Tony Jones: Pelicans amazingly continue to thrive after Cousins’ season-ending injury

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) stretches as he tries to block a pass by Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) during the the Utah Jazz versus the New Orleans Pelicans NBA basketball game at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City Wednesday January 3, 2018.

The Western Conference standings are so bunched up that a good week can put you in position to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and a bad one can put you in 10th place.

So for the eight teams not named the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets that are vying for the postseason, there is no margin for error with a little more than four weeks remaining in the regular season.

I don’t know what’s ultimately going to happen to the New Orleans Pelicans. But this is a team that deserves a bunch of credit. New Orleans isn’t supposed to be 38-27 at this point, especially after losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the rest of the season to a torn Achilles. It’s a team that starts Rajon Rondo at point guard, relies on onetime Jazzman Ian Clark for significant minutes and currently starts Emeka Okafor, who’s 35 years old and last played in the NBA in 2013, at center.

And yet the Pelicans are in the fourth spot in the West. They’ve taken an impossible situation and thrived, winning 10 straight before losing Friday night to the Wizards, and beating the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers on the road in the process. They’ve defied all odds after Cousins went down.

One simple question: How?

First, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps traded a first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls for Nikola Mirotic, the 6-foot-10 stretch power forward who wanted out of Chicago the moment Bobby Portis broke his face with a punch.

Surrendering a first-rounder in a talent-rich draft wasn’t a popular move. It was a significant gamble for Demps, but it has paid off. Mirotic, who was on the Jazz’s radar before the trade deadline, has settled into New Orleans’ rotation and made a big contribution.

The Pelicans remade themselves on the fly. Star forward Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level, averaging 35 points and almost 14 rebounds in his past 11 games. Jrue Holiday continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league, setting up others and playing great defense while also scoring. And Rondo’s quietly having himself a terrific season.

Demps and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry both deserve kudos. This team could have surrendered when Cousins went down. But instead of faltering, Demps didn’t quit on his roster. And Gentry has made a lot of good moves. When Mirotic arrived in New Orleans, Gentry instantly put him in the starting lineup but realized that wasn’t going to work because Davis doesn’t like playing center. Mirotic fits better coming off the bench, bringing the second unit scoring punch.

So Gentry put Okafor into the starting lineup. The second pick of the 2004 NBA draft has rebounded the ball and provided rim protection in spot minutes, which is exactly what the Pelicans have needed.

More importantly, the Pelicans know who they are and who they aren’t. They know defense isn’t their strong suit — so they try to outscore people. New Orleans scored at least 110 points in every game of its win streak.

The Pelicans have a bunch of shooters surrounding Davis and Rondo. Holiday is capable of getting to the rim at will. The result has been the best offense in the NBA over the past month.

Whether it can last certainly is debatable. The schedule for New Orleans is difficult down the stretch. But the Pelicans have been so good that they’ve given themselves a belief that they can withstand anything and make the postseason.

The entire organization deserves credit. Demps took a gamble that’s paying off with the Mirotic trade. Gentry has shown his maturation as a coach. Davis has proven himself a franchise player and thrust himself into the MVP conversation.

And now New Orleans is accomplishing what many thought was impossible by thriving without one of its best players.

NBA POWER RANKINGS <br>1. Houston Rockets • A new No. 1! The 17-game winning streak (snapped Friday) got them there. Now things get tougher.<br>2. Golden State Warriors • Steph Curry will miss at least two games with a sprained ankle. <br>3. Toronto Raptors • DeMar DeRozan saves the day with heroic overtime performance at Detroit. <br>4. Boston Celtics • Jaylen Brown survives scary fall. <br>5. Portland Trail Blazers • Dame Lillard quietly playing at an MVP level. <br>6. New Orleans Pelicans • Anthony Davis tweaks ankle, misses Washington matchup. <br>7. Cleveland Cavaliers • LeBron drops 39 on the Nuggets at Denver. <br>8. San Antonio Spurs • Kawhi Leonard says he wants to return soon. <br>9. Oklahoma City Thunder • OKC inserts Corey Brewer into lineup. It works ... against Phoenix. <br>10. Washington Wizards • Bradley Beal, Otto Porter keeps the Wiz afloat in John Wall’s absence. <br>11. Minnesota Timberwolves • Reunited and it feeeels soooo gooood. Thibs signs Derrick Rose for rest of season. <br>12. Philadelphia 76ers • Sixers one of the teams that potentially can snag LeBron this summer. <br>13. Utah Jazz • They’re 16-4 in last 20 games. Rudy Gobert is playing at an all-NBA level. <br>14. Los Angeles Clippers • Montrezl Harrell becoming a force for L.A. in the paint. <br>15. Denver Nuggets • Paul Millsap’s back, and not a moment too soon. <br>16. Indiana Pacers • It’s going good, but they miss Darren Collison’s playmaking. <br>17. Miami Heat • Dwyane Wade continues to play well in Dade County reunion. <br>18. Milwaukee Bucks • Jason Terry is still in the NBA. You learn something new every day. <br>19. Los Angeles Lakers • Lonzo Ball has played well since return from injury. <br>20. Detroit Pistons • Five games out of the eighth spot in the East. Playoff hopes fading fast. <br>21. Charlotte Hornets • Have lost five straight, after strong post All-Star break start. <br>22. New York Knicks • Emmanuel Mudiay off to a rocky start after trade from Denver. <br>23. Chicago Bulls • The NBA called and made them play their veterans. No more obvious tanking. <br>24. Brooklyn Nets • Kevin Durant says they have bright future after close loss to Golden State. <br>25. Sacramento Kings • One of two teams out West scoring less than 100 points per game. <br>26. Dallas Mavericks • Beat Denver on Tuesday, damaging the Nuggets in the process. <br>27. Orlando Magic • Lost to Lakers on technicality after clock malfunction. <br>28. Atlanta Hawks • Random fact: Star rookie John Collins was born in Layton. <br>29. Phoenix Suns • The first team this season officially eliminated from the playoff race. <br>30. Memphis Grizzlies • Oregon rookie forward Dillon Brooks scores 20 points in fourth quarter in loss to the Chicago Bulls.