LOS ANGELES -- As bad as things have looked at times for the New Orleans Pelicans, as 0-6 has turned into 1-11 and 4-15 to 11-26, hope has always been as close as the end of their bench.
With virtually every member back from the team that gave a firm first-round nudge to the eventual champs last postseason, and the injuries of five key rotation players originally expected to be mended by or soon after New Year's, a second-half surge remained in the realm of possibility, especially in the suddenly shallow Western Conference. After all, the NBA is largely defined by a select few, and Anthony Davis is now a card-carrying member.
Monday's announcement that Quincy Pondexter will miss the season to have a second surgery on his left knee means the entire cavalry is now present and accounted for, and the outlook, both in the short- and long-term, appears grim.
That was all but confirmed Tuesday night by coach Alvin Gentry after the Davis-less Pelicans lost 95-91 to the nine-win Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.
"There's no soul-searching," Gentry said. "You just have to decide if you're going to play hard every night and if we want to have a good team. That's the bottom line. It doesn't involve soul-searching, it involves looking in the mirror and being able to say 'I gave the best effort I could tonight.' And that's not what we're getting. Somehow, some way, the communication has to change."
The defeat drops New Orleans to 0-5 this season when Davis is out of the lineup.
"Until you play hard, that's the very first thing that you check off the list," Gentry said when the record without Davis was broached. "Are we playing hard? If you can check that one off then you can go to the second one. But if you don't check that off, where you're playing hard every night, and competing every night, those other check marks don't mean anything."
The Pelicans were 18-18 when a slumping Pondexter arrived via trade from Memphis last season. Pondexter, in his second stint in New Orleans, went on to shoot a scorching 43.3 percent from beyond the arc thereafter, providing a bona fide and sorely-needed 3-and-D wing option and pushing the team to a 27-19 record the rest of the way, resulting in a first playoff berth since the departure of Chris Paul.
Exactly one year later, Pondexter's prognosis might be the death knell to a once-highly anticipated Pelicans campaign.
"It is what it is," Gentry said before Tuesday's game. "I hate that statement by the way, but that's what everybody uses and in this case, I don't know what else you can say. It's just that we don't have him, we hadn't had him this year. We're really looking forward, because I really think he can help the team. He gives us a spacer, another shooter on the floor, a versatile defensive player. We don't have that. But we haven't had that. We got what we got and that's what we have to use."
New Orleans' issues are varied, with defense (28th in the NBA) and a roster seemingly ill fit to run Gentry's pace-and-space offense (tied for 18th) at the top of the list. ("Basketball reasons" might again suffice as appropriate shorthand.) The absence of Pondexter, the 37th-best small forward last season according to real plus-minus, might seem minor in comparison to the existential questions the franchise now faces, including, perhaps, who stays and who goes. But it does neatly encapsulate this season's two biggest sources of frustration: injuries and a disconnect between personnel and system.
Specifically, the Pelicans ranked second in the league through the first 20 games in both games missed because of injuries (84) and salary lost because of injuries according to data provided by the site In Street Clothes. With at least 62 more to come from Pondexter alone.
In July, the 27-year-old told the Times-Picayune that he "begged" team doctors not to administer an MRI so he could play in the postseason. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in May and, despite being listed as "questionable" three games ago in Dallas, will soon have another procedure to "correct the cartilage injury" in the same left knee.
"This is my fourth year here and we've had injuries every year. It is tough," said Ryan Anderson, who missed a combined 81 games the previous two seasons but has been held out of only two this season because of illness. "It's not something you take lightly, but it's something you just want to be prepared for. It happens in this league."
The personnel problems have been just as difficult to suss out. Tyreke Evans, for example, is having the best statistical season of his career, with a 19.03 player efficiency rating and a legitimate 3-point stroke (38.7 percent) he credits to a few mechanical tweaks, including keeping his guide hand straighter, using his hips more and rising up quicker and with his body aligned straight up and down. But Evans traditionally likes to operate with firm control of the possession, and while he has done better of late to keep the ball moving, an offense built for speed now finds itself mired in the middle of the league's pace rankings.
Golden State, Gentry's most recent stop before New Orleans, boasts a wealth of similarly-sized, skilled wing players, which allows the team to switch on defense and create mismatches the other way, among other things. Outside of Pondexter and maybe Evans, the Pelicans don't have a player one would feel comfortable playing heavy minutes on the wing, which forces giving starts to limited specialists like Alonzo Gee or Dante Cunningham.
Answers have indeed been hard to come by. With Pondexter now out of the picture this season, and the Pelicans rubbing up against the Lakers and not the likes of the Warriors in the standings, it's looking more and more likely that they may not come before time officially runs out.
"We just have to keep pushing," Davis said. "We were hurt in the beginning and guys came back, and we still end up not being able to win games. We're not looking for anybody to save us, or for anybody to give us a pat on the back. We're all men. We have to win games. That's what everybody's here to do, that's why guys get paid for: to win games. That's what we have to do.
"We talk about we want to be this playoff team, a championship-contending team, but we can't talk about that right now. We have to take it one game at a time and start to get wins."