Zion Williamson missed the entirety of last season while recovering from a foot injury, and his absence capped the New Orleans Pelicans' upside en route to a 36-46 record and a first-round exit from the playoffs.
Now Williamson is preparing to return after signing a five-year, $192.9 million contract extension, and the 2021 All-Star selection is aiming to change some narratives.
"I want to prove that I'm a winner," Williamson told reporters in July. "It's as simple as that. I want to win with coach. As well as with my teammates. The ultimate goal is to win the championship. I feel like that's what we're all striving for."
The Pelicans certainly feature enough talent to emerge as a sleeper in the Western Conference if their core group is able to stay healthy throughout the 2022-23 season.
Williamson is joined by Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, Herbert Jones and Devonte' Graham to form a promising foundation. Dyson Daniels, the No. 8 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, also figures to push for ample playing time as a rookie.
While New Orleans' potential is evident, the West is once again loaded with title hopefuls, led by the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, so the Pels have several obstacles on their road toward contention.
Let's check out all of the important details about the team's regular-season slate following the NBA's schedule release. That's followed by a closer look at what lies ahead for Zion and Co.
2022-23 Pelicans Schedule Details
Season Opener: Oct. 19 at Brooklyn Nets
Championship Odds: +4900 (via FanDuel)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Los Angeles Lakers (First Game: Nov. 2)
The Pelicans and Lakers forged similar paths last season as talent-laden squads that fell short of high expectations, with injuries playing a key role in their sub-.500 records. New Orleans did at least make the postseason before its campaign came to a close, though.
Both teams are looking to make more noise in 2022-23.
A key for each side will be trying to make sure they land inside the top six seeds in the West to avoid the play-in tournament. It's far from a guarantee, even with better health, because there are so many squads with the potential to join the race atop the conference.
There is always no shortage of storylines when New Orleans and L.A. face off. It starts with the battle between Williamson and LeBron James, but there is also Ingram facing off with his former team after being drafted by the Lakers in 2016.
Games against fellow midconference teams will be the foundation of potential success for the Pels, and a firm winning record against those who end up seeded between Nos. 5 and 10 will be a good indicator they are breaking through as a threat.
A couple of statement wins over the Lakers would be a nice boost along the way, especially if they come with both LeBron and Anthony Davis in the lineup for L.A.
Minnesota Timberwolves (First Game: Dec. 28)
The Wolves showed a sense of urgency to move up the standings with their blockbuster trade for the Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert, who will take a lot of defensive pressure off Karl-Anthony Towns as they create one of the NBA's best frontcourt tandems.
It puts Minnesota in the same category as New Orleans as teams looking to make a leap after some offseason roster reconstruction, which for the Wolves also included the addition of Kyle Anderson to provide some do-it-all production on the wing.
The Pelicans and Timberwolves both could lay claim to being the squad with the best chance to join the West's elite, though it's also possible they may be fighting around the play-in line. Either way, their games are going to carry a lot of meaning.
Minnesota could be a tricky matchup for New Orleans because of its defensive versatility on the wings and down low, so these clashes will put some extra pressure on McCollum and the backcourt.
Should the Pelicans show they can overcome those stylistic issues, it will be a good sign they can match up with just about every type of opponent.
If you're making a list of teams with a realistic chance to win the 2023 NBA title, the Pelicans belong on it.
They face more variables than some of the surefire contenders like the Warriors, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, starting with Williamson's health, but if everything falls into place, they have enough talent to make a deep playoff run.
Is New Orleans going to win the 55-60 games likely necessary to compete for the No. 1 seed? Probably not, as it will likely take a while for Zion to get back up to full speed, and some load-management absences are a strong bet throughout the regular season.
David Griffin, the Pelicans' executive vice president of basketball operations, said in July the franchise is in position for a "run toward sustained success for quite a long time."
"We really like the group we have," Griffin told reporters. "We feel like it has a chance to do something special together. It has the requisite versatility it needs, the upside talent it needs. We feel like with the team we have assembled, with Zion as an enormous part of that, coach [Willie] Green and his staff are going to be able to put together an incredible run."
The optimism is warranted, but it's going to take consistent on-court results for the Pelicans to start turning the doubters into believers.
On the flip side, if New Orleans doesn't make significant progress this season, the front office could face tough questions next summer about whether it's time to shake up the roster.
Record Prediction: 46-36
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