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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. Previously, we went over the slowly rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers. Today we’re focusing on the young, energetic, and, for some reason, stagnant Pelicans. Two years ago, it seemed New Orleans had the ideal start on their rebuild. They had their face of the future, his second-in-command, their supporting cast, some savvy vets, etc. All the pieces were in place to move on from the Anthony Davis era without batting an eye.
Despite Zion Williamson looking absolutely for real and Brandon Ingram evolving into one of the league’s best young scorers, nothing has really changed for the Pelicans since 2019. They’re not among the league’s worst teams, but with all the young talent they have, it’s weird knowing that they have failed to qualify for the play-in when they seemingly have more than enough talent to get that far at the very least. Time is on their side. That’s inarguable, but something has clearly been off. So what’s up with the Pelicans?
Supposedly, youth is wasted on the young. If so, New Orleans didn’t get the memo because they are armed to the teeth with youth. Even if it’s not translating to wins just yet, the Pelicans boast a youth movement that would excite any fanbase. That’s what makes it their biggest strength.
At the center of their biggest strength is Zion Williamson, and Zion’s biggest strength is, well, his strength for one, but also how he uses it along with his athleticism to dominate. Zion’s generational physique is what has made him a generational talent. Coming into this league known for your bulk is one thing. Knowing exactly how to use it is an entirely different matter. Even at 20 years old, Zion’s repertoire in the post has made him a force to be reckoned with not just for someone his age, not just in the entire league, but of all-time.
Zion is already putting up efficiency that levels around pure insanity. This season, he’s put up 61 percent shooting from the floor, and that includes the 69.6 percent he shoots in the zero to three-foot range according to Basketball-Reference. By all indications, he has the perfect blend of strength and athleticism that should make him the Pelicans’ new cornerstone (if he’s not that already). He’s so reliable as a post-scorer that in a modern NBA that emphasizes spacing, there shouldn’t be any pressure to expand his game when he already has his bread and butter.
And luckily, his partner-in-crime, Brandon Ingram can fill the spacing void. Ingram has turned into one of the league’s top young three-level scorers. He’s shooting at a blistering near-40 percent from distance over the past two seasons. He ranks in the 57th percentile for isolation scorers which isn’t phenomenal. However, considering Zion ranks 79th, the Pelicans already possess two iso scorers who are in their early 20’s. Their percentiles are more likely to go up from here.
They evidently headline the youth movement, but the Pelicans still have other intriguing talents. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was coming along nicely once the Pelicans started giving him more minutes from March onward. Jaxson Hayes may have turned the corner in May. Josh Hart is turning into a fine 3&D prospect (although the “3” in this context is a little suspect). Lonzo Ball would be included here, but no one really knows if he’s a long-term fixture as a Pelican, and his game-log to this day remains… unpredictable.
Things have not gone as smoothly as we anticipated in the beginning, but the future’s still bright for the Pelicans. With both their youth and the draft picks coming in, their future gives them an ultra-long leash.
When you have arguably the most efficient 20-year-old post-scorer of all-time on your roster, along with a promising iso scorer next to him, and you’re not even coming close to the playoffs, something is definitely wrong.
In New Orleans’ defense, when they say it’s an 82-game season (usually), the Western Conference will always make every game count. There’s never been an exception to that. Still, having a young player as talented and NBA-ready as Zion would give you the inside track to one of the lower seeds, so where are the Pelicans going wrong?
Let’s start with their flaw that pretty much everyone saw coming – their shooting. Once they traded Jrue Holiday – who, until this season, was mostly okay from three – and JJ Redick – who was mostly out of commission anyway – the Pelicans’ shooting woes were as predictable as the Hamptons’ five’s dominance. Of all their players that played the majority of the season and shot threes regularly (at least one a game), only two shot over 35 percent (Ingram at 38.1 and Ball at 37.8). Everyone else shot under. Those percentages didn’t break the internet. Their lackluster defense on the other hand did.
The Pelicans did not boast a good defense last year – allowed 111.9 points per 100 possessions, 19th overall according to Basketball-Reference) – but they acquired Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams in the hopes of strengthening their defense, but neither did. If they had made no difference, then that would have been disappointing. But it didn’t. The defense got worse, allowing 113.8 points per 100 possessions, (22nd overall in the NBA according to Basketball-Reference) which was just infuriating. New Orleans’ defense actually got worse despite adding two players who have developed solid reputations as defenders is a mystery that may never be solved.
In hindsight, they should have traded for George Hill and Al Horford when they pulled off the Holiday megadeal instead of Bledsoe and Adams. Sure, Horford’s on one of the worst contracts in the NBA, but he would have fit better than those two did. Bottom line: if you can’t shoot and you can’t defend, that’s a recipe for complete disaster every time. Clearly, not even Zion Williamson is enough to overcome that.
Guess who is the biggest winner in all of the Lakers’ struggles this season? New Orleans. At least, potentially they are. LeBron James has never looked quite back to normal since spraining his ankle back in March. We’ve kept waiting for both him and Anthony Davis to get back to their bubble dominance from only seven months ago. They still haven’t gotten there. There’s still time to get their forms back, but Phoenix proved yesterday that they’ll need them back around, well, now-ish.
Even if they lose, Davis has plenty of his prime left, yes. But we know LeBron pretty much single-handedly vaults the Lakers up to contender status. Without him, the Lakers are basically the equivalent to the teams Davis anchored coincidentally in New Orleans. However, we also know that LeBron has continuously defied father time to the point where no one knows if a tipping point is even in the cards.
We might just have that with this ankle injury that’s still bothering him two months later. Now even if it ruins the Lakers’ season, there’s no guarantee it would carry on to the next one. But if it does, maybe this is the start of LeBron falling out of his prime. If you’re a good person, please don’t count on that. However, if that’s the harsh reality that is slowly bestowing itself upon us, then New Orleans’ rich future only gets richer. As of now, that’s all in the hypothetical.
The same thing goes for Milwaukee. They are a Giannis injury away from their season going up in flames. Who’s the beneficiary of their suffering? The Big Easy. It would require moving parts, but, as dissatisfying as the Pelicans have been, they’ve got some potentially golden assets that might just be now taking shape.
Because of what they have, no one should know that “it’s a marathon, not sprint” better than the Pelicans presently.
New Orleans may have a present threat and they may have a long-term threat.
With the season now over, it’s leaking out that there may have been some tension between players and new head coach Stan Van Gundy. That could be an issue. If the players and the coach aren’t getting along, regression is the likelier outcome than progression no matter what. Maybe it’s just a one-off given Van Gundy’s reputation as a coach. But as we’ve seen from Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams, just because you come in with a proven track record, that doesn’t mean that it will always translate in every situation.
They’ll probably give it another year seeing that this was a most unorthodox season for everyone. That will be an excuse for so long. If these alleged tensions were legitimate, and they don’t go away, the Pelicans may have to look for a new coach.
Then, there’s the fit of Zion and Ingram. Both of them are potential perennial all-stars. That’s not an easy task in the West. The problem is, does anyone know the right positions for these two to thrive together? Zion is a 6-foot-7′ tank that’s probably best as a Power Forward/Center. Ingram is a slender 6-foot-10 that would probably be best used mostly as Power Forward. They’ve put up shiny numbers. They haven’t proven they can win together.
As talented as they are, it is an odd pairing. Granted, it’s an odd pairing that any team would want to have. Still, they have to mix and match so that not only can these guys live up to their potential, and by extension, the team itself. Let’s be honest, the potential is so high that the ceiling as of now remains in ambiguity. That’s good and bad. Because, until they trend in the right direction, questions may arise surrounding those two.
We’re not there yet, but if New Orleans fails to make any progress next year, it might be something we can no longer ignore.
In all honesty, these young Pelicans seem very similar to the Milwaukee Bucks Pre-Budenholzer. The talent is certainly there but the pieces just aren’t meshing. Every so often, we’ve seen the talent show out, but it’s just not consistent. At this point, they just need the right pieces so that their star pupils can finally turn their numbers into something special.
After what their fans have been through over the last decade, putting out a great product on the basketball court is long overdue.