Pelicans

Pelicans’ Late Surge Likely Too Little Too Late

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The worldwide pandemic halted an exciting NBA season just as general sports fans began to turn their attention to the dying embers of the regular season. The MVP, Rookie of the year and Western Conference eighth-seed race garnered interest for all basketball fans. 

New Orleans was in a battle. Four games separated 8th-seed Memphis and 12th-seed San Antonio. Of those teams, New Orleans’ schedule was the easiest. Their final 18 games included 15 against sub-.500 teams (although seven came against the Spurs, Grizzlies and Kings). Overall, the Pelicans were primed for the eighth seed. According to FiveThirtyEight, they have a 60% chance of making the playoffs – 45% higher than the next best in Memphis.

Looking back, New Orleans’ season was a mixed bag. Untimely injuries caused a slow start to the season with a dismal 13-game losing streak in November and December. As the season went on, the Pelicans went from strength to strength. The introduction of Zion Williamson showed the world what the Pelicans truly could be.

At their best, the Pelicans were a prolific transition team. Since Zion returned to action, New Orleans’ ranked fourth in fast-break points percentage and third in pace. The high-octane style is Coach Gentry’s bread and butter. Pelicans GM David Griffin did an outstanding job of creating a team to suit his coach. The previous regime, under Dell Demps, failed to see out this vision. Demps continually signed plodding, floor-shrinking centers and wings (sorry Omer Asik, Solomon Hill and Dante Cunningham) to play this style. Comparatively, Griffin brought in players like JJ Redick, Nicolo Melli, Jaxson Hayes and the Lakers haul from the AD trade to aid Gentry.

Their Season at a Glance

In a vacuum, the win-loss record for New Orleans is deceiving. People will look back on this season and see 28-36 and question how such a talented team failed to be as good as the likes of Dallas and OKC. Personally, I think the pre-Zion era holds barely any weight. Griffin brought in all the players to help Gentry and to play to Zion’s strengths.

Since Zion’s debut against San Antonio on January 22nd, the Pelicans have the seventh-best net rating, albeit an 11-9 record. The Pelicans are incredibly efficient with Zion sharing the floor with either Favors or Melli paired next to him. The Pelicans’ starting lineup is the best in the league (over 80 minutes played), posting a staggering 26.3 net rating.

Offensively, the Pelicans’ best sets utilize Favors as the roll man and start Zion on the weak-side wing with shooters in either corner. Zion has free will to offensively rebound in this setup. Also, this set up drags primary attention away from Zion, allowing him to cut to the rim for alley-oops. The rest of their offense focuses on continuous ball movement and a frantic pace. The style they run suits their team perfectly, as previously mentioned, but issues arise in the clutch where they are the second-worst team.

Defensively, the Pelicans soft hedge on most 1-5 pick and rolls and switch off-ball between 1-3 (with Jrue Holiday being the only player allowed to switch based on his preference). They have struggled mightily with their defensive intensity, often content with outscoring teams for the most part. The poor traits the Pelicans show are usually associated with young teams, but with the type of seasoned vets they have, this should not be an issue.

Looking forward…

If the season were to resume (most likely in a condensed format), the Pelicans would struggle to make the playoffs. They desperately need all 82 games to thin the gap on Memphis, and any shortening, except a play-in tournament, would restrict their chances dramatically. If they were to capture the eight seed, a series against the Lakers is tantalizing. The storyline writes itself, none more extravagant than LeBron vs Zion. New Orleans’ chances to win a game are slim, let alone the series. In their matchups with the Lakers, their lack of a premier wing defender is telling.

The clip below was their latest matchup. The sheer size and athleticism were too much for New Orleans, and in a series when there is ample time to properly game plan, New Orleans’ flaws will be exposed.

A lottery season is the likeliest outcome. If the Pelicans were to miss the postseason, they will head into the offseason with the capabilities to strengthen the team. This will be their last offseason with a lot of flexibility as Brandon Ingram enters restricted free agency with a max offer guaranteed. Following this, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart will both enter RFA in 2021 and potentially Jrue (player option in 2021-22). If I was David Griffin, I would bring back the same core. The current setup has shown a lot of promise to be a potential contender.

Griffin is likely to bring over Didi Louzada. Griffin applauded the development of Didi in his lone season for the Australian NBL runners-up Sydney Kings. Didi was drafted in the hopes of becoming a 3-and-D wing and flashed that potential at times during his NBL season. The most surprising facet of his game was the developed offensive arsenal.

If Didi can hit open shots and minimize mistakes defensively, he can well in-truly replace the minutes E’Twaun Moore plays, for a fraction of the cost.

The Draft

Looking towards the draft, the Pelicans will pick in the teens. The ideal draft selection for New Orleans is Arizona wing Josh Green. Green is an athletic wing, measuring 6-6 and 210 lbs, according to ESPN.

In the clip above, Green shows a variety of skills necessary to strive in Gentry’s system. He is extremely good at running the lanes and making smart, yet simple passes. Green’s defense is miles ahead of his offense. Under the tutelage of coach Fred Vinson, however, Green can flourish into an elite talent. New Orleans needs a player like this in their system. Josh Hart does an admirable job defending smaller wings and guards, but Green has the size and stature to take on the task of bigger, elite players.

Overall, I would consider this season a success for New Orleans. Regardless of whether the NBA resumes or not, New Orleans is primed to make significant waves moving forward.

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About Vance Abreu

An Australian trying to make it big in Toronto, Canada. Weekly articles about the Pelicans journey to a NBA championship

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