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

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SAN ANTONIO – The Pelicans are legit. 

Coming into the season, all of us saw the potential, talent and the accomplishments at the tip of the 2021-22 season. There have been still some doubts about whether or not they could put all of it together in head coach Willie Green’s second season. 

Those doubts ought to 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 of their last 10 games. With a win over Denver Sunday and a loss by Phoenix, Recent Orleans would move right into a tie for first place within the Western Conference after 1 / 4 of the 2022-23 the regular season. Even those with probably the most optimistic outlook for this group coming into the yr couldn’t have imagined they’d be near to the highest of the West standings.

Now, it’s time for the conversation to shift. This team belongs amongst the perfect within the Western Conference. It’s now not an issue of if the Pelicans could be good. Now, it’s time to wonder just how good they could be.

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

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

“We’re a special team. I believe because the season goes on, the world will get to see that,” said Zion Williamson

If Recent Orleans goes to make the form of jump few people thought was possible this soon, the main focus has to go to Zion. He’s been a person 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 7 assists while shooting 68.1 percent from the sector. 

The numbers we saw from Williamson through the primary 100 games of his profession indicated that superstardom was in his future. It took him a while to regain his rhythm after missing your complete 2021-22 season as a result of a fractured foot. But he’s all the way in which back now – and searching higher 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 couple of weeks ago, has been higher than it’s ever been as a professionalZion still has to keep up this level of play over a more prolonged period, and as at all times, he must stay off the injured list.

Still, the jump he’s made this past week can’t be overstated. There’s nothing more useful than a bonafide NBA superstar, and one could also be emerging in Recent Orleans before our eyes. These are the form of players who bridge the gap between playoff and championship contenders. Only a few have the tools obligatory to ascend to the highest of the sport where the elite of the elite resides. Zion has at all times been one in every of those select few who’ve what it takes, but now he’s starting to indicate it. And if history teaches us anything, those guys are inclined to make their first deep playoff run ahead of expected. Just take a look at Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks last season. 

The scariest part is Williamson is just starting to read the sport the way in which a superstar does. He’ll only get more cerebral from here. 

“He’s just scratching the surface. He’s going to proceed to get well. He’s seeing different coverages on the ground 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 once more, he’s making the appropriate 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 highest of the roster in Williamson, Ingram and McCollum. It’s been its depth from top to bottom that’s consistently shined through. 

The Pelicans sit six games over .500 despite the projected starting five (Williamson, Ingram, McCollum, Herb Jones and Jonas Valančiūnas) playing together in just 10 of their 22 games up to now. The Big 3 have missed a combined 16 games (21 in case you expand to make a “Big 4” that features Jones), yet the team has barely missed a beat when one or multiple 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 of their second season as pros. Jones hasn’t shot the ball well, but his defense stays excellent. Valančiūnas is as solid because it gets at the middle 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 professional. Devonte’ Graham has been solid, despite limited opportunities. Dyson Daniels has emerged recently as one in every of the more NBA-ready rookies on this yr’s class. Recent Orleans has assembled one of the crucial impressive rosters within the NBA, allowing them to adapt to whatever style they should play against any opponent.

The Pels can comfortably go 11 deep on any given night and be ok with any of the players they placed on the ground. And that list of 11 doesn’t 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 enrich the offensive stars. Jones is already one in every of the highest defenders within the NBA in his second season. Nance’s on-court intelligence is outstanding, and he thrives when Recent Orleans elects to modify pick-and-rolls. Murphy and Marshall are reliable, disruptive wing defenders. Alvarado is a pest who’s always forcing opposing guards into mistakes. Daniels’ defense is very advanced for a 19-year-old. 

This group takes pride in playing on a string and communicating effectively, no matter who’s on the ground. The Pelicans rank second within the league in steals, as their collective length and activity forces opponents into mistakes. They’ll deploy several lineup mixtures which might be able to switching one through 4 – and even one through five. They keep the ball on the perimeter and out of the paint. 

Getting stops seemed to be this team’s biggest weakness coming into the season, but they’ve by some means turned it into one in every of their biggest strengths. Recent Orleans currently ranks because the sixth-stingiest team in half-court situations, per Cleansing The Glass. 

“When guys go down, I’ve said it before, we don’t take a look at it as an obstacle. For us, it’s a possibility to exit and proceed to grow as a team. Proceed to construct,” Green said. “Our expectations are high. We’re not there yet, but we’re continuing to construct towards where we wish 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. Recent Orleans allows the eighth-fewest shots on the rim, but opponents are shooting a whopping 70.2 percent after they get there, the third-worst mark within the NBA, in keeping with Cleansing The Glass. Nance is a very 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 large flaw, but it surely’s value monitoring moving forward.

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

Through the primary few weeks of the season, there have been times when the offense ran more through Ingram and McCollum, because it did last season, with Williamson more of a spectator hiding within the corner. That may’t be the team’s strategy moving forward. Essentially the most dangerous version of this team occurs when Zion is the point of interest 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 everybody else. We didn’t see enough of that initially of the season.

Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have only logged not less than 20 minutes at the identical time in nine games this season. The Pelicans are 6-3 in those outings, and in keeping with Cleansing the Glass, they’ve outscored opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions when the Big 3 shares the ground. That’s promising, but they still have more work to do to make sure each member of the trio is fully optimized.

The Pelicans’ Big 3

Combination

  

Possessions

  

Net Rating

  

CJ + Ingram + Zion

356

18.9

CJ + Ingram, no Zion

248

1.2

CJ + Zion, no Ingram

310

4.6

Zion + Ingram, no CJ

141

11.2

Zion alone

317

9.8

CJ alone

377

11.4

Ingram alone

241

3.8

Not one 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 purpose still stands. So long as Williamson is crushing defenses the way in which he has this past week, the offense must filter through him. Everyone else must fall in line. 

“All of those guys – Brandon, Z and CJ – they play the sport the appropriate way. They need to be unselfish and be sure that their teammates are involved,” Green said. “It is perhaps one guy’s night on this game, and it is perhaps another person in the following game. They at all times just intend to make the appropriate 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 a few of these kinks. As soon as one guy gets healthy, one other one goes out. Those 16 combined missed games from the Big 3 have rarely overlapped. Above all, this group just must get healthy long enough to work out methods to fit all of the pieces appropriately.

Though the starters have been effective together, there’s more work to be done before they catch as much as the massive dogs within the West. The Pels’ starters have a plus-10.1 net rating in 233 possessions after they share the ground, in keeping with Cleansing the Glass. That’s a very good number, but it surely may very well be higher. 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 Recent Orleans’ biggest threats within the West come playoff time, but they take pleasure in the large amount of experience their respective cores have playing together. The Pelicans don’t have that shared history, and haven’t been capable of generate it with their current injury situation.

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

They’ll must figure it out quickly because they’ve a brutal stretch over the following six weeks. Of their next 22 games, 15 are against teams with .500 or higher records, and 7 of those games are on the road. 

We all know this team is sweet. In the event that they really belong among the many 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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