is for the team to just go “pop.” We started to see that last night.

That makes me very sad.

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