SAN ANTONIO – The Pelicans are legit. 

Coming into the season, all of us noticed the potential, expertise and the accomplishments on the finish of the 2021-22 season. There had been nonetheless some doubts about whether or not they may put all of it collectively in head coach Willie Green’s second season. 

Those doubts ought to be gone 23 video games into this season.

Following Friday’s convincing 117-99 win over San Antonio, the Pelicans are 14-8, with eight wins of their final 10 video games. With a win over Denver Sunday and a loss by Phoenix, New Orleans would transfer right into a tie for first place within the Western Conference after 1 / 4 of the 2022-23 the common season. Even these with probably the most optimistic outlook for this group coming into the yr couldn’t have imagined they’d be close to to the highest of the West standings.

Now, it’s time for the dialog to shift. This workforce belongs among the many greatest within the Western Conference. It’s now not a query of if the Pelicans will be good. Now, it’s time to marvel simply how good they are often.

After 23 video games, the Pelicans rank sixth in factors scored per 100 possessions and fourth in factors allowed per 100 possessions. The solely groups within the NBA with a greater web ranking are Boston, Cleveland and Phoenix – two authentic title contenders and one other younger workforce on the rise within the East. Remove rubbish time, as the site Cleaning the Glass does, and New Orleans’ level differential rises to plus-6.7, the equal of a 57-win tempo. That’s tied for second within the NBA with Phoenix, behind solely the Celtics.  

The Pelicans are in all probability nearer to the Cavs than the Celtics or Suns due to their youth and lack of playoff expertise. But it’s laborious to place a ceiling on this workforce as a result of they’ve so many instruments at their disposal and a perception they’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody.     

“We are a special team. I think as the season goes on, the world will get to see that,” mentioned Zion Williamson

If New Orleans goes to make the form of bounce few folks thought was attainable this quickly, the main target has to go to Zion. He’s been a person on a mission with Brandon Ingram sidelined and CJ McCollum out till Friday’s win over the Spurs. Over his final three video games, Williamson is averaging 28.7 factors, 11 rebounds and 7 assists whereas capturing 68.1 p.c from the sector. 

The numbers we noticed from Williamson through the first 100 games of his career indicated that superstardom was in his future. It took him a while to regain his rhythm after lacking the whole 2021-22 season as a consequence of a fractured foot. But he’s all the best way again now – and searching higher than ever. As gaudy as Williamson’s numbers are, they don’t do justice to his latest all-around dominance. His exercise has been off the charts, and his protection, criticized as recently as a few weeks ago, has been better than it’s ever been as a proZion nonetheless has to keep up this stage of play over a extra prolonged interval, and as all the time, he should keep off the injured checklist.

Still, the bounce he’s made this previous week can’t be overstated. There’s nothing extra helpful than a bonafide NBA celebrity, and one could also be rising in New Orleans earlier than our eyes. These are the form of gamers who bridge the hole between playoff and championship contenders. Very few have the instruments essential to ascend to the highest of the sport the place the elite of the elite resides. Zion has all the time been a kind of choose few who’ve what it takes, however now he’s beginning to present it. And if historical past teaches us something, these guys are likely to make their first deep playoff run ahead of anticipated. Just have a look at Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks final season. 

The scariest half is Williamson is simply starting to learn the sport the best way a celebrity does. He’ll solely get extra cerebral from right here. 

“He’s just scratching the surface. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s seeing different coverages on the floor when he has the ball in his hands, even when he’s off the ball,” Green mentioned. “He’s making plays for us. Over and over again, he’s making the right play.”

As dominant as Williamson’s play has been of late he nonetheless doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the credit score for the Pelicans’ success this season. One can argue that no particular person participant on the roster deserves it. That’s as a result of the largest energy of this workforce hasn’t been the star energy on the high of the roster in Williamson, Ingram and McCollum. It’s been its depth from high to backside that’s persistently shined via. 

The Pelicans sit six video games over .500 regardless of the projected beginning 5 (Williamson, Ingram, McCollum, Herb Jones and Jonas Valančiūnas) taking part in collectively in solely 10 of their 22 video games thus far. The Big 3 have missed a mixed 16 video games (21 in the event you develop to make a “Big 4” that features Jones), but the workforce has barely missed a beat when one or a number of of them are out. Consider that the Pels have received eight of their final 10 regardless of solely having their full beginning lineup out there in two of these video games.

Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy have been excellent of their second season as execs. Jones hasn’t shot the ball effectively, however his protection stays wonderful. Valančiūnas is as stable because it will get on the middle place, whereas Larry Nance Jr. has been dependable and efficient in his backup position whereas closing many video games. Naji Marshall is having his greatest season as a professional. Devonte’ Graham has been stable, regardless of restricted alternatives. Dyson Daniels has emerged just lately as one of many extra NBA-ready rookies on this yr’s class. New Orleans has assembled some of the spectacular rosters within the NBA, permitting them to adapt to no matter model they should play towards any opponent.

The Pels can comfortably go 11 deep on any given evening and be ok with any of the gamers they placed on the ground. And that checklist of 11 doesn’t embrace the Eurobasket MVP (Willy Hernangomez) and two latest lottery picks nonetheless 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 of many high defenders within the NBA in his second season. Nance’s on-court intelligence is excellent, and he thrives when New Orleans elects to change pick-and-rolls. Murphy and Marshall are dependable, disruptive wing defenders. Alvarado is a pest who’s consistently forcing opposing guards into errors. Daniels’ protection is very superior for a 19-year-old. 

This group takes satisfaction in taking part in on a string and speaking successfully, no matter who’s on the ground. The Pelicans rank second within the league in steals, as their collective size and exercise forces opponents into errors. They can deploy a number of lineup mixtures which can be able to switching one via 4 – and even one via 5. They preserve the ball on the perimeter and out of the paint. 

Getting stops seemed to be this workforce’s largest weak spot coming into the season, however they’ve by some means turned it into one in every of their largest strengths. New Orleans at present ranks because the sixth-stingiest team in half-court situations, per Cleaning The Glass. 

“When guys go down, I’ve said it before, we don’t look at it as an obstacle. For us, it’s an opportunity to go out and continue to grow as a team. Continue to build,” Green mentioned. “Our expectations are high. We’re not there yet, but we’re continuing to build towards where we want to be.”

If the Pelicans have one apparent defensive weak spot, it’s their incapability to defend the rim when the ball does get previous the preliminary level of assault. New Orleans permits the seventh-fewest pictures on the rim, however opponents are capturing a whopping 70.2 p.c after they get there, the third-worst mark within the NBA, according to Cleaning The Glass. Nance is an effective defensive middle, however he’s undersized for the place. Valanciunas is a extra intimidating determine underneath the basket, however he’s not a lot of a rim protector and struggles to defend in area. This isn’t an enormous flaw, but it surely’s price monitoring shifting ahead.

The extra fast looming problem for the Pelicans is that if they’ll get Williamson to play the identical means he has within the final three video games when Ingram and McCollum return to the lineup.

Through the primary few weeks of the season, there have been instances when the offense ran extra via Ingram and McCollum, because it did final season, with Williamson extra of a spectator hiding within the nook. That can’t be the workforce’s technique shifting ahead. The most harmful model of this workforce happens when Zion is the point of interest of the offense, particularly when he’s attacking downhill from the perimeter with the ball. That forces opposing defenses to ship a number of our bodies his means, which opens up area for everybody else. We didn’t see sufficient of that firstly of the season.

Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have solely logged a minimum of 20 minutes on the similar time in 9 video games this season. The Pelicans are 6-3 in these outings, and according to Cleaning the Glass, they’ve outscored opponents by 18.9 factors per 100 possessions when the Big 3 shares the ground. That’s promising, however they nonetheless have extra work to do to make sure every member of the trio is totally 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

None of the Big 3

145

-30.2

In these 9 video games, Zion is averaging 21.7 factors on simply 14.2 area objective makes an attempt. Those numbers are considerably skewed by Williamson’s nine-point efficiency in a blowout win over Golden State’s reserves on Nov. 21, however the level nonetheless stands. As lengthy as Williamson is crushing defenses the best way he has this previous week, the offense should filter via him. Everyone else must fall in line. 

“All of those guys – Brandon, Z and CJ – they play the game the right way. They want to be unselfish and make sure their teammates are involved,” Green mentioned. “It might be one guy’s night in this game, and it might be someone else in the next game. They always just want to make the right 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 sufficient runway to work out a few of these kinks. As quickly as one man will get wholesome, one other one goes out. Those 16 mixed missed video games from the Big 3 have not often overlapped. Above all, this group simply must get wholesome lengthy sufficient to determine methods to match all of the items accurately.

Though the starters have been efficient collectively, there’s extra work to be achieved earlier than they catch as much as the massive canines within the West. The Pels’ starters have a plus-10.1 web ranking in 233 possessions after they share the ground, based on Cleaning the Glass. That’s a superb quantity, but it surely could possibly be higher. For reference:

  • The Denver Nuggets’ starters (Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic) have a web ranking of plus-14.7 in 372 possessions collectively.
  • The Golden State Warriors starters (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney) have a whopping plus-23.1 web ranking over 572 possessions. 

Those groups are thought of two of New Orleans’ largest threats within the West come playoff time, however they benefit from the huge quantity of expertise their respective cores have taking part in collectively. The Pelicans don’t have that shared historical past, and haven’t been in a position to generate it with their present harm scenario.

The Pels’ depth will assist them stack up victories within the common season, however to win on the highest stage, they’ll have to seek out their greatest 5 and experience them when all of the chips are down. It’s unclear if the Pels have discovered that group but. 

They’ll need to determine it out shortly as a result of they’ve a brutal stretch over the subsequent six weeks. Of their subsequent 22 video games, 15 are towards groups with .500 or higher data, and 7 of these video games are on the highway. 

We know this workforce is sweet. If they actually belong among the many elite, we’ll see them put it on show over these subsequent six weeks. 

(Top picture of Zion Williamson and teammates: Michael Gonzales / NBAE by way of Getty Images)



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