With New Orleans resuming play at the end of this month, let’s review the pertinent details
Originally appeared on TheBirdWrites.com, 7/2/2020
If/when the New Orleans Pelicans take the court against the Utah Jazz on July 30, 143 days will have passed between games.
That’s 3,432 hours.
Or 205,920 minutes, if you like.
Regardless of your preferred passage of time, it’s been awhile. Thus, you may have forgotten a few things about the Pelicans since the NBA stopped play back in March.
For those who need a refresher, or for those just starting to pay attention, here’s what you may have missed.
After undergoing a massive restructuring in the offseason that included the trade of Anthony Davis for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and picks; the drafting of Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker; the signing of JJ Redick; the snatching of Derrick Favors for a couple of future second round picks, Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans were a chic pick to contend for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
A 5-0 preseason record certainly helped fuel thoughts of the postseason. Williamson came out the gates blazing, averaging 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in under 28 minutes of action, while shooting better than 71 percent from the floor.
Williamson, though, sat out the final preseason game against the New York Knicks with soreness in his right knee. Three days later he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. What was supposed to be a 6-8 week recovery ended up costing Williamson the first 44 games of the season, setting the tone for a disappointing start by the team.
Things were bad when the Pelicans lost seven of their first eight games. A quick 5-2 burst had New Orleans at 6-9 heading into a late November contest with the Utah Jazz. An eight-point defeat in Salt Lake City became the start of a franchise-record 13 game losing streak. The Pelicans lost close games. They lost blowouts, including another franchise-worst in a 130-84 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. At 6-22, it looked like the season might be effectively over by Christmas.
The Defense Rests
Offense has never been the Pelicans’ problem. But defense has been an issue often under Alvin Gentry. After finishing 27th, 9th, 14th, and 23rd over the previous four campaigns, Gentry brought in Jeff Bzdelick to help reverse the downward trend. The marriage of the team’s young roster and Bzdelick’s detailed strategies got off to a rocky start. It didn’t help that Williamson was sidelined, Ingram was playing out of position in his place, Ball was still feeling the effects of two shortened seasons, or that Favors was dealing with injury and the loss of his mother.
Though 28 games, the Pelicans were 28th in the NBA defensively, posting a defensive rating of 114.5. Opponents killed them on the inside, scoring 53 points per game at the rim. They raced to 16 fast break points each night. Nearly 20 points per night were the result of a New Orleans turnover. Hayes played like a rookie, and Jahlil Okafor, despite all of his offensive gifts, was a sieve on the defensive end.
Ingram Grows Up
Brandon Ingram hadn’t proven to be anything special in his first two NBA seasons. Even coming to New Orleans as a former number two overall pick, he had missed 53 games over the previous two years. His 127 three-pointers between 2016-19 with the Lakers were fewer than Dewayne Dedmon, Quincy Acy, and…Anthony Davis. When the season paused due to the coronavirus, Ingram had already made 137 with the Pelicans.
With Williamson sidelined, Ingram became the focal point of the offense. He flourished in the role. He scored 35 in his third game, and set a career-high with 40 in his seventh. Ingram put up at least 20 points in 43 of 56 games. He became the first Pelicans player other than Anthony Davis to play in an All-Star game since Chris Paul in 2011, and the first small forward since Jamal Mashburn in 2003.
Ingram was one of seven players averaging at least 24 points, six rebounds, four assists, and one steal per game before the suspension. B’Easy’s shooting numbers put him in elite company as well. Only Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton matched his .466/.380/.858 shooting numbers.
Long Range Snipers
Speaking of putting the ball through the hoop, three-point shooting was supposed to be a major concern for the Pelicans. Instead, New Orleans ranked third in the NBA in three pointers made, seventh in attempts, and tied for third in three point percentage.
Over their last 36 games, the New Orleans Pelicans were ninth in the league in winning percentage (.611). They went 22-14 in those games, and they were 8th defensively during that stretch. The offense also ranked in the top ten in ORTG, EFG%, and TS%.
Lonzo Balls Out
Everyone knew who Lonzo Ball was before the NBA season began, but no one really knew what kind of basketball player he would be after two mostly disappointing seasons in Los Angeles. His shot was broken, as was his body. But, Lonzo was confident in himself from the outset.
So far, Ball has set career highs in nearly every advanced metric, and posted career best averages in scoring (13.8 ppg), assists (7.8), FG% (.412), 3P% (.383), and FT % (.567). He and James Harden were the only two guards in the league to average at least 12 points, seven assists, and six rebounds, while shooting better than 35% from three-point range. Lonzo is definitely part of the Pelicans’ long term plans, and it’s easy to see why.
Few guards can match his end-to-end speed and no one turns defensive rebounds into points quicker than Ball does. With plenty of Pelicans willing and able to run the floor, Lonzo provides the gas to the offensive engine.
He Was Inevitable
Zanos did return to wreak havoc upon the mere mortals of the NBA. Zion Williamson made his NBA debut on Jan. 22 against the San Antonio Spurs. In 19 games, he never failed to reach double-figures, scored 20 points or more in 16 of those games (including 13 in a row), and topped 30 points in three games.
His efficiency as a scorer has been off the charts, even as he adjusts to the size and speed of the NBA game. Williamson converted almost 59 percent of his field goal attempts, while averaging 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists.
The Pelicans were just 10-9 with Williamson in the lineup, but they did secure wins over playoff contenders in Boston, Memphis, Portland, and Miami.
Reports are that Zion is in phenomenal shape heading into the restart. If he could perform like that while working himself into basketball condition, just imagine what a healthy Williamson will do to opponents that are now realizing that they must adjust to him.
From Jan. 22 on, the Pelicans had the best starting lineup in the NBA. With Holiday, Ball, Ingram, Williamson, and Favors on the floor together, the Pels’ Net Rating was an insane +26.3. Offensively, they were great, posting a 117.9 rating, but the defense of the group was next level. New Orleans’ Big Five had a defensive rating of 91.6. Only the Milwaukee Bucks starting five were better (87.6) during the same time frame.
The New Orleans Pelicans are a combined 5-6 against their seven remaining opponents in the eight “seeding” games in Orlando’s restart.
Against teams 8-12 in the Western Conference standings (Memphis, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio), the Pels are 7-1.
Will anything from earlier this season matter? Hopefully, we’ll soon get the chance to find out.