Even on the road, Payton proves to be at home.
Just as the slight ripple of preseason panic washed over our backs, a new narrative arose from the depths of Bristol and the Ringer’s office in LA: over-inflating Rajon Rondo’s importance to last season’s successful run by the New Orleans Pelicans. After wading through cut-and-paste articles and talking heads clips declaring that Anthony Davis would be gone by the trade deadline — we were now having to hear about how a player they trashed throughout the season was all of a sudden the most important Pelican.
This is always the case with reactions to Rondo; there are always two extremes when the truth is way more in the center. The naysayers were trying to force themselves into your consciousness like an abusive-agitant of an algorithm based ad agency that made sure only the messages you didn’t want to hear would cut through the noise. You tried your best to ignore, but they still stung like when you got shot by paintball pellets while riding your bike on St. Claude (or did that just happen to me?). However, today was a day where all of those steam whistles bounced bounced off of you, like bullets off of Luke Cage — it was Pelicans opening night, and the Pelicans delivered from the tip.
There were so many storylines in the Pelicans 131-112 blowout win over the Rockets, but since Preston already did a great job of recapping the game here, I’m going to focus on a reckoning I’ve been waiting on for quite sometime.
I got off of work early today, came home and hit play on the next podcast in my que while I washed last night’s dishes. It was the “20 Questions for the 2018-19 NBA Season” episode of The Mismatch — the newly renamed Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon podcast on the Ringer Network. As luck would have it, the pod settled in on the most disappointing team this season segment as I was trying to scrub a crusted-on burnt homemade cheese sauce from the side of the pot I had made it in. However, I soon had a steroid-like shot of elbow grease as Chris Vernon began to explain how the Pelicans will be a let down because they will miss Rondo so much and they have nothing outside of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.
It’s a hard argument to even fathom.
Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle finished last season in amazing fashions — if there was a role-player All-Star Game, these two would be starters. Both of our sideshow bigs showed up tonight, combining for 55 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, and yet somehow still were not able to steal shine from Anthony Davis, who added 32 points, 16 rebounds, three steals, three blocks and eight assists — yes, Anthony Davis demonstrated how to pass out of a double team and the NBA world’s sphincter just tightened up.
AD with a career-high 8 assists #DoitBIG pic.twitter.com/3rqDVYyeoK
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 18, 2018
However, what I want to focus on in this article is my special baby boy who apparently has the biggest shoes to fill, at least according to national chatter this week.
Good luck to @elfrid and @PelicansNBA tonight as they open the NBA season. Here's a postgame pic from the last time he played a game for the hometown team. #GeauxCajuns #DoItBig pic.twitter.com/2i1UTgzElo
— Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns® Men's Basketball (@RaginCajunsMBB) October 17, 2018
While the season opener was a road game, Elfrid Payton was at home.
With his career in the balance and more questions than he had answers for on his resume, Payton is in redemption mode, with the best cut man he could ask for in his corner. Alvin Gentry’s open court run and gun — but with close range shots like John Wick (perhaps it’s run and gun-fu) — and a cast of big men no one can guard fits him like a chunky ice snowball stained smile at a birthday party at Skate Country in Terrytown. We are talking a close-range killing machine that scored 76 points in the paint tonight.
Payton was decisive. He was aggressive. The bigger men and names got the glory, but Elfrid also starred. He was the Mix Master Mike, keeping the vibe and pace where it needed to be while orchestrating a wire-to-wire neutering of the much ballyhooed red Rockets and their 1% status in the Western Conference. The Pelicans ate the rich and Elfrid Payton held the carving knife.
Loving this start. Fast paced & good ball movement in transition. Hopefully they can keep that control. I'm still not very confident in playing in the half court consistently.
— Andrew Smith (@DruProductions) October 18, 2018
A Mike D'Antoni team is getting run out of the building by a team just playing harder and faster.
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) October 18, 2018
Pelicans advanced stats for tonight:
— Kumar (@FearTheBrown) October 18, 2018
Elfrid Payton with the 22nd opening night triple-double in #NBA history, currently with 10/10/10...Its the 11th of his career. #DoItBig
— Pelicans PR (@PelicansPR) October 18, 2018
There’s a new movement in NBA coverage to diminish the triple-double, but don’t feel guilty about celebrating them. While there are some reasonable arguments against the fanfare attached — it’s mostly just fun-hating snobbery at work.
Elfrid Payton is just slicing through this Rockets defense -- and he's supposed to be the Pelicans 5th option!
— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) October 18, 2018
The triple-double is a short-lived employee of the month snapshot of an award for positively affecting three areas of the game — if you are getting them from your 5th or maybe even 6th option, your system is working. Everyone is involved and your role players are doing all of the little things — and some spectacular ones too.
Payton’s triple-double should be celebrated tomorrow morning. Like his predecessor, he has been a polarizing talent in this league. Many from the national media, through the local blogosphere — and even my own podcast host — have continually bet against him. To be fair, he has given them many reasons to. However, for those like Ryan Hebert and myself, tonight proved Payton worthy of the many love letters we’ve written over the years, built on eyeball test blind faith and fandom glazed projections.
Seeing Elfrid play this well and hard is really really cool for me. #geauxcajuns
— Ryan Hebert (@RyanHebert89) October 18, 2018
Letters like Ryan reminiscing over Payton taking on Doug McDermott in the NCAA tournament, and what his presence meant to basketball culture in Lafayette:
March 21st, 2014 Elfrid Payton, and Doug McDermott are squaring off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Payton’s 14th seeded Ragin Cajuns versus McDermott’s 3rd seeded Blue Jays’. Payton is 6’4 point guard guarding the 6’8 forward McDermott nearly the entire game, unusual, but Payton won the Lefty Driesell-NCAA defensive player of the year award and this is a task he wouldn’t have any other way. There was a stretch in the second half where Payton held McDermott scoreless for 14 straight minutes, and the Cajuns got within 4 with 2:30 left, thanks to two Elfrid Payton free throws. If you can remember, nobody could guard Doug McDermott that year hence the nickname “Doug McBuckets”, but Payton didn’t shy away from the challenge. McDermott went on to hit 3 straight 3’s and seal the game, ending with 30 points and Creighton won 76-66. Payton ended the game with a line of 24 points 8 rebounds 3 steals and 3 assists. He gave a mid-major 14th seed a chance to win an NCAA tournament game they frankly had no business being in, and he fought tooth and nail every game of the season to get them to that point.
Or my attempt to compare him to a heckle from an audience that never actually happened.
I know there’s a ton of other evidence you can throw in my face that says he’s a marginal NBA player, or perhaps worse. However, I’ll keep looking at how last season before being traded to Phoenix 41% of his shots came within 3’ of the basket and he converted an outstanding 70% of them. I’ll project how much better that can be with the space provided by the attention devoted to Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore — as well as the space provided by attacking off of screens set by the comic book character chiseled chest of Julius Randle. I’ll look to how he has affected all phases of the game despite being on bad teams — averaging over 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 steal for his career. I’ll reminisce over how Darren Erman was able to teach Steph Curry to fight through screens and to become an adequate defender. I’ll believe that the culture that was developed in that Pelicans’ locker room to close the season, sweep Portland and take a game from the Warriors, will eliminate that alleged tendency to drift mentally on the defensive end.
Save your truthiness — I will warm myself in the comfortable blanket of my irrational fandom, and belief in Dell Demps’ evaluation process and the coaching staff’s ability to mold Payton into a long term solution next to Jrue Holiday. I only have blind faith in one thing and that thing is Elfrid Payton being the answer.
Or even last offseason, when I suggested Elfrid being the major offseason addition for the Pels in a piece whose title Alvin Gentry — despite our past differences (sorry coach) — almost stole from me at the latest media day, claiming they didn’t care about adding shooting but good versatile basketball players. And according to Gentry, Payton and Julius Randle are exactly that. Gentry loves Elfrid’s ability to get to the bucket as his penetration opens up the offense like Tyreke Evans’ used too, but Payton gets there without holding the ball, allowing the offense to still play Gentryfied.
It’s one game, but it was a road win against a hated division rival on national television, which makes it like Christmas — and the gift was cobbled together by an Elf — one that people should start believing in.