New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said his team's "best basketball" was ahead of it when the NBA season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On a conference call with reporters Thursday, Griffin pointed out that the Pelicans were rounding into shape at a time when the team was making a push for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
At the time of the stoppage, New Orleans was 3.5 games out of the playoffs, but Griffin knew what the team had gone through up until that point.
"There was the first part of the year where we played the hardest schedule with the most games lost due to injuries," Griffin said. "We were absolutely the walking wounded. Alvin Gentry and his staff were trying to cobble together lineups. We had multiple games where we were missing seven of our top eight rotational players, multiple games without six (players), without five (players). What Alvin and (assistant coach) Chris Finch had to do to just juggle the lineup was profound."
One major piece of that puzzle that the Pelicans got back in January was rookie sensation Zion Williamson. The 19-year-old made his NBA debut on Jan. 21, and was averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 19 games.
New Orleans started to turn things around after a fundamental defensive shift -- dropping the bigs on pick-and-rolls -- in mid-December, so by the time Williamson made his debut, the Pelicans were pointed in the right direction. But Griffin acknowledged that the first part of the year -- when the Pelicans started 6-22 -- has to be factored into how they've done this season as a whole.
"I think we've seen a lot of different facets of this team, for better or worse, and the thing that I think pretty strongly is that at the end of the day we're the sum of our habits," Griffin said. "If the season gets called and we're not part of [the playoffs], that's what we earned at this point. If the season doesn't get called and we get to continue on and we're able to be better versions of ourselves moving forward, then we will have earned that."
In their 18 games remaining, the Pelicans have two left against the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, three against the San Antonio Spurs (who were a half-game back of New Orleans), and two against the Sacramento Kings )(who were tied with the Pelicans at 28-36). Sacramento and New Orleans were set to play each other on March 11 before the NBA postponed the game minutes before tipoff.
Griffin and the Pelicans staff now have to deal with a challenge facing all NBA teams: what to do with the roster since players can't be in the facility. Some players have left New Orleans, but all are checking in daily with the team's strength and training staff via video chats, whether that's Zoom or FaceTime.
"Jason Sumerlin, our strength coach, has been doing Zoom workouts with our players, helping them stay locked in from a fitness perspective, and actually, one cool thing, we had a great number of players buy equipment for their homes as soon as the facility was closed, and Jason I think was at the forefront of this league-wide in getting guys the things they're going to need to stay fit," Griffin said. "So, in the here and now, we're doing as many things as we can to support this team."
While Sumerlin and Aaron Nelson, the team's head athletic trainer and vice president of player care and performance, are monitoring the team's physical well-being, the Pelicans are also focused on how their players are doing mentally.
Pelicans director of mental health and wellness Jenna Rosen has been working with players twice a day with a Zoom of mental exercises and stress-relieving exercises according to Griffin.
"We're trying to be as creative as we can to have constant contact with people and make them understand that we're still part of the same family, and family matters vitally to this group," Griffin said. "I think our players are very close individually. I think organizationally, I think if you talk to most of the people in it, they would tell you that 'family' is a big focus of what we've brought to this, so we're trying as best we can to connect with as many people on as many different levels as possible."
The growth that the team has made off the court is one of the reasons Griffin says he would still consider this season a success, even if the Pelicans don't play another game. One of the original goals for the franchise this season was playing in meaningful games down the stretch and the team was on pace to do that.
"The culture here has changed a great deal for the better, and I think players love being a part of what we're building," Griffin said. "In terms of [wanting] to play meaningful games coming down the stretch, I think we feel like we will have been cheated out of that potentially if we don't get to play, but I think we were very clearly in that space. ... We've put ourselves in a decent position that way, but certainly, in aggregate, you would say, on the court, we didn't get to experience what we hoped if the season were called and off the court, I think we were more successful than we had any right to dream we could be."