Why the Pelicans are true NBA contenders, even better than their record

SAN ANTONIO — The Pelicans are legit.

Going into the season, we all saw the potential, talent and accomplishments at the end of the 2021-22 season. In his second season under head coach Willie Green, there are some questions about whether they can pull it all together.

Those doubts should fade away by Game 23 of the season.

After a convincing 117-99 victory over San Antonio on Friday, the Pelicans are 14-8 and have won eight of their last 10 games. With a win over Denver and a loss to Phoenix on Sunday, New Orleans will be tied for first place in the Western Conference after a quarter of the 2022-23 regular season. Even those who are most optimistic about this year’s team can’t imagine that they will be close to the top of the Western Conference.

Now, it’s time to change the subject. This team is at the top of the Western Conference.this is no longer a problem if Pelicans can be fine. Now, it’s time to wonder how good they are.

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

The Pelicans might be closer to the Cavaliers 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 believe they can go head-to-head with anyone.

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

If New Orleans is going to make the kind of leap that few thought possible in such a short amount of time, the focus has to be on Zion. With Brandon Ingram out and CJ McCollum out, he’s been a man on a mission until Friday’s win over the Spurs. Over the past three games, Williamson is averaging 28.7 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists while shooting 68.1 percent from the field.

The numbers we’ve seen from Williamson Through the first 100 games of his career Showing that his future is superstardom. After missing the entire 2021-22 season with a broken foot, it took him some time to get back into his rhythm. But he’s back now — and looking better than ever. As flashy as Williamson’s numbers are, they don’t do justice to his recent overall dominance.His activity has gone off the charts, and Just a few weeks ago, his defense was criticized, already better than ever. Zion still needs to keep playing at this level for a longer period of time, and as always, he has to stay off the injured list.

Still, the leap he’s made in the past week should not be underestimated. There’s nothing like a bona fide NBA superstar who may be emerging right before our eyes in New Orleans. These players bridge the gap between playoffs and title contenders. Few have the tools needed to get to the top of the game where the best of the best are. Zion has always been one of the few capable guys, but now he’s starting to show it. If history tells us anything, these guys tend to make the playoffs earlier than expected. Just look at Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks last season.

The scariest thing is that Williamson has only just begun to read the game in superstar fashion. He’s only going to get more sane from here.

“He’s just scratching the surface. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s seeing different coverage when he’s got the ball in his hands, even when he’s not,” Green said. “He was acting for us. Time and time again, he made the right decisions.”

As dominant as Williamson has been lately, he still doesn’t deserve the most credit for the Pelicans’ success this season. It could be argued that none of the players on the roster deserve it.that is becauseThe team’s biggest strength isn’t the top-ranked star power of Williamson, Ingram and McCollum. It shines consistently from top to bottom with depth.

Despite a projected starting five (Williamson, Ingram, McCollum, Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas), the Pelicans have only played together in 10 of their 22 games so far. Playing, but there are still 6 games at odds over 0.500. The Big Three missed a total of 16 games (21 if you expand to the “Big Four” that includes Jones), but when one or more of those games were out, the team barely missed a single game. . Consider that Pele have won eight of their last 10 games despite only having the full starting lineup available in two of those games.

Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy had a solid second season as pros. Jones didn’t shoot well, but his defense was still excellent. Valanciunas has been solid at center, while Larry Nance Jr. has been reliable and efficient in a backup role that has completed multiple games. Naji Marshall is having the best season of his career. Devonte’ Graham has been solid, albeit with limited opportunities. Dyson Daniels recently emerged as one of the more NBA-ready rookies in this year’s class. New Orleans has one of the most impressive rosters in the NBA, allowing them to adapt any style they need to play against any opponent.

The Baileys can easily put up 11 points on any given night and feel good about whoever they put on the floor. The 11-man roster excludes Eurobasket MVP (Willy Hernangomez) and two recent lottery picks (Jaxson Hayes and Kira Lewis) who are still on rookie contracts.

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 floor intelligence is excellent, and he thrives when New Orleans opts to switch to the pick-and-roll. Murphy and Marshall are reliable, disruptive wing defenders. Alvarado is a constant pest who forces opposing guards to make mistakes. Daniels’ defense is very advanced for a 19-year-old.

This group prides itself on playing on the strings and communicating effectively, no matter who is on the field. The Pelicans rank second in the league in steals due to their collective length and activity forcing opponents to make mistakes. They can deploy multiple lineup combinations, being able to switch from one to four or even one to five. They keep the ball on the perimeter and out of the paint.

Stopping seemed to be this team’s biggest weakness going into the season, but they’ve somehow turned that into one of their biggest strengths.new orleans Currently ranked sixth in half-court offense, according to Cleaning The Glass.

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

If the Pelicans have an obvious defensive weakness, it’s their inability to defend the rim when the ball does go past the initial point of attack. According to Cleaning The Glass, New Orleans is eighth-worst in field goal percentage at the rim, but opponents are shooting 70.2 percent when they get to the rim, third-worst in the NBA. Nance is a good defensive center, but he’s not big enough for the position. Valanciunas is a more intimidating figure around the rim, but he’s not a rim protector and struggles to defend the floor. It’s not a huge flaw, but it’s worth continuing to monitor.

The more immediate looming question for the Pelicans is whether they can get Williamson to play the way he has in the past three games when Ingram and McCollum return to the lineup.

During the first few weeks of the season, the offense was at times more through Ingram and McCollum, and just like last season, Williamson was more of a bystander in the corner. That can’t be the team’s strategy going forward. The most dangerous version of this team occurs when Zion is the focal point of the offense, especially when he comes downhill with the ball from the perimeter. This forces opposing defenders to send multiple bodies to him, which opens up space for others. We haven’t seen enough at the beginning of the season.

Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have only played at least 20 minutes together in nine games this season. The Pelicans are 6-3 in those contests, outscoring opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions when the Big Three play together, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s promising, but they have more work to do to ensure each member of the trio is fully optimized.

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CJ + Ingram + Zion



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CJ + Zion, no Ingram



Zion + Ingram, no CJ



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CJ alone



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In those nine games, Zion averaged 21.7 points on 14.2 shots per game. Those numbers were distorted somewhat by Williamson’s nine-point performance in a rout of Golden State’s reserves on Nov. 21, but it’s still there. As long as Williamson shreds defenses like he’s been doing for the past week, the offense has to infiltrate him. Everyone else needs to line up.

“All of these guys — Brandon, Z and CJ — they’re playing the game the right way. They want to be unselfish and make sure their teammates are involved,” Green said. “It could be one person’s night in one game and another in the next. They always just want to make the right choice. As a team, we’ve been really lucky that our top players Bringing that mindset every night.”

Injuries have kept the Pelicans from getting enough running lane to address some of those issues. Once one is healthy, the other is out. The 16 games missed by the Big Three rarely overlap. The bottom line is that the group just needs to stay healthy long enough to figure out how to fit all the parts properly.

As effective as the starters are together, there’s more work to be done before they catch the big dogs in the West.TonAccording to Cleaning the Glass, Bailey’s starters have a plus-10.1 net rating in 233 games. That’s a decent number, but it could be better. for reference:

  • Denver Nuggets starters (Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic) net rating in 372 games is 14.7.
  • Golden State’s starters (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney) have a net rating of 23.1 in 594 games.

These two teams are considered the two biggest threats New Orleans faces in the West during the playoffs, but they benefit from the experience of their core players playing together. The Pelicans have no such shared history and are unable to produce one with their current injury situation.

The Pels’ depth will help them win the regular season, but to win at the highest level, they’ll have to find their best five players and ride them with all the chips down. It’s unclear whether Pels has tracked down that group.

They’ll have to figure it out soon, as they face a brutal ordeal over the next six weeks. Of their next 22 games, 15 have been against teams with a .500 record or better, seven of which have been on the road.

We know this team is great. If they’re truly among the elite, we’ll see them showcased over the next six weeks.

(Zion Williamson and teammates above: Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)


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