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NBA Debate: Are the Pelicans contenders? And are the Nets back?

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Melissa Rohlin

FOX Sports NBA Reporter

Ric Bucher

Ric Bucher

FOX Sports NBA Analyst

While the standard suspects remain atop the Eastern Conference standings, there’s a latest contender emerging out West. 

This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher and Melissa Rohlin — takes a take a look at Recent Orleans’ sudden arrival, if the Brooklyn Nets have regained their mojo, and which latest face in a latest city has taken their game to latest heights.

1. Recent Orleans is No. 1 within the Western Conference standings. Are the Pelicans an actual title contender?

Rohlin: I don’t know if the Pelicans are legit title contenders, but I could see them having a deep playoff run. Without Zion Williamson last season, they surprised everyone by reaching the primary round of the playoffs behind CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. And with Williamson back within the lineup, averaging 23.9 points and seven.2 rebounds, the Pelicans are an actual threat. The issue is the Western Conference is just so congested right away that it’s hard to gauge which teams are standouts. In any case, the top-seeded Pelicans are only 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-place LA Clippers. So, the conference is wide open. That being said, I actually like what Willie Green is doing over in N.O. And with Williamson playing dominant ball, this team could make some real noise. In actual fact, what’s to say they won’t surprise us again by playing in June?

Bucher: No, but they’re wildly entertaining, and I’d expect them to win an honest amount of regular-season games. They are usually not particularly good in close games or against winning teams, which is what they are going to see within the playoffs. And Zion presents as much of a conundrum for the Pelicans as he does their opponents. He’s too good not to place the ball in his hands, but he has the team’s highest usage rate and the fourth-highest assist total per 100 possessions, only a tick ahead of Devonte Graham. Translation: He isn’t creating shots for others. Attacking the basket, whether it’s off the dribble or on putbacks, he’s electric — if he can get to his left hand. Good teams, playoff teams, aren’t going to let him, no less than not consistently. If he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he’s not much of a threat, apart from cleansing up the glass, which creates a spacing problem. After which there’s the defensive end of the ground. How do I put this kindly? He’s atrocious. Doesn’t box out, doesn’t stay in front of his man, doesn’t block shots. As amazing as he’s — and I do think he’s a special talent — the Pelicans don’t miss a beat without him. But they need to play him. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

2. The Miami Heat finished first within the East last season and were one game away from the NBA Finals. This season, they sit tenth within the conference. What’s gone mistaken in Miami?

Rohlin: Their biggest problem: The Heat are bottom-five in offensive rating. After all, injuries haven’t helped. Jimmy Butler has missed 10 games and the reigning Sixth Man of the 12 months Tyler Herro has missed eight. However the funny thing about this team is regardless that their record is cringe-worthy, it’s still hard to count them out. There are nights when they give the impression of being like a team that reached Eastern Conference Finals last season and has a probability to compete again, corresponding to after they beat the Boston Celtics last Friday. But they’ve also had so many inexplicable collapses, corresponding to Monday, after they fell to a Memphis Grizzlies team without 4 starters, including superstar Ja Morant. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team has a late resurgence.

Bucher: I’m never going to count them out because few teams consistently maximize what they’ve in addition to the Heat, but they need their core — Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry — available and playing at a high level to compete with the league’s best. Butler having missed 10 of 25 games (they went 4-6 without him) hurts, as has the decline of Lowry. Those two are also their lone playmakers, hence the offensive struggles.

3. Boston led by as many as 45 points in Phoenix on Wednesday. What did you make of the Celtics’ blowout win over the Suns? Is Boston that far ahead of the pack?

Rohlin: That loss was bad. But I’m unsure we are able to read that much into it. To start with, Chris Paul returned against the Celtics after a 14-game absence and was removed from himself in that game, ending with as many turnovers (4) as points and assists. Secondly, Devin Booker, who was coming off of 40-plus and 50-plus-point performances just per week earlier, had an excellent off night against the Celtics, ending with 17 points on 35.3% shooting. That being said, the Celtics might thoroughly be the perfect team within the league right away. And there’s no doubt that they’re hungry after finally reaching the NBA Finals for the primary time in 12 years last season before falling to the Golden State Warriors. They’ve the highest rated offensive (119.9) and so they’re within the top-10 team in defensive rating. However the Milwaukee Bucks are right at their heels, only two games behind. And there are several other teams that will give them a run for his or her money, potentially even including the Suns, barring one other collapse. 

Bucher: No possibly. The Celtics are the perfect team within the league right away and never simply because of their record. They’re also a terrible matchup for the Suns, whose strength is their wings and point guard play against most teams. The issue: That’s Boston’s strength as well and right away, nobody is taking Booker, CP3 and Mikal Bridges over Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Throw in Malcolm Brogdon coming off the bench vs. Cam Payne and it’s not a good fight. Which the ultimate rating indicated. After which there’s chemistry. The Cs have that over the Suns as well. Otherwise, how is DeAndre Ayton taking only three first-quarter shots against a front line of Blake Griffin and Grant Williams?

4. Several big names found latest homes this offseason. Which big name in a latest city has been the perfect up to now this season?

Rohlin: I like what Donovan Mitchell is doing in Cleveland. He’s averaging career-highs in points (29) and field goal percentage (49.6), while leading the Cavaliers to the third-best record within the Eastern Conference (16-9). Following five seasons with the Utah Jazz, it’s clear that a change has benefitted him. He’s making the Cavaliers relevant again for the primary time since LeBron James took the team to the NBA Finals in 2018 after which left in free agency. Since then, they’ve missed the playoffs 4 straight seasons. Behind Mitchell, that streak could end very soon. 

Bucher: It’s hard to look past Mitchell, of course, but simply to spread the love, I’ll go together with Jerami Grant in Portland. He may not even qualify as a giant name, which is what makes his performance for the Blazers much more sensational. Known mostly for his defense, he’s averaging a career-high 23 points, partially because he’s develop into a knock-down three-point shooter. He’d never shot the three higher than 39% before this season; yet he’s shooting 46.1%. He’s even hit a buzzer-beating game-winning baseline jumper, and I’m reasonably confident in saying that’s not only the primary game-winning buzzer beater he’s made, it’s the primary he’s taken within the NBA. Brogdon deserves a nod as well. I’m convinced Smart is playing as efficiently as he’s because he knows Brogdon, an efficiency maestro, is over there waiting.

5. Brooklyn has won five of its last six and eight of its last 11, and is now fourth within the East. Are the Nets back? Can they still challenge within the East?

Rohlin: How quickly storylines change within the NBA. Only a blink ago, the Nets were mired in additional drama than a Telenovela. Now, they’re within the headlines for a unique reason: They’re winning. The largest difference has been they’ve actually decided to play defense. They went from having the worst defense within the league to being eighth in that category over their last 10 games. Funny what playing a little bit defense will do, huh? Ever since Kyrie Irving has returned from suspension, the Nets have been relevant again. In the event that they keep playing like this, things may very well be very interesting come April. 

Bucher: I take a look at their roster and think, “Why not?” Then I take a look at the load Kevin Durant and Irving are carrying — each playing 37 minutes an evening — and consider their injury history and I believe, “This isn’t sustainable.” After which there’s their appetite for drama; all is comparatively quiet but I’m just unsure they can assist themselves, particularly Kyrie, from doing something that’s going to be a distraction. They’re not beating the Celtics or the Bucks, so, no, they’re not going to challenge within the East.

Ric Bucher is an NBA author for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a day by day podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA author for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA author for FOX Sports. He’s the creator of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process within the History of Skilled Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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