How the New Orleans Pelicans Became the NBA's Biggest Disappointment

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2021

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) sits on the bench during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Unprecedented circumstances both on and off the court have led to a number of disarming developments to start the 2020-21 NBA season. Letdowns, in particular, have become unsettlingly easy to identify.

And no team, to this point, has been a larger disappointment than the New Orleans Pelicans

That much isn't up for debate even when weighing alternatives like the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors. Even after trading Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pelicans were billed as, at the bare minimum, a play-in candidate.

They still might be. Angling for a top-10 spot lends itself to a greater margin for error, and nobody in the middle of the Western Conference is running away with anything. 

New Orleans is still whiffing by those standards. It has lost eight of nine games and currently sits 14th in the Western Conference with a defense that ranks 25th in points allowed per possession (outside garbage time) despite a strong beginning to the year.

The Pelicans themselves appear to be acknowledging their precarious situation by contemplating change. Both Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick are considered gettable for other teams around the league, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. This does not amount to a full-tilt fire sale, but it does hint at a level of resignation, an admission that something's not right and the current core, to a T, isn't worth preserving.

Scott Kushner @ScottDKushner

Every single player not named Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson should be available. The most obvious trade candidates are obviously Ball and Redick (and Bledsoe if he can be moved), but no one else has shown they’re long-term core pieces at this point. https://t.co/cEmGB3J0DK

Less certain than New Orleans' discouraging start is the root cause and whether it has the immediate ability to turn it around. The West's standings may be more forgiving during the play-in era, but the Pelicans' short-term position is fuzzy at best. More than that, their long-term trajectory is difficult to discern beyond "Well, Zion Williamson exists, and Brandon Ingram is averaging 23.3 points and 4.6 assists."

Fickle roster construction feels like the biggest catalyst for their onset trudge. It bleeds through on both paper and the court, an issue so obvious that failing to avoid it, let alone the decision to actively accentuate it, betrays conventional wisdom.

The Pelicans have essentially taken the most dangerous downhill threat in the league, Zion, and surrounded him with minimal shooting. He ranks second in field goals made inside three feet, behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, and it still seems like he's not afforded enough runway.

Steven Adams is the natural point of emphasis. Zion has always profiled as a 5 on offense. New Orleans should have found a rim protector who spaces the floor rather than traded for—and then extended—someone who doesn't typically stretch the defense beyond floater range except when he's setting high screens.

Solid logic? Sure. But it's not exactly practical. Floor-spacing rim protectors are impossibly hard to find. A bunch of Myles Turners weren't up for grabs over the offseason. It is important to view Adams' addition through that scope of potential alternatives, of which there were few. (This isn't me getting holier-than-though atop a soapbox. I wasn't a fan of the Adams trade or extension.)

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Quibble over the price point (two years, $35 million) if you must, but what else were the Pelicans supposed to do?

Bring back Derrick Favors? Go after Aron Baynes? Robin Lopez? Lean into Zion-at-the-5 lineups full-time and risk exposing (and exhausting) him on defense even more when he doesn't yet seem equipped to cover the ground to which he's already assigned? Commit to more of the super-young Jaxson Hayes when they already have one 20-year-old starting up front? 

Pretty much every viable substitute scenario—remember: New Orleans is not a hot free-agency destination—would've still included playing Zion beside another non-shooter. Things might be worse next to someone else. The Pelicans are a decided net negative at both ends with Adams and Zion on the court, but no more so than they are overall. The team is also knocking down 37 percent of its threes during those reps.

Outside shooting isn't necessarily the standard at the center position anyway. Increasingly common and desirable is not akin to an established normal. Positions at which players are supposed to space the floor are burning the Pelicans more. 

Zion doesn't really take threes, and nearly everyone else is failing to make an appropriate dent. New Orleans has one player who ranks better than the league average in both three-point-attempt frequency and efficiency.

And it's Eric Bledsoe.

This problem isn't going away. Certain players are shooting better in recent weeks. Josh Hart is at 45.5 percent from long range over his last seven appearances. Redick (30.0 percent on the season) will eventually drop in more of his triples. 

But the Pelicans aren't flush with players working their way through ruts. Lonzo has always ridden wild swings. His 29.1 percent clip might stick. Nicolo Melli is a stretch big only in theory (and not exactly a rotation staple right now). Bledsoe might actually be due for regression.

New Orleans is not hiding any spot-up-shooting wings on its bench. It is not built to significantly improve upon its No. 25 placement in three-point frequency and No. 29 ranking in efficiency from beyond the rainbow.

Iffy spacing is only compounded by the guard rotation. Playing Bledsoe and Lonzo together is something more than awkward. Neither is an especially dangerous threat away from the ball, and both of their games are solvable in the half-court.

Lonzo is an especially polarizing ingredient as a playmaker not ideally wired to initiate offense against set defenses.

The Pelicans' half-court efficiency rises with him in the game, but he lacks the bandwidth to consistently break things down without a head of steam and injects predictability into his possessions by not hunting his own shot. Only a third of his drives have ended in a field-goal attempt. He's shooting 33.3 percent in those situations—a bottom-12 mark among 156 players with at least 20 such looks.

The Pelicans aren't doing Lonzo any favors. Not only does he overlap with Bledsoe and need to navigate shoddy spacing, but the team also appears intent on funneling its offense through Ingram. He runs more pick-and-rolls than anyone else by a mile. Lonzo ranks fourth, also trailing Bledsoe and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Josh Eberley🇨🇦 @JoshEberley

More shots than points update: Dillon Brooks: 206-197 Anthony Edwards: 182-163 Cole Anthony: 170-163 Darius Bazeley: 145-145 Lonzo Ball: 134-133 Tyus Jones: 112-109 Aaron Holiday: 106-95 Robert Covington: 102-93 *Shouts to Graham for climbing out of the hole.*

Spending so much time in the half-court at all only complicates matters for Lonzo. The Pelicans are 23rd in average possession time after ranking third last year, according to Impredictable. They log less time in transition with Lonzo on the court.

Criticism works both ways. Lonzo doesn't project as the best point guard for this roster. The Pelicans need someone who can put more pressure on set defenses. Maybe that's Alexander-Walker. Or Kira Lewis Jr. It isn't Lonzo.

At the same time, they're not doing nearly enough to optimize him. They've cannonballed into more of Ingram—his average time of possession has spiked since last season—and methodical possessions at the expense of Lonzo.

Moving him won't solve everything. It may not resolve anything other than the big-picture cap sheet. His trade value won't be high as a soon-to-be restricted free agent slogging through a down offensive season, and it's not like the Pelicans are much better without him. They're getting blasted at both ends when he sits. His absence would only compromise a defense that's 29th in points allowed per possession during this eight-losses-in-nine-games skid.

Blame for the Pelicans' current position cannot be ascribed to any one player. It doesn't even fall solely with head coach Stan Van Gundy or executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Could Van Gundy have his team play faster? Try to allow fewer threes? Sure. Could Griffin have prioritized better fits around Zion and Ingram over the offseason? Fleshed out a bench so it wouldn't allow opponents to shoot 71.8 percent at the rim when Adams is catching a breather? Absolutely.

Mostly, it feels like the Pelicans are navigating what was unavoidable and missing on expectations that never should've existed in the first place.

For all the talent on this roster, they are still closer to rebuilding than not. They just shipped out Holiday, their best player. Zion has yet to play 40 career games and is learning the self-creation ropes. This year, 41.1 percent of his made baskets are going unassisted, up from 23.8 percent as a rookie. Alexander-Walker is 22 and just starting to get regular run.

Ingram is only 23 himself, and this is just his second season being treated as the guy on offense. Lonzo is also 23 and was a roller-coaster ride before he arrived. Hayes is 20. Lewis is 19. New Orleans doesn't have any wing prospects. Ingram and Hart (25) have aged out of that designation, and they aren't enough on their own. The awkward fit between so many key players adds to the combustibility.

Somehow, though, the Pelicans' timeline has been implicitly accelerated. It isn't anyone's fault, at least not directly. Zion is already a dominant offensive player. The Pelicans have already maxed out Ingram. They've paid Adams. Lonzo and Hart (restricted) are nearing free agency.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Name recognition and investments, both upcoming and incumbent, have fueled urgency—exigency the Pelicans aren't yet polished enough to handle. They know it, too. The rumor mill isn't starting to churn at this stage, almost a quarter of the way through the season, by accident.

There is inherent danger in making any drastic decisions now. This season is nothing if not the enemy of information.

Games are being postponed. Players are exiting and entering the NBA's health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic and missing time. Training camps were almost nonexistent. The Pelicans have a different head coach. This year is basically an extension of Zion's rookie season after he played in just 24 games during the 2019-20 campaign.

So much is new—and broken. It makes drawing profound conclusions hard.

But the Pelicans have seen enough to know that what's currently in place won't work and that they have little business treating the stakes of this season as their top priority—assuming they ever were.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on Jan. 25. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.