For the most part, the New Orleans Pelicans have existed in the abstract—they’re a real basketball team with real basketball players that’s played real basketball games, but also, have they really? The NBA season is full of empty, forgotten space that’s catalogued by Basketball Reference pages rather than anybody’s memory, but the 1-11 Pelicans have been especially nondescript, floating through the season and silently losing games.
The Pelicans are a very bad team, but that alone isn’t a defining feature—there are lots of bad teams. But whereas the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Houston Rockets lose games as part of an alleged masterplan, the Pelicans lose games simply because they stink. Although this is a fairly young team, the combined goodness of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has robbed the Pelicans of the luxury of patience; Williamson and Ingram are ready to win now, so the Pelicans have scrambled to accommodate them. They’ve adopted the ambivalence of at once trying to win now while still rebuilding. As such, David Griffin, the VP of basketball operations, has imbued the roster with a schizophrenic quality, alternately stockpiling draft picks and then trading them for veterans.
Without Ingram (hip contusion) or Williamson (fat and sad), though, the Pelicans are a hodgepodge of role players who have floundered in the absence of an anchoring offensive force. Over the summer, the Pelicans acquired Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas with a particular vision of how Graham’s pull-up shooting and Valanciunas’s burliness would unclutter the court for Williamson; now, Graham and Valanciunas are jibbitz without a Croc, accompanying pieces that no longer have something to accompany.
But for the Pelicans, the shittiness on the court is secondary to the sour vibes that have quickly subsumed their season. Whereas their badness isn’t so interesting (it’s hard to muster much analysis beyond yikes), their general grumpiness is a rich text to mine. In their recent defeat to the Sacramento Kings, the Pelicans succumbed to the weight of their down-badness, setting an NBA record by registering five technical fouls in the second quarter alone. What’s more, the Pelicans’ orneriness extended beyond the court and into the front office—David Griffin tried to fight Alvin Gentry, a former Pelicans head coach who’s now an assistant in Sacramento.
These almost-fisticuffs with Gentry are emblematic of how poisonous Griffin has been in New Orleans. Since taking over the Pelicans in 2019, Griffin has fired two coaches (including Gentry), alienated Williamson, tried and failed to reconcile with Williamson by playing piano for him, and established a reputation as a two-faced scoundrel. In just two-and-a-half years, Griffin has managed to unravel all the good will that he earned by building the Cleveland Cavaliers team that won the 2016 championship.
In a season where they desperately needed to prove to Williamson that he can win in New Orleans long-term, the Pelicans have instead demonstrated how badly they need Williamson to even approach respectability. This is not just a bad team, it’s a broken one. They have until 2023 to find a fix.