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The New Orleans Pelicans were in prime position to sneak into the playoffs when the NBA restarted its season and gave them a four-game window to force a play-in scenario. Instead, the Pelicans were the biggest disappointment of the bubble in Orlando. They went 2-6, missed the play-in game despite facing a cupcake schedule, Zion Williamson barely played, and in the aftermath, head coach Alvin Gentry was fired.
With Zion fully healthy heading into the 2020-21 campaign, a new coach in town in Stan Van Gundy and capable starters like Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams trying to make up for the loss of Jrue Holiday, it feels like New Orleans might be the rare breed of young team ready to contend for a playoff spot this season.
But that’s not usually how it works in the NBA, especially in the unforgiving Western Conference, and the Pelicans got their reminder of that in Tuesday night’s thrashing against the Phoenix Suns.
After a 111-86 defeat where Phoenix led by as many as 40 points, Van Gundy was forced to point out something he was already acutely aware of: New Orleans’ offense has not been very good four games in.
“It was an extreme example of what has been a problem,” he said. “Offensively we have not been good in these first four games overall, so that has been a problem. That’s something that I have to find some solutions to, but tonight was an extreme example of it.”
Even a humiliating loss like Tuesday’s isn’t enough reason for panic just yet. It was ugly, and indicative of a larger problem that needs to be addressed, but the Pelicans are still 2-2 on the season and had a winning record until running face-first into the proverbial brick wall of a very good Suns team.
“I don’t know,” Van Gundy said bluntly. “That’s something we obviously have to look at. Our offense right now is totally discombobulated. Other than the San Antonio game, we don’t take care of the ball. We’re not getting good ball movement, we’re not screening, we’re really not doing much of anything well offensively. From a coaching standpoint, we’ve got to find a starting point and try to get good at a couple of things, because right now, we’re not at anything.”
The numbers back that unfortunate assessment up. While four games is a microscopic sample size in the wake of a 72-game regular season, the Pelicans currently rank 29th in offensive rating (99.5 points per 100 possessions) and have been held under 100 points in three of their four games.
The 3-point shooting has been even worse. New Orleans is dead-last in 3-point percentage at a dreadful 29.6 percent and only ranks 23rd in 3-point attempts per game (31.3). Van Gundy believes those numbers will improve once their overall offense takes better shape.
“We’ve got so many other things we need to work on, and I think our 3-point percentage, quite honestly, is a product of not getting great ball movement and not creating great looks,” Van Gundy said before Tuesday’s game. “I think it’s more our offensive pace, our offensive execution, our ball movement. I think we have a lot of work to do on the offensive end of the floor, and I think when we do that, the shooting will come.”
Whether the ball movement was again poor on Tuesday, Phoenix’s defense was just elite or the Pelicans actually do need to worry about their 3-point efficiency, that shooting certainly didn’t arrive in the Suns blowout. New Orleans shot just 3-for-24 (12.5 percent), but even before Tuesday’s debacle, the team was only hitting 33.7 percent of its long-range looks. It’s no wonder the Pels rank 25th in effective field goal percentage and 26th in true shooting percentage thus far.
Even so, four games — especially at the beginning of a season — is not representative of this team’s ceiling on either end. At age 23, Ingram is leading NOLA in scoring and assists with a well-rounded 23.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game on .457/.417/.826 shooting splits. Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Zion has put up an eye-popping 21.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game on 53.1 percent shooting.
“The thing you never know until you work with guys is you never really understand how smart they are, and these guys are both really, really smart,” Van Gundy said of his star duo. “I had heard that they were, but you just never know until you’re out there. And you never know what guys’ work ethic and commitment to the game is, and their practice habits are outstanding.”
The talent of these two cornerstones is there; now it’s just a matter of building around them properly.
Whether New Orleans can do so with this current group remains to be seen. Eric Bledsoe is an underrated regular-season player but a dreadful postseason performer and a definitive downgrade from Holiday on both ends. Steven Adams is a solid starter but not someone who necessarily raises the Pelicans’ ceiling on his own. Ball has been offensively offensive, shooting 37.2 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from downtown and posting 3.5 assists to 3.3 turnovers per game. J.J. Redick‘s ugly 7-for-24 start from deep hasn’t helped matters either.
On the positive side, however, the Pels have been stout defensively, ranking ninth in defensive rating (105.9), third in defensive rebounding percentage, fifth in steals and ninth in deflections.
Ball and Williamson are tied for fourth in the league in steals with eight apiece.
“It certainly helps with their ability to deflect and alter passes and things like that,” Van Gundy said. “It gives us a chance to get out in transition, so there’s no doubt that that’s very helpful.”
The Pelicans haven’t been a top-10 team in fast break points, mostly because they’re currently playing at the league’s third-slowest pace, but they are a lockdown defensive team … for the most part.
Van Gundy’s defensive strategy revolves around protecting the basket first and foremost, which he admits has been a struggle to get to sink in when modern NBA players are used to creeping out to the 3-point line. The Pelicans have been elite on the interior, holding opponents to only 38.0 points in the paint per game — the second-best mark in the league. The trade-off has been giving up by far the most opposing 3-point attempts per game (41.5), which has resulted in opponents making 15.0 triples per game (fifth-most).
“We have put most of our emphasis there and it’s showing at both ends, I think,” Van Gundy said before the Suns game. “But I think defensively, we’re starting to get the concepts of what we want in transition, of protecting the paint, of not fouling people and of rebounding the ball. So we’re starting to do those things well. We still have our moments and our breakdowns, but we’re starting to get better there and I’ve been happy with the progress.”
The Suns going 19-for-47 on Tuesday skews the numbers a bit, but once again, it’s indicative of certain adjustments the coaching staff may need to consider with this particular group, or at least on the nights when opponents move the ball well and start bombing away from deep. That’s all part of the learning process that comes with a new coach, younger franchise stars and a bunch of new faces all trying to mesh under the national spotlight and potential playoff aspirations, and it takes time to coalesce.
There’s no question the Pelicans have a promising foundation. Zion is a dazzling blend of speed, brute strength, size and skill, treating fans to a confounding, “how did he do that?” play at the rim on a nightly basis. Ingram has added strength on his drives and enhanced playmaking to the arsenal of an All-Star scorer.
But where they go from here depends on the rest of the roster, how Van Gundy tailors their approach to fit his cornerstones best, and how quickly he’s able to do so. As much as fans want to believe the simple math of “last year’s Pelicans plus healthier Zion equals playoff berth,” the actual equation may prove to be a bit more complex.
This isn’t the reason behind Ja Morant’s ankle sprain, but our own Trevor Magnotti is all over the one simple fix that can help him unlock his full ceiling and avoid any further serious injuries.
Yes, it’s only been a week since the NBA returned, but since that’s all we’ve got to go on, we might as well try and figure out which early-season overachievers and oddities are here to stay! The Ringer’s Zach Kram is all over it.
Finally, we’ve also got way-too-early Rookie of the Year rankings from our own Ian Levy, as well as Brendon Kleen’s look at why this Portland Trail Blazers team is the best one Damian Lillard has ever had.