Don't look now, but the Pelicans are 5-5 in their last 10 games. In those last 10 games, New Orleans' offense has played well (12th in the league at 103.7 per 100), but the defense still ranks among the league's worst, 29th at 107.5 per 100 possessions. Quincy Pondexter should eventually help, but it seems like the defense will be the place that will need the most improvement moving forward.
The main point, however, is the team's 1-11 start pushed back a team that has talent. The return of Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole has given the Pelicans some depth in the wing department, matching their crowded frontcourt. It feels like a broken record, but once Quincy Pondexter returns, the Pelicans will have their desired rotation and it seems like the Pelicans will push for the playoffs.
With Ryan Anderson apparently on the trading block, or at least discussed to be dealt, the Pelicans could experience a shakeup soon. However, I doubt much will change before New Orleans' Saturday night game against the Chicago Bulls.
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The Bulls are in an odd position. After years of fighting off the Miami Heat, the Bulls seem to be on the downswing and in position for a renovating, rather than an all-out rebuild. They hired Fred Hoiberg over the offseason, and while he was praised for his offense laurels at Iowa State, Chicago is ranked just 28th in the league, averaging 97.1 points per 100 possessions. The defense, however, remains. Chicago is third in the league with a defensive efficiency of 96.9.
Things have changed in the Windy City. A first team All-NBA talent two years ago, Joakim Noah has been moved to the second unit in hopes of keeping him fresh for the postseason. Sadly, his skills have eroded. Pau Gasol, however, is still providing offensive value (15.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 blocks) at the age of 35 and Doug McDermott (8.9 points, 46% from three on 3.6 attempts) is slowly becoming a player in the league. It's a collection of players that once seemed in contention for the Eastern Conference Finals, but now, it seems like Cleveland, Miami, Charlotte and Indiana all passed them by.
Back to the retooling. The Bulls have Joakim Noah in the last year of his contract, Derrick Rose two years away from free agency and could look for something of a reboot. If that is indeed the case, it will be led by Jimmy Butler (20.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 7.5 free throw attempts per game), who's one of the best two-way players in the league. Alongside him will be Taj Gibson and his ability to defend the rim and Nikola Mirotic, who is in the verge of becoming an inside-outside threat. Those three, plus the amazing Bobby Portis, create a foursome the next good Bulls team will be built around.
Keys to Victory
Score the basketball
Sounds simple enough, right? The Bulls are simply not good at creating offense. The weird thing about Chicago is it seems like Pau, Butler and pray for rain. It neither of those two can have efficient games, the Bulls have to hope someone can put together an above average game. Therefore, the Pelicans have to be aggressive offensively. In their last 10 games, the Pelicans are 10th in pace, behind the Bulls no less, so the goal should be to create offense in both units, creating a wave of good, efficient shots that can drown the Bulls as they eventually go into an offensive drought or two.
Stop Jimmy Butler
I mentioned Pau Gasol as another offensive weapon, but Jimmy Butler is the main guy offensively. He's good at spacing the floor (.247 3-point attempt rate), attacking the basket (.502 free throw rate) and a good passer who's getting more and more involved with creating offense (15.7 assist rate). Simply put, he's one of the 25 best players in the league and a lynchpin in Chicago's offense. The Pelicans don't have Quincy Pondexter, so this will be tricky. I suggest Alonzo Gee at first, before sticking Dante Cunningham on him and seeing how that goes. Either way, the game plan heading into Chicago should be to stifle Butler offensively.
Attack the Basket
Let's continue with the small sample. In the last 10 games, the Pelicans have the sixth best free throw rate. Anthony Davis is getting to the line, Tyreke Evans has been attacking the basket with positive results and Ryan Anderson has played well and garnered free throws. It's been a balanced attack with five players getting at least three free throw attempts per game. A steady, consistent attack on Chicago's defense (13th in their last 10 against free throw rate) in lieu of getting to the line could keep Chicago slightly off balanced.
I really don't know which way this game could go for New Orleans. They could use their good offense to take advantage of Chicago's defense and steal a victory, or Chicago's defense could suffocate New Orleans and we're right back where we started. Anthony Davis is playing, which gives New Orleans a chance to win. If they can't stop Gasol and Butler, then things will get tricky.