With playoff bid officially over, Pelicans' turnaround will have to wait

NEW ORLEANS -- Opening night against the Denver Nuggets only reaffirmed the precarious position the New Orleans Pelicans found themselves in entering the 2016-17 season.

Anthony Davis, one of the NBA’s elite talents, went off for 50 points in one of the best offensive performances of his young career. But the retooled Pelicans, minus Jrue Holiday, struggled to muster enough offense around him in a five-point loss.

“Anthony Davis needs more help” soon became an all-too-easy summation of the Pelicans’ issues, and also the very real essential question for a franchise blessed with a top-10 player but without a clear route to the sort of high-caliber running mates every star player needs around him.

The Pelicans’ final home game of the season, against those very same Nuggets, ended with a similarly salty tinge on Tuesday night: Two late turnovers by Holiday, who is an impending free agent, sealed a 134-131 loss and officially put an end to the Pelicans’ (meager) playoff hopes.

But unlike in the opener, when the team’s only recourse was to hit replay and hope to hold on long enough until Holiday arrived, the Pelicans, thanks to the blockbuster trade for DeMarcus Cousins, have answers.

“I look at AD and the way he’s played -- he’s played like a top-five player the whole season,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “And not only that, he’s done it for over 70 games. That’s a real positive in itself, right there.

“And you can see he and DeMarcus are going to be fine together. You put them in a training camp and you’re able to really hone in on what you want to do and how they can play together. They can be very, very effective. I think we have a chance to move forward.”

The data would agree: Since March 1, The Pelicans are tied for fifth in the NBA in net rating with the Houston Rockets, at plus-5.1, with the sixth-best defense and the 11th-best offense, per NBA.com/Stats.

And while the early returns for the Cousins-Davis front line were shaky, the partnership of the two All-Star big men is showing signs of staying power: The Pelicans have a plus-2.8 net rating when Cousins and Davis share the court in their almost 400 minutes together, and that number jumps to plus-5.2 since March 1 and plus-12.8 over their past 10 games.

“This past two-and-a-half, three weeks, we’ve really been jelling well together, figuring out how we want to play,” Davis said. “We definitely got something out of it, and now we have four games left to continue to build on it.”

Most of the Pelicans’ principals admitted that allowing 134 points and 53.5 percent shooting was too much, even to a Nuggets team with a top-five offense. But amid the fray, Cousins and Davis turned in perhaps their best combined effort on offense: Davis finished with 41 points, bringing his season average against the Nuggets to a whopping 40.7 in three games, while Cousins ended up one assist shy of a triple-double (30 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists).

And unlike in their opener, the Pelicans showed they had enough firepower to keep up in a track meet: New Orleans shot 51 percent from the floor and 44 percent from 3, including a 5-for-7 effort from Solomon Hill, and put up 68 points in the paint.

There is still much to be decided elsewhere on the roster, especially with Holiday’s return an open question. But the Pelicans have solved their biggest question: They have a second star and, with it, a degree of certainty with which to operate this offseason.

What they don’t have at the moment is the requisite time to capitalize on it.

Twenty-five games to remake a roster shuffled by the trade -- and, to a lesser degree, again and again by a turnstile of 10-day contracts -- proved too few, and it will likely leave the Pelicans showcasing rookie Cheick Diallo and late pickup Quinn Cook more than their star-studded frontcourt over their remaining four games.

The Cousins-Davis pairing indeed has a chance to vault the Pelicans back into the national consciousness, and that alone is the sort of impact the franchise has lacked since its run to the postseason two years ago. But a full realization of such a turnaround will have to wait until next season.

“We’re just so close to turning the corner and being what I expect us to be,” Gentry said. “I just think we’re really, really close.”