Pelicans building for next year

SALT LAKE CITY — Tanking is not in the team vocabulary for the New Orleans Pelicans.

At a time when many NBA teams out of the playoff picture are finding all sorts of ways to lose games down the stretch, the Pelicans are playing with a different purpose. Playing for a playoff spot is off the table. It doesn’t mean New Orleans is approaching the stretch run like a de facto exhibition season.

“This is the stretch that shows guys what they’re made of,” Pelicans center Greg Stiemsma said. “Not a lot of games left. A lot of guys tend to shut it down. We’re trying to stay focused and do the little things we’ve talked about all season.”

That’s one reason why New Orleans bucked conventional wisdom and started Anthony Davis on the road against the Utah Jazz on Friday night. Davis has struggled with back spasms and a left ankle injury. Given that the Pelicans are lottery bound, sitting the second-year forward seems like a sensible move to make.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams sees it in a different light. While other key players such as Eric Gordon did not play against the Jazz, Davis saw action. Williams thought it was important to get him out there because he believes the next few games could help shape what Davis does in future seasons when New Orleans is making a playoff push.

“I’ve heard a number of people say, ‘Why don’t you shut him down?’ ” Williams said. “We’re trying to develop him so he can know what it’s like to play in April and May and maybe even June. And I think it starts in these early years where he gets himself ready with this type of preparation.”

Extra playing time will give Davis a chance to make a further argument for winning Most Improved Player honors after the season. He is averaging 21.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game in his second NBA campaign after posting averages of 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks as a rookie.

Williams pointed out improvements Davis has made across the board. He is shooting better. He has become more adept at handling double teams. His blocks have gone up as he has learned to anticipate what opponents will do and get position on them. He is a better passer.

All of it, Williams said, can be directly attributed to a healthy work ethic shown by Davis going back to the offseason.

“There’s a number of things that have helped him improve,” Williams said. “The No. 1 thing is work ethic. He was a hard worker last year and last summer he bumped it up even more. He’s going to have to do the same thing this summer.”

Certainly New Orleans has been better when Davis is in the lineup than when he is on the bench. The Pelicans lost their past five games without their dominant forward. Getting him out on the court sends a message to the rest of the team that the season is far from done.

It is a message they have received loud and clear. New Orleans has taken on the attitude of a team that wants to condition itself mentally to be ready for future playoff runs.

“We’re building for next year,” Pelicans forward Al-Farouq Aminu said. “There’s always something to play for.”

One area where the Pelicans are trying to find improvement is the team’s road performance. New Orleans had lost 11 of 14 road games coming into Salt Lake City. Getting better away from home could be the difference maker in a playoff berth next season.

That’s one reason why the Pelicans are eschewing the tanking mentality that’s all the rage these days. A better future begins through present improvement.

“Obviously, the playoffs are out of the picture,” Stiemsma said. “But it’s our job to go out here and perform every night and try to build for next year. Build for our future.”