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Preview: Suns face Pelicans team encountering identity crisis

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While the Pelicans try to navigate the rest of the season, the Suns are just trying to sneak out a win.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

What: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Phoenix Suns

When: Friday, March 1 at 7:00 p.m. AZ Time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Local fans know the Phoenix Suns are in a bad place, but the New Orleans Pelicans are somehow — at the moment anyway — in an even worse place.

Their best player doesn’t even want to be there anymore, publicly shaming them leading up to the trade deadline, but they aren’t even allowed to sit him out of games the rest of the year!

Bledsoe and Davis Klutch vs. team

When Eric Bledsoe didn’t want to be in Phoenix anymore, and showed it with public comments and poor on-court play to start the 2017-18 season, the Suns sent him home to wait for a trade. That ended a Bledsoe career with the Suns marred by a pair of super-awkward contract squabbles and a “strategic resting” half-season that contributed to the Suns’ and GM Ryan McDonough’s demise.

When Anthony Davis (repped by the same sports agent, Klutch Sports) played the same game with the Pelicans leading up to this year’s trade deadline, the Pelicans sent him home to wait for a trade.

But when they failed to execute a trade by the deadline, the league intervened and told the Pels they could not “rest” Davis the remainder of the season. The league argued a perfectly healthy Davis should not sit out the final 25-odd games just because of contract discontent.

One foot in, one foot out

One of the league’s 10 best players, and under a massive guaranteed contract for another season after this and a player option for a season after that, now plays just 20 minutes per night while he waits for the season to end and hopes he isn’t a Pelican come fall.

Most folks around the league do not understand the Pelicans’ or the NBA’s stance.

Why can’t the Pelicans sit Davis out if he’s not going to give his all, and any injury could kill his trade value?

And, if you’re going to play him at all, why only 20 minutes? He’s just as likely to be injured, and if he isn’t played all out, won’t he kill the team’s chemistry? The team clearly plays with less energy when Davis is on the floor these days.

I truly feed bad for former Suns coach Alvin Gentry.

The Pelicans

Through Jan. 18, the Pelicans were 21-25, just outside the Western Conference playoff picture. They boasted two All-Stars in their primes — the 25-year old Davis and 28-year old Jrue Holiday — and a rotation of mid-career veterans fighting for the post season.

And then there was the trade demand, giving the Pelicans three weeks to get him to a new team and start their rebuild, or convince him to want to stay.

They did neither, and their GM Dell Demps was eventually fired for it.

Since that demand, the Pelicans season has been basically over. They’ve lost 11 of 17 games, and it could easily get worse. They are just playing out the string for pride now, with a record not good enough for playoff contention and too good for high lottery stakes. They will almost certainly be picking in the 10-12 range in Draft this June.

Who are the Pelicans new best players, now that Davis only plays 20 minutes per game these nights?

Over the last 15 games, Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle are now their 20-point-per-night stars, while Jahlil Okafor (13 points, 7 rebounds in 24 minutes) has come out of nowhere to find his NBA game again.

Suns fans should watch Okafor compared to Suns rookie Deandre Ayton. Some fans have compared Ayton’s “empty” stats to that of Okafor, who burst onto the NBA scene as a top pick before playing himself out of teams’ plans because of his awful defense. See if you think there’s a talent, athleticism or skills difference between the two players.

Another top player for the Pelicans these days is one-time Suns point guard Elfrid Payton. You might remember Payton from last season. He was overall the best playmakers the Suns have had since Eric Bledsoe left, but you will also remember he didn’t make much impact on the team and was let go over the summer. Payton now shares the playmaking duties with Jrue Holiday, posting 11 points, 8.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 30 minutes a night over the last 15 games.

Darius Miller and Kenrich Williams round out the big-minute players these days.

I’m not sure how the rest of the season will play out for the Pelicans, but it doesn’t look very fun.

The Suns

A winnable game, eh?

Oh yeah, this is the Suns.

While still missing one of their best players with a sore ankle (T.J. Warren), this week the Suns have endured Josh Jackson failing to show at a meet and greet, and Devin Booker stubbing yet ANOTHER toe.

It’s quite possible that Jackson will be minutes-punished on Friday and that Booker will be held out for precautionary reasons, though it’s also possible they will be the Suns leading scorers.

And who knows if Deandre Ayton will show up with a supreme tank of energy, or if he will fade into the woodwork like he’s been known to do. Ayton is definitely not a win-maker in his rookie season, and now seems intent on exploring what’s buried in the ground at the base of that rookie wall he hit a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Mikal Bridges just trucks along as one of the best but least-recognized rookies in the league.

Bridges has developed this season into the team’s most reliable individual and team defender, even while being forced to defend much bigger or much smaller players much of the time while the coach deals with an uneven roster makeup.

On offense, he’s still struggling with that three point shot but he’s developed a bit of a playmaking skills as well. Over the course of the season, Bridges has increased his assists on a monthly basis, growing from 0.9 per game in November to 3.9 per game in February. His scoring is up to 9.4 points per game, a career-high month, as well.

Most minutes (rather than starting lineup)

Matchup problems

Clearly, the Suns will have a problem on the defensive boards. Randle and Okafor are excellent rebounders who know how to position themselves on both ends of the floor to grab the caroms.

On the perimeter, watch out for Jrue Holiday dominating everyone else. He’s a special talent on both ends of the floor and should have been an All-Star this season.

Matchup opportunities

When Anthony Davis is NOT playing (he only plays 20 minutes per game), the Pelicans have very little rim protection. If you think Ayton is bad at rim protection, just watch Okafor and Randle. The Suns lanky wings would do well to attack the rim on every possession when Davis is sitting, while also trying to feed Ayton in the post when possible as well.

Prediction

Who knows. If Booker plays and the Suns show some consistent energy, the Pelicans are supremely beatable.

But if the Suns are listless for much of the night and Booker rests that big toe, it could be a long long night in the desert.

My guess?

Suns win 125-120.