The New Orleans Pelicans’ most well-known player has appeared in a total of four career NBA playoff games, mostly missing out on the spotlight that the postseason and guaranteed national TV appearances provide. A vital member of the team’s reserves spent the past three winters in Germany, even further from the ESPN and TNT airwaves. Another player who started 19 games at center for the Pelicans was not even on a basketball team from 2013-17.
It’s safe to say that a few of the players wearing New Orleans uniforms during these playoffs will be unfamiliar to new or casual NBA fans. It’s a group described by point guard Rajon Rondo, who leads the Pelicans by a wide margin with 96 career postseason appearances, as an “underdog” squad, one that received a big boost from a crew of cast-offs with plenty to prove.
“We’ve got one guy who is a big dog – (five-time All-Star Anthony Davis) – but other than that, a lot of guys flying under the radar, who haven’t been nationally exposed in a lot of games in their career,” Rondo described of the Pelicans. “(The playoffs) will be a great stage for everyone on our team.”
Beyond Rondo’s 96 playoff games and the 32 played by guard Ian Clark over the past two springs with Golden State, no current Pelican has advanced deep into the postseason. Darius Miller (a free-agent find after excelling in Germany’s pro league) will be making his NBA playoff debut vs. Portland, while center Emeka Okafor has just six games under his belt, having been out of basketball for four-plus years during a lengthy rehabilitation from a neck injury.
Miller and Okafor aren’t the only unusual cases on the roster, either. Late-season pickup Jordan Crawford (11 career playoff games) spent the bulk of ’17-18 out of basketball, working on his game and waiting for another NBA opportunity after New Orleans released him in October amid a roster crunch. Rondo’s fellow starting guard, Jrue Holiday, does have 21 career games of playoff experience, but only three of those have occurred in the previous five years. Even in those three appearances, he was not 100 percent physically during a first-round sweep in ’15 by Golden State.
After sitting out the playoffs each of the past two seasons, the Pelicans (48-34) were projected to again miss the postseason by many NBA analysts last summer. A mediocre 20-20 start to the regular season seemed to validate that lack of optimism about New Orleans’ outlook, but along the way, the Pelicans grew into a closer, more tightknit team. Perhaps partly because they had so many players who were trying to cement a permanent job in the NBA, or prove that they belong in a rotation, it took a while for the Pelicans to develop the kind of chemistry that’s often needed to maximize a team’s talent. Rondo has noticed a significant difference in the locker room and atmosphere around the club compared to training camp back in September.
“The unselfishness,” Rondo said, when asked which area the Pelicans have shown the most growth as a team. “I think we’re rooting for the next man beside us. Early in the season, I couldn’t really say that for this team. But now, it seems like guys are happy for one another, genuinely. Regardless of whether guys are playing bad or playing great, when we come in that locker room, if we got a ‘W’, everyone has the same mindset, the same joy for each other.”
Rondo attributes some of that improvement to the natural progression of a long NBA season, with players dealing with adversity collectively and traveling across North America during the 82-game schedule.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” Rondo said. “Time spent together helps, understanding a guy’s personality, a genuineness of a person beside you, knowing that he wants the same success on the court as me. It’s been fun watching this team grow and fun to be a part of.”
Over a period of a few months, New Orleans GM Dell Demps acquired longtime NBA veterans Rondo, Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson, who helped substantially increase the team’s overall experience and confidence. The latter two also made the Pelicans locker room a bit louder and looser, constantly joking with each other and their younger teammates. At midseason, however, the humorous Allen and Nelson departed in a trade with Chicago, partly to make the salaries involved in the deal match. Rondo alluded to both players this week when he referenced the transformation for New Orleans off the floor this season.
“I can’t take any credit,” Rondo responded, when asked if the team’s rise in chemistry should be ascribed to his leadership. “It’s all (Alvin) Gentry, and guys within the locker room. Our personalities click. We have a lot of good guys, a lot of laidback, chill type of personalities. A couple funny guys. We lost a couple funny guys, but it’s still a great team.”