What caused this once-promising season for the Pelicans to unravel?


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The New Orleans Pelicans were clicking on all cylinders when the calendar flipped to 2023, sporting a record of 23-12 and sitting in 2nd place in the Western Conference and just 1/2 game behind the first place Nuggets. Fast forward 11 weeks to St. Patrick’s Day, however, and the picture was not so rosy; a 10-25 slide resulted in the team plummeting all the way down to 12th place and put them into a dogfight just to qualify for a playoff berth. While they have somewhat resurrected themselves over the past 10 days, winning 5 games in a row to get back above .500 at 38-37 and back up into 8th place, nothing is guaranteed. What happened? How did this deep and talented team that seemingly had the brightest future in the entire NBA and that seemed ready to escalate their timeline suddenly find themselves in the same position as last year, scrapping just to qualify for the postseason?

Last season, the team started out the year 1-12 and was mired in last place, but then engineered a quick turnaround by conducting a series of trades for veterans CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. and by increasing the roles of rookies Herb Jones, Trey Murphy, and Jose Alvarado. The Pelicans were 22-32 before the trade but 14-14 after, and then went on to win two games in the play-in tournament to qualify for the post-season. The team then threw a scare into the top-seeded Suns in the 1st round of the playoffs before eventually succumbing. They did all of this without their star player and franchise cornerstone, Zion Williamson, who was sidelined due to injury. They added a lottery pick player in the 2022 draft, Dyson Daniels, to their roster and re-signed some key players on the team. Zion Williamson came into the season in great shape and relatively healthy and the Pelicans seemed as though they could make a big run in the postseason. Despite all of this, however, the Pelicans have struggled to remain competitive after a hot start.

After the CJ McCollum trade last season, the Pelicans were able to integrate him into several promising 5 man lineups (per 48 minute metrics show below):

This season, however, some of these same lineups and others revolving around McCollum have been much worse statistically (per 48 minute metrics show below):

One of the more commonly used 5-man lineups (Jonas Valanciunas, CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones, and Trey Murphy) highlights the disparity in effectiveness from one year to the next. The swing of 29.1 points per 48 minutes in the wrong direction is staggering!

Injuries have played a role in the team’s decline. McCollum has been rumored to have discomfort in his finger on his shooting hand and may be postponing a necessary surgery to avoid being shut down for the season. This has led to a dip in efficiency as he is shooting worse from both midrange and from 3.

Ingram has missed 35 games this year from lingering toe injuries and has been notably worse when first returning from injuries, which has hampered the effectiveness of these lineups and contributed to some of the losses. Overall, Ingram has been their primary scorer and go-to facilitator in the clutch this year. He’s averaging 24 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, and is converting shots at a higher rate than last year from both inside and outside the arc and from the foul line. Given his key role, however, having him bouncing in and out of the lineup does throw the team into flux.

Zion Williamson has missed 37 games and counting due to a lingering hamstring injury. The team’s success at the start of the season, where they added him into what they had built towards the end of the previous year, was taken away when he got injured this season. Considering how crucial he is to the team’s success and how well he has played when healthy, Zion’s continued absence and the uncertainty surrounding his return can not be good for team morale. The Pelicans endured a ten game losing streak shortly after he suffered the injury and have not had many positive moments since then.

Besides injuries, there has been some stagnation in the development of the second-year players. Herb Jones has been in a shooting slump. Despite his defensive acumen, Jones has been almost unplayable on offense at times. He is shooting worse fin every category this year. He is shooting under 30% from three, which is detrimental to a team that lacks spacing and relies heavily on the midrange and paint to score points. Shooting 29% from three when 90% of your threes are shot wide open is really going to limit the team’s offense, as defenses can play off a player who they deem not to be a threat.

Jose Alvarado brings energy off the bench unlike almost any other player in the league. The fans love him and he is capable of becoming a flamethrower; he even had a 38 point game off the bench this year. However, he has now missed significant time this season and there is no clear timetable for his return. The Pelicans have dearly missed their beloved bench scorer and spark plus, are do not have the same energy without him.

There is always the possibility that they might have just gotten hot last year at the right time, and that maybe they aren’t the team everyone thought they were. Yes they have had problems with injuries, shooting slumps, and morale – but so does every team, that’s basketball in today’s NBA. There is always an excuse, but that does not mean that things will automatically get better or that the universe is conspiring against them. The players and coaches will have to be honest in their self-assessments, put in the work, and overcome these obstacles, as have some other teams who have encountered similar difficulties but have weathered the storm.

In the end, it is important to note that the team’s key trio of McCollum, Ingram, and Zion have played just 10 games together. In reality, the true potential of this team is unknown and more information is needed to understand how good this team truly is.

That being said, the Western Conference this year has been unlike any year before. 4th and 11th place are separated by only 3 1/2 games. There is no clear favorite. The Nuggets and Kings do not get the respect they deserve and no one is confident in them breezing through to the Western Conference finals. The Grizzlies are having internal problems with all the controversy surrounding Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, plus the season-ending injury to Brandon Clarke. The Clippers have been streaky after the deadline and now Paul George is out again indefinitely. The Suns are the betting-odds favorite but have a weak bench and three of the most injury prone stars in the league. The Warriors have been unbelievably bad on the road and are unsure of the availability of Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II. Then there is the group that have struggled all season with mediocrity for various reasons along with the Pelicans: the Timberwolves, Lakers, Thunder, Mavericks, and Jazz. These teams are all still battling for those play-in spots, maybe even hoping to sneak their way into the top 6. It seems like it could be anyone’s year this year. Even considering all of the struggles the Pelicans have endured year-to-date, if the team can make it into the playoffs and get Zion back healthy they would have to be considered a threat.

The Pelicans have seven more games remaining this season. They have a direct and feasible route to make the playoffs. Zion Williamson is projected to return for the playoffs if the team can qualify. These seven games will give the team a better idea on its identity going forward and which players will remain as key building blocks as opposed to being parlayed as trade assets into other complementary pieces, i.e. their ability to perform in the clutch and to respond to the pressure. The recent winning streak is a positive sign; it will be interesting to see if they can carry that momentum through a daunting final stretch which includes road games against the Warriors, Nuggets, and Timberwolves amidst home dates against the Clippers, Kings, Grizzlies, and Knicks.