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NBA

It’s All Gone Sour In New Orleans

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

It feels like this hasn’t been true for a lifetime, but it really wasn’t so long ago that the New Orleans Pelicans were operating within an aura of optimism. As recently as, oh, I don’t know, a year ago, a person could have looked at the Pelicans’ situation and thought, “Hey! There’s something nice going on there. This team might be good soon!” Let’s see how that’s going.

After losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, the Pelicans are now 1-11 and solidly the worst team in the NBA. It’s never a good thing to lose to the Thunder, a team that is still more or less in the “we’re trying to lose a lot on purpose” phase of their rebuilding effort, but it is doubly humiliating to lose to a team like that while also having a team-wide meltdown. The Pelicans, frustrated with not getting the foul calls they think they deserved, received five technical fouls for arguing with the referees during this game. All of those techs were handed out in the second quarter, with the last one resulting in Josh Hart’s ejection from the game.

Afterwards, Pelicans head coach Willie Green did not express much sympathy for his frustrated players. “We’re not going to get those calls. We haven’t earned them,” he told reporters during his postgame press conference. “So what are we complaining about?”

We can all agree that it is never good when a coach is publicly chastising his players 12 games into the season, but an optimist might attempt to point out a few things as the cause for the Pelicans’ rough start to the season. Most obviously: Zion Williamson has yet to play a single game this year as he continues his recovery from a fractured foot. On top of that, Brandon Ingram has missed the last six games with a hip contusion. But even if both Ingram and Williamson returned to the team at full strength tomorrow, a 1-11 hole is a deep one for any squad to dig itself out of, and at this point it seems extremely likely that the Pelicans are going to finish below .500 and miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

Also, nobody has any idea when Williamson is coming back, in large part because the Pelicans have been weird and cagey about his injury situation. Nobody was even aware that Williamson had hurt his foot until Media Day, when general manager David Griffin revealed that Williamson had undergone surgery during the offseason but would be “on the court in time for the regular season.” Griffin later claimed that he meant Williamson would be ready to play at some point during the regular season, not by the start. Since then, the Pelicans have provided precious few updates about Williamson’s status, and it doesn’t seem like anybody really has any idea when he’ll be back. But hey, at least Pelicans fans recently got to see a (very large) Williamson shuffle around on the court for a few seconds.

It’s not just that Williamson isn’t playing this season, and hasn’t played much at all since being drafted, that makes the Pelicans’ situation so dire. There’s also the fact that Williamson has never really seemed all that enthused about playing in New Orleans. The comments about how much he loves to play in MSG were one thing, but far more concerning was a report stating that Williamson was unhappy with how cautious Griffin and the front office have been with him as he’s attempted to come back from various injuries.

The bad vibes surrounding Griffin don’t end there. Yesterday, Bleacher Report indicated that Griffin’s job may be at risk, in part due to a confrontation he had with ex-Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, who is now an assistant coach with the Kings. Griffin fired Gentry following the 2019–20 season and reportedly told other executives that he had given Gentry “all the answers to the test, and he still fails.” According to Bleacher Report, the two had to be physically separated following the Kings’ 113-109 victory over the Pelicans on Oct. 29.

From there, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the incident, Griffin denied the findings of the NOLA.com article, particularly his “answers to the test” line, and the notion that he played piano for Williamson during the team’s bubble stay in Disney World. 

Gentry responded with his own choice words, noting how his eventual replacement, Stan Van Gundy, who was also fired after one season in New Orleans, finished just one game better (31-41) than the Pelicans did under Gentry (30-42) the year he was let go. “You must not have given Stan the answers to the test, either,” Gentry shouted at Griffin, according to multiple sources, and the two men had to be physically separated.

Bleacher Report

So that’s how thing are going in New Orleans. The team is terrible, its franchise player is injured, surly, and ballooning in size, and everyone seems to hate the general manager. If there’s any silver lining for the fans, it’s that they just experienced watching everything fall apart when Anthony Davis left town, so they should be well-prepared for whatever happens with Williamson in the next few years.