Why the Pelicans are a bonafide NBA contender and even better than their record

SAN ANTONIO – The Pelicans are legit.

Coming into the season, we all saw the potential, talent and the accomplishments at the end of the 2021-22 season. There were still some doubts about whether they could put it all together in head coach Willie Green’s second season.

Those doubts should be gone 23 games into this season.

Following Friday’s convincing 117-99 win over San Antonio, the Pelicans are 14-8, with eight wins in their last 10 games. With a win over Denver Sunday and a loss by Phoenix, New Orleans would move into a tie for first place in the Western Conference after a quarter of the 2022-23 regular season. Even those with the most optimistic outlook for this group coming into the year couldn’t have imagined they’d be near the top of the West standings.

Now, it’s time for the conversation to shift. This team belongs among the best in the Western Conference. It’s no longer a question of if the Pelicans can be good. Now, it’s time to wonder just how good they can be.

After 23 games, the Pelicans rank sixth in points scored per 100 possessions and third in points allowed per 100 possessions. The only teams in the NBA with a better net rating are Boston, Cleveland and Phoenix – two legitimate title contenders and another young team on the rise in the East. Remove garbage time, as the site Cleaning the Glass does, and New Orleans’ point differential rises to plus-6.7, the equivalent of a 57-win pace. That’s tied for second in the NBA with Phoenix, behind only the Celtics.

The Pelicans are probably closer to the Cavs than the Celtics or Suns because of their youth and lack of playoff experience. But it’s hard to put a ceiling on this team because they have so many tools at their disposal and a belief that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone.

“We are a special team. I think as the season goes on, the world will get to see that,” said Zion Williamson.

If New Orleans is going to make the kind of jump few people thought was possible this soon, the focus has to go to Zion. He’s been a man on a mission with Brandon Ingram sidelined and CJ McCollum out until Friday’s win over the Spurs. Over his last three games, Williamson is averaging 28.7 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists while shooting 68.1 percent from the field.

The numbers we saw from Williamson through the first 100 games of his career indicated that superstardom was in his future. It took him some time to regain his rhythm after missing the entire 2021-22 season due to a fractured foot. But he’s all the way back now – and looking better than ever. As gaudy as Williamson’s numbers are, they don’t do justice to his recent all-around dominance. His activity has been off the charts, and his defense, criticized as recently as a few weeks ago, has been better than it’s ever been as a pro. Zion still has to maintain this level of play over a more extended period, and as always, he must stay off the injured list.

Still, the jump he’s made this past week can’t be overstated. There’s nothing more valuable than a bonafide NBA superstar, and one may be emerging in New Orleans before our eyes. These are the kind of players who bridge the gap between playoff and championship contenders. Very few have the tools necessary to ascend to the top of the game where the elite of the elite reside. Zion has always been one of those select few who have what it takes, but now he’s starting to show it. And if history teaches us anything, those guys tend to make their first deep playoff run sooner than expected. Just look at Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks last season.

The scariest part is Williamson is just beginning to read the game the way a superstar does. He’ll only get more cerebral from here.

“He’s just scratching the surface. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s seeing different coverages on the floor when he has the ball in his hands, even when he’s off the ball,” Green said. “He’s making plays for us. Over and over again, he’s making the right play.”

As dominant as Williamson’s play has been of late, he still doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the Pelicans’ success this season. One can argue that no individual player on the roster deserves it. That’s because the biggest strength of this team hasn’t been the star power at the top of the roster in Williamson, Ingram and McCollum. It’s been its depth from top to bottom that’s consistently shone through.

The Pelicans sit six games over .500 despite the projected starting five (Williamson, Ingram, McCollum, Herb Jones and Jonas Valančiūnas) playing together in only 10 of their 22 games to this point. The Big 3 have missed a combined 16 games (21 if you expand to make a “Big 4” that includes Jones), yet the team has barely missed a beat when one or more of them are out. Consider that the Pels have won eight of their last 10 despite only having their complete starting lineup available in two of those games.

Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy have been outstanding in their second season as pros. Jones hasn’t shot the ball well, but his defense remains excellent. Valančiūnas is as solid as it gets at the center position, while Larry Nance Jr. has been reliable and effective in his backup role while closing many games. Naji Marshall is having his best season as a pro. Devonte’ Graham has been solid, despite limited opportunities. Dyson Daniels has emerged recently as one of the more NBA-ready rookies in this year’s class. New Orleans has assembled one of the most impressive rosters in the NBA, allowing them to adapt to whatever style they need to play against any opponent.

The Pels can comfortably go 11 deep on any given night and feel good about any of the players they put on the floor. And that list of 11 does not include the Eurobasket MVP (Willy Hernangomez) and two recent lottery picks still on their rookie contracts (Jaxson Hayes and Kira Lewis).

That depth comes with a defensive mindset to complement the offensive stars. Jones is already one of the top defenders in the NBA in his second season. Nance’s on-court intelligence is outstanding, and he thrives when New Orleans elects to switch pick-and-rolls. Murphy and Marshall are reliable, disruptive wing defenders. Alvarado is a pest who is constantly forcing opposing guards into mistakes. Daniels’ defense is highly advanced for a 19-year-old.

This group takes pride in playing on a string and communicating effectively, regardless of who’s on the floor. The Pelicans rank second in the league in steals, as their collective length and activity forces opponents into mistakes. They can deploy several lineup combinations that are capable of switching one through four – or even one through five. They keep the ball on the perimeter and out of the paint.

Getting stops appeared to be this team’s biggest weakness coming into the season, but they’ve somehow turned it into one of their biggest strengths. New Orleans currently ranks as the sixth-stingiest team in half-court situations, per Cleaning The Glass.

“When guys go down, I’ve said it before, we don’t look at it as an obstacle. For us, it’s an opportunity to go out and continue to grow as a team. Continue to build,” Green said. “Our expectations are high. We’re not there yet, but we’re continuing to build towards where we want to be.”

If the Pelicans have one obvious defensive weakness, it’s their inability to defend the rim when the ball does get past the initial point of attack. New Orleans allows the eighth-fewest shots at the rim, but opponents are shooting a whopping 70.2 percent when they get there, the third-worst mark in the NBA, according to Cleaning The Glass. Nance is a good defensive center, but he’s undersized for the position. Valanciunas is a more intimidating figure under the basket, but he’s not much of a rim protector and struggles to defend in space. This isn’t a massive flaw, but it’s worth monitoring moving forward.

The more immediate looming issue for the Pelicans is if they can get Williamson to play the same way he has in the last three games when Ingram and McCollum return to the lineup.

Through the first few weeks of the season, there were times when the offense ran more through Ingram and McCollum, as it did last season, with Williamson more of a spectator hiding in the corner. That can’t be the team’s strategy moving forward. The most dangerous version of this team occurs when Zion is the focal point of the offense, especially when he’s attacking downhill from the perimeter with the ball. That forces opposing defenses to send multiple bodies his way, which opens up space for everyone else. We didn’t see enough of that at the beginning of the season.

Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have only logged at least 20 minutes at the same time in nine games this season. The Pelicans are 6-3 in those outings, and according to Cleaning the Glass, they’ve outscored opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions when the Big 3 share the floor. That’s promising, but they still have more work to do to ensure each member of the trio is fully optimized.

The Pelicans’ Big 3

Combination

Possessions

Net Rating

CJ + Ingram + Zion

356

18.9

CJ + Ingram, from Zion

248

1.2

CJ + Zion, from Ingram

310

4.6

Zion + Ingram, from CJ

141

11.2

Zion alone

317

9.8

CJ alone

377

11.4

Ingram alone

241

3.8

None of the Big 3

145

-30.2

In those nine games, Zion is averaging 21.7 points on just 14.2 field goal attempts. Those numbers are somewhat skewed by Williamson’s nine-point performance in a blowout win over Golden State’s reserves on Nov. 21, but the point still stands. As long as Williamson is crushing defenses the way he has this past week, the offense must filter through him. Everyone else needs to fall in line.

“All of those guys – Brandon, Z and CJ – they play the game the right way. They want to be unselfish and make sure their teammates are involved,” Green said. “It might be one guy’s night in this game, and it might be someone else in the next game. They always just want to make the right play. We’re really fortunate as a team that our top guys bring that mentality on a nightly basis.”

Injuries have prevented the Pelicans from getting enough runway to work out some of these kinks. As soon as one guy gets healthy, another one goes out. Those 16 combined missed games from the Big 3 have rarely overlapped. Above all, this group just needs to get healthy long enough to figure out how to fit all the pieces correctly.

Although the starters have been effective together, there’s more work to be done before they catch up to the big dogs in the West. The Pels’ starters have a plus-10.1 net rating in 233 possessions when they share the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a good number, but it could be better. For reference:

  • The Denver Nuggets’ starters (Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic) have a net rating of plus-14.7 in 372 possessions together.
  • The Golden State Warriors starters (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney) have a whopping plus-23.1 net rating over 594 possessions.

Those teams are considered two of New Orleans’ biggest threats in the West come playoff time, but they have the benefit of the massive amount of experience their respective cores have playing together. The Pelicans don’t have that shared history, and haven’t been able to generate it with their current injury situation.

The Pels’ depth will help them stack up victories in the regular season, but to win at the highest level, they’ll have to find their best five and ride them when all the chips are down. It’s unclear if the Pels have found that group yet.

They’ll have to figure it out quickly because they have a brutal stretch over the next six weeks. Of their next 22 games, 15 are against teams with .500 or better records, and seven of those games are on the road.

We know this team is good. If they really belong among the elite, we’ll see them put it on display over these next six weeks.

(Top photo of Zion Williamson and teammates: Michael Gonzales / NBAE via Getty Images)

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