As this is a Dallas Mavericks site, we mainly stick to covering the Mavericks. But since it’s the preseason, we wanted to cover what we think about some of the other contending or playoff teams in the league. Up first, the New Orleans Pelicans.
The offseason hype surrounding the New Orleans Pelicans recently peaked after Zion Williamson appeared visibly skinnier during NBA Media Day. And hey, I’m no fool. It’s easy to see why the Pelicans are so beloved. After beating the Spurs and Clippers in the Play-In tournament, the Pelicans gave the Suns a first-round scare. A six game loss to the Suns felt like a moral victory after all of the in-season turmoil the team faced. The sight of Zion cheering on his teammates was the perfect exclamation point to the season. Some took it as a sign Zion and the team had resolved their issues. Consider me skeptical.
The last time Williamson played, he was a force of nature and looked like the franchise cornerstone many expected him to be. Surely, his addition to the lineup would help take the Pelicans to the next level and make them a lock for the playoffs, right? I’m not so sure. The Pelicans' lack of two-way players and awkward fit lead me to believe they will be less than the sum of their parts.
Let’s take a look at how the Pelicans ended the season. Without looking, you would assume the team took off after its mid-season acquisition of CJ McCollum. What if I told you the team finished 13-13 in games in which he played. Of those 13 wins, only five came against teams above .500. In fact, after going on a hot streak immediately after the trade, the Pelicans had just two wins against plus .500 teams in the last two months of the season. They were able to pad their record against bottom feeders and teams prioritizing lottery balls over wins.
In the postseason, they overpowered a San Antonio team that had no business being in the play-in and a Clippers team led by Reggie Jackson. A good win but not necessarily one that will live in infamy. Then came a first-round series against the Suns. Sure, forcing a Game 6 was impressive, but both wins came in games where Devin Booker either missed or left early due to injury. Ask yourself, had Booker stayed healthy and the Suns swept the Pelicans, would the vibes in New Orleans feel different? Probably so.
Against Phoenix, the Pelicans struggled to score in crunch time and were incapable of getting a stop when it mattered most. Their crunch-time offense consisted of Brandon Ingram/CJ McCollum isolations that mostly resulted in contested midrange jumpers. Defensively, they struggled to contain dribble penetration and were put in the blender by Chris Paul in pick and rolls. None of that, by the way, should come as a surprise. On offense, they lack credible shooting from three. Besides CJ McCollum, the Pelicans don’t have a single player that can threaten defenses beyond the 3-point line.
In the 2021-2022 season, the Pelicans ranked 24th in number of 3-pointers attempted and 28th in number of 3-pointers made. Only the Thunder, Pistons, and Magic shot worse from beyond the 3-point line (33.2%). Zion isn’t helping there. Defensively, the team finished the season 18th in defensive rating. Most of that can be credited to Herb Jones’ ability to guard one through five and wreak havoc with his energy and length. I’ve long been a fan of Larry Nance and his versatility, but neither he nor Jones can serve as the anchor to your defense. For all his strength and size, Jonas Valanciunas is not a good rim protector. The Pelicans found some success with he and Jaxson Hayes on the court together, but you have to wonder how many minutes that lineup will get with Zion back.
Individually, the Pelicans have a number of players you would want on your team. The fit, however, could be concerning, and most of that can be traced to the type of player Zion is. Without question, he is a freak athlete capable of taking over games with raw talent. His inability to shoot from the outside and defend the rim, however, makes him a hard player to build around.
For example, consider a Pelicans closing line up. Assuming you pencil in McCollum, Ingram, Herbert Jones, and Zion, you need to decide who the fifth starter will be. Valanciunas is a big body that can clean up on the glass but his inability to protect the rim makes him a tough fit. Valanciunas cannot switch on the perimeter and would force Zion to defend fours. Ingram would then have to credibly guard the second-best wing player on the opposing team while Herbert Jones takes on the task of being your primary wing defender. The should close with another guard or wing because a Zion/Jones lineup would get killed on the glass. Jaxson Hayes would crowd the paint on offense but could provide some level of switchability. The best option is likely Larry Nance Jr. He isn’t an elite rim protector but is a tremendous team defense player. He can make the right rotations, hold up in switches, and provide some weakside help at the rim.
Offensively, that’s one plus shooter. As a unit, they would have to work extremely hard to generate open looks. Zion is an absolute menace in transition but may not as effective in a half-court setting without space. Defensively, a backcourt of McCollum and Ingram would be an invitation for opposing offenses to get into the paint at will and stress test the Pelicans' ability to rotate and protect the rim. Were Nance to miss any time, the unit’s ability to function on both ends of the floor would collapse. Considering Nance’s inability to stay healthy, its not a unit the Pelicans can count on on a night-to-night basis.
Finally there’s the question of whether or not Williamson is actually committed to the Pelicans. Six games against the Suns isn’t enough to make one forget that he and his team consistently leaked his displeasure with the organization during the regular season. If this team gets off to a rough start, how soon do the Zion to New York rumors start? McCollum, Nance, and Zion aren’t necessarily the poster boys for health. If one or two of them suffer a nagging injury, do we trust their depth? Do we trust David Griffin to make the right in-season moves.
Ultimately, a lot has to go right for this team to reach its peak. There are many more ways in which this house of cards comes crashing down and the Pelicans fall short of their lofty expectations. Zion is going to have to prove his slimmed-down body can withstand an 82-game season. Larry Nance Jr. is going to have to show us his body can hold up to the attrition that comes with closing games at the five. The Pelicans are going to have to show us they can be efficient enough from midrange to consistently beat good teams. Overall, we may be expecting too much too soon from this particular roster and last year’s success may prove to be smoke and mirrors.