Some of the uncertainty coming into this season, for the New Orleans Pelicans, concerned the departure of Rajon Rondo, who played an important role in the team’s strong finish last season and then left in free agency, and his replacement, Elfrid Payton. If, like mine, your brain has been turned to slush by worms and you therefore are the sort of lost soul who consumes a lot of NBA season-preview blogs, this was a common refrain: The Pelicans will need Elfrid Payton to replace what they lost in Rajon Rondo.
That’s accurate in a literal sense—they play the same position, so Payton is Rondo’s replacement—and also pegs them as broadly similar players: Good ballhandlers and passers; feisty, long-armed defenders; poor and generally reluctant outside shooters. It also rightly takes into account how unknown a quantity Payton remains after four lost seasons in the basketball penal colonies in Orlando and then, for the back end of last season, Phoenix—years during which he got infinitely more notice for his formerly bonkers hairdo than for anything he did with a basketball.
But it also maybe fails to capture the important ways he and Rondo differ from each other. Most crucially, Rondo, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, is one of the sport’s fussiest and most ponderous micromanagers; even last season, on the NBA’s fastest-paced team, it still felt like he spent more time stationary, at the top of the key, directing his teammates around like an overbearing sports dad, than he spent doing anything else. This is no small reason why, even when the Pelicans were winning games and finally finding some playoff success, they never came close to being as purely fun as a team with Anthony frickin’ Davis on it ought to be. Elfrid Payton, by welcome contrast, just wants to do lots of cool shit, as soon as possible.
Here was my favorite play from last night’s Pelicans-Rockets game, a surprising blowout road win for New Orleans in which Payton recorded the 2018-19 season’s first triple-double:
The casual, one-handed scoop lob pass is cool as hell, obviously, but my favorite thing about this play is that by the time Payton collects the defensive rebound, all five Houston players are already downcourt, running back on defense, and he decides it’s a fast break anyway. He was doing that type of shit all night, and it ruled.
(I don’t know whether Rondo would have done that; maybe he would have. But when I close my eyes and picture Rondo gathering that rebound, I can’t help but envision him looking up, briefly considering a long outlet pass, gesturing irritably at E’Twaun Moore to go there goddammit, no, there, and then jogging the ball into a scripted play. Every possession of the past decade of Rondo’s career has functioned first and foremost as a referendum on how unworthy of his respect his teammates are when compared to Kevin Garnett.)
Payton has never before played on anything even vaguely resembling a competent or good NBA team; in his pro career he’s never had a teammate as suited to anarchic fun as friggin’ Nikola Mirotić, much less Anthony Davis, or a coach half as eager as Alvin Gentry to rev up the pace and let everybody have fun. Last night, and hopefully for many more games to come, Payton played like he was brimming with glee at the opportunity to do cool shit with cool teammates; he filled the game with possessions as fast and adventurous as that one up there. He went and went and went, as if trying to fit into his 37 minutes of playing time all the madcap shit he didn’t get to do in the four seasons he spent in exile.
It worked! Davis went for 32 points on 21 shots, but he’s a monster and likely could do that with me as his point guard; more notably, Mirotić went for 30 on 20, and the Pelicans tore off an absurd 130.8 offensive rating with Payton on the floor. Even anonymous old E’Twaun Moore wound up looking like some kind of savant; he spent the game cutting smartly behind and past Rockets defenders who’d turned their heads to watch Payton doing daring shit, and scored 21 points on a mere 12 shots.
It’s too early—months too early, at the very least, given all parties’ histories—to make any kind of grand pronouncements after one game about how like Elfrid Payton Has Unlocked The Pelicans’ Potential, or The Pelicans Have Unlocked Elfrid Payton’s Hidden Genius, or whatever. Hell, maybe they caught the Rockets wobbling beneath all the roster changes the latter have undergone since last spring, and the first game of the season will turn out to have been an anomaly for both teams. But the alternative could be pretty cool, for New Orleans at least.