No one should be surprised that it was possible for teams led by Devin Booker and Trae Young could make the NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Finals one day, respectively. I don’t think many expected that to happen this previous season, however. But damn it, it did. After years of losing and struggling, brilliant draft maneuvering, sturdy head coaching hires, and slick moves to bring in established veterans to help lead the way, Suns GM James Jones and Hawks GM Travis Schlenk deserve tons of credit for building championship-competitive rosters that fit and maximize the strengths of their superstars. Though it is super hard for even grizzled star-studded teams to advance as far as these two teams did, let alone a team led by young studs, perhaps these two inspired others across the league to follow a similar path. Who could be the next Suns or Hawks?
A team that comes to mind is the New Orleans Pelicans. They already have two players that have been named to All-Star games in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, tantalizing other young pieces surrounding them in Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart (should they be retained in restricted free agency), the rambunctious Nickeil Alexander-Walker (who played a brief stint with the Canadian National Team in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics), the speedy rookie Kira Lewis Jr., and the bouncy Jaxson Hayes. They have a treasure trove of picks too after they dealt Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to Finals teams in successive seasons (ten first-round pics in the next seven drafts, to be exact). The Pelicans have the start of something special, but they need to clean up some aspects of their team first to get where they want to go eventually.
Let’s start on the basketball side of things, they have to address their shooting woes. The Pelicans’ three-point shooting during the 2020-21 season was reminiscent of a stormtrooper. After they finished 26th in the entire league in three-point percentage. Advanced numbers don’t do the Pelicans many favors. The site bball-index.com tracks how great spacing a player is surrounded by. According to their data, neither Brandon Ingram nor Zion Williamson cracked above the 41st percentile for spacing around them. Just watch this play and see how many defenders are packed in the paint when New Orleans is trying to get their offense going. Luckily, Brandon Ingram is a supreme shot-maker and bailed the Pelicans out of this wretched possession, but these types of possessions were far too common and a nightly routine when Zion and Ingram were mostly surrounded by two complete non-shooting entities in Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. Despite this, Zion Williamson somehow managed to average 27 points a night while shooting 61% from the field and feasting at the rim, while Brandon Ingram put up a robust 46.6/38.1/87.8 shooting split on the season. The Pelicans’ priority has to be finding more shooting to make life easier on these two stars. It is wholly on the Pelicans’ Front Office (more on them in a bit) to get the shooting required for Zion and Ingram. It was neglected the last offseason and cannot be again.
Defense ailed the Pelicans for much of the 2020-21 season too. New, now former, head coach Stan Van Gundy noted the previous trends of top defenses canceling the paint in exchange for opposing teams to unleash from three at will, and decided to implement that strategy. Let’s just say it took some time for his new young players to get used to. Last season, the Pelicans allowed the fourth most amount of possessions by their opponents to conclude with a three-point shot, according to NBA.com. Those Pelicans opponents shot 38% on those threes, tied for the fifth-best (or worst, whichever way you want to look at it) mark in the league. Oftentimes, it felt like the Pelicans were either overdoing it with their strategy or were too young to properly execute it the way more experienced teams did by leaving certain shooters open and running off the more dangerous ones. Plenty of New Orleans defensive possessions ended like this:
There were more defensive issues aside from their overall structure. Their stars just have to be better, plain and simple. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are capable of being very good defensive players, at least I think so. Zion looked every bit the part of a modern-day small-ball center at Duke, using his freakish athleticism to protect the rim while also staying in front of his man. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the NBA, but it has been far too fleeting. More times than not, unfortunately, possessions with Zion at center have tended to look like this. Oftentimes, he looks as if his feet are in quicksand, or he doesn’t put himself in the right positions to make the correct plays. Williamson only played 86 minutes all season long playing without another big man, according to NBA.com. He just wasn’t ready yet for that type of role. To be fair to Zion too, he played in a zone defense a lot while at Duke, hasn’t had a ton of top-notch coaching before enrolling at Duke, and big men tend to struggle defensively their first couple of seasons (look at none other than Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns). Those growing pains will help Zion in the long run. He still is more than capable of being a devastating defensive force, in my opinion, but he needs to improve defensively to get there.
Brandon Ingram has to be better defensively too. We know he can be a positive defender from his days in Los Angeles, but he hasn’t brought that part of his game to New Orleans quite yet. Sure, you can still beat Ingram with bulk, but too many times Ingram lacked tenacity, focus, or feistiness on defense.
Ingram gets caught ball-watching and loses sight of his man in the corner (Andrew Wiggins). Two of his teammates are already up with Steph Curry, so he has to momentarily cover Draymond Green and Wiggins. However, Ingram is in no man’s land and doesn’t really guard either, letting Wiggins sneak along the baseline for a dunk. Ingram is way better than that. Until he and Zion catch up on that end of the floor, the Pelicans’ chances of competing will hover around where it is now. With the talent of those two players themselves, let alone the rest of the roster, the Pelicans should not be finishing with the eighth-worst defense in the NBA. Once the Pelicans’ defense catches up, then things could get serious in the near future.
The most important job the Pelicans need to do, however, is gain organizational stability. GM David Griffin has done a great job of hoarding draft picks for the future, but his moves and actions other than that have been less than stellar. Drafting a center with the eighth overall pick (Jaxson Hayes) in the 2019 NBA Draft didn’t feel like the best allocation of its value and only looks worse after De’Andre Hunter (who they could’ve had with the fourth pick of the draft as part of the Anthony Davis trade and was eventually flipped to Atlanta for the eighth and seventeenth picks), Rui Hachimura, Cam Reddish, Cam Johnson, and Tyler Herro, all of whom the Pelicans could have drafted and all but Hunter being drafted after the Hawks took Hayes, have had moments of brilliance in the postseason and fit the roster better than Hayes does. Griffin acquired George Hill in the Jrue Holiday trade, yet flipped the sharpshooting (career 38.1% three-point shooter) guard to Oklahoma City for plodding big man Steven Adams, then gave Adams a two-year, $35 million extension! This was disastrous on numerous levels. Adams does not look like the same athlete he was years ago defensively and makes life much more difficult for the Pelicans’ offense.
On top of all that, Adams eats up a ton of the Pelicans’ salary cap. He and Bledsoe combined to make over $35 million next season heading into this offseason. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are scheduled to be restricted free agents. Zion Williamson will be eligible for a contract extension after next season and Ingram is already on a max deal. Adams and Bledsoe both have contracts that bleed until the 2022-2023 season, though Bledsoe’s money that season is not guaranteed. Though Adams nor Bledsoe are in New Orleans’ long-term plans, they could potentially cost the Pelicans Ball, who likely will get a lucrative deal in restricted free agency, or some of the picks they acquired via the Lakers or the Bucks to try to get more cap space to improve the team around Zion and Ingram. There isn’t really anyone but Griffin to blame for not maneuvering that as cleanly as he did.
David Griffin also hasn’t been the best at maintaining relationships while in New Orleans, both from the player and coaching side of things. Months ago, JJ Redick blasted Griffin on his ‘The Old Man and the Three’ podcast for allegedly lying to Redick about sending Redick to somewhere he’d want to go that would be in close proximity to his family in New York after the trade deadline. Instead, he got shipped to Dallas. Granted, JJ Redick doesn’t have the luxury or leverage a star does, but this stuff matters a lot to players. It didn’t stop there with Griffin either. After firing Stan Van Gundy after hiring him less than a year ago, Van Gundy appeared on the ‘STUpodity’ podcast hosted by Stugotz of the ‘Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz.’ Among many notable grievances Van Gundy aired, the most notable was the fact that he flat-out said that he and the front office weren’t on the same page. That is inexcusable. Sure, some blame can be aimed at both sides, but I’d pin most of that onto Griffin. Griffin is a long-time, experienced general manager. He helped lead a team to a championship for Christ’s sake. He knows how to do this, but he has to be better more so than anyone in that organization to get the Pelicans where they want to go. He has to hire the right coach now for the second time in less than 365 days. He has to be more upfront with his players. He has to value shooting. If he doesn’t this video of Zion Williamson swooning over the lore of Madison Square Garden will loom over the Pelicans like a rain cloud. The Pelicans have pressure. It’s up to Griffin to shoo it away.
David Griffin has done a fine job remedying both fronts so far. The Pelicans recently hired former Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns assistant coach and 12 year NBA veteran Willie Green as his new head coach. With how he just helped the Suns recognize their renaissance run this year with a fairly young and inexperienced team, you’d think he knows what it takes to steer this franchise in the right direction. Griffin also executed one of the first trades of the offseason, dealing Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, the 10th and 40th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and a 2022 first-round pick from the Lakers (while placing a top ten protection over it) to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and their 17th and 51st selections in the 2021 Draft. While the fit between Valanciunas and Zion seems clunky on both ends of the floor, he still represents a massive upgrade over Adams. Though trading that 2022 first and moving down from 10 to 17 is hardly ideal, it allows the Pelicans to possibly keep both Hart and Ball, or sign another point guard in Lonzo’s place should he walk (Kyle Lowry has long been rumored to be the Pelicans’ target, but Lowry may foil their plans by taking his talents to South Beach). Speaking of the 17th selection, drafting Virginia’s Trey Murphy III should immediately boost New Orleans’ shooting and spacing, as he shot 40.1% from deep during his three-year college career and 81.9% from the free-throw line. The Pelicans need to do more, but this offseason has gone off to a good start to finally get the Pelicans back into the playoffs.
With all that said, there is plenty to be excited about in New Orleans. They have two great young players and ample resources to improve the roster around them. There’s no reason to think the Pelicans can’t find the right supporting cast the same way the Suns and Hawks did. Those two teams proved is that one big and correct offseason can drastically change the outcome of a franchise. Let’s see if the Pelicans can follow in their footsteps and be the next team to surprise with a deep playoff run.