Standings don’t hold much meaning in November.
Just a quarter of the way through the regular season, the New Orleans Pelicans find themselves in the top half of the Western Conference and while it may not even be remembered come April, it’s meaningful now.
After two years of climbing from the bottom of the standings and hitting an endless series of roadblocks on the way up, these Pelicans (11-9) are in the mix.
“I think that’s the big thing,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “For me, personally, I think it’s going to be that way for most of the season. If you have a good week and win three or four games, you can go from seventh to third, and if you don’t you could go from third to eighth or just be out of it.
“Golden State, Houston and San Antonio are all elite teams, but beyond that I think there are about eight teams competing for five spots. It’s going to be that close throughout the season.”
It lends additional importance to matchups like Wednesday night’s matchup against Minnesota at 7 p.m. inside the Smoothie King Center. The Timberwolves (12-8) are amongst the group of playoff contenders in the West battling in the same positional fight as the Pelicans.
The Timberwolves earned a 104-98 victory in New Orleans on Nov. 1, accounting in part for its early edge in the table.
This time around, the Pelicans will employ a different look. Not only is point guard Rajon Rondo back from a left core muscle injury, but New Orleans has pivoted into a smaller lineup, utilizing E’Twuan Moore over Dante Cunningham at the small forward position.
It provides a greater challenge against Minnesota, because Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins are two of the league’s premiere wings. Their presence requires the Pelicans to use either Moore or Jrue Holiday to cover a significantly taller player on defense.
It’s a mismatch the Pelicans are aware the Timberwolves want to exploit, but it provides an additional shooter for New Orleans’ offense as well, which Gentry isn’t willing to give up.
“Minnesota is a really talented team and when you talk about Wiggins and playing that spot, we are not going to be as big as we would be starting Dante,” Gentry said. “So, we’ll see how it goes and we’ll see how we play. But, we’ve done a good job of playing against bigger teams. We just have to be solid, and it’s where our team defense really has to be really good.”
While one game on a Wednesday in November is unlikely to make much of a difference in the course of an 82-game season, the Pelicans finally have the luxury of looking at the impact of each game.
At this point the past two seasons the Pelicans were 7-13 and 5-15, so it was hard to find solace in an individual result.
Instead of having to piece together a prolonged winning streak or compile a particularly impressive two-week run just to get back into contention, this version of the Pelicans merely needs to hold their position.
Yes, there are more than four months left until the playoffs, and while the first two months of a season can’t garner a playoff spot, Gentry said it can change the approach entirely.
“Last couple of years, we have been starting off very slow in 13th or 14th place and it’s tough to get out of that in the Western Conference,” Anthony Davis said. “So, I think we are in seventh now and if we just win two games in a row, we could be in third. So, we are just doing our best just to stay in the mix.”
The Pelicans return to the Smoothie King Center to face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Here are three things to know:
1. DAVIS DELIVERS
Anthony Davis was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday, thanks to averaging 29.5 points, shooting 58.6 percent while tallying 12.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 blocks in four games. Davis led the Western Conference in points, field goals and field goal percentage during the week.
2. WOEFUL WOLVES
Despite employing defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau, the Timberwolves have struggled to stop teams. Minnesota ranks No. 25 in defensive efficiency, allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions. They’re the only Western Conference team to have a winning record and rank outside the Top 17 in that category.
3. DROPPING DIMES
The Pelicans rank No. 2 in assists, handing out 25.9 per game. Yet no New Orleans player averages more than six assists, meaning the passing distribution is spread throughout the roster. Rajon Rondo (5.9) and Jrue Holiday (5.7) lead the Pelicans in the category but aren’t among the league’s Top 20.