The New Orleans Pelicans are 13-27 and yet, not out of the race. At 5.5 out of the eighth seed and now 12th in the conference, New Orleans is looking for a strong stretch of games to allow them to get back into the race and, at least, consider the idea of making a trade for one final push. Do I agree with it? Not really, but as the Phoenix Suns leapfrogged the Pelicans in the lottery, it's becoming more and more apparent that it's fight or flight for New Orleans.
And this stretch is exactly what they wanted. The next six games for New Orleans? Minnesota, Detroit, Milwaukee, Houston, Sacramento, and Brooklyn. It's six games that are winnable, including two teams against teams ahead of them in the standings. A 6-0 stretch would put them in a position to sell themselves as contenders at the trade deadline, but I think a 4-2 run would be just as good.
Before dreaming on it, let's talk about tonight's opponent - The Minnesota Timberwolves.
Two things. RIP Flip Saunders and respect for all the things he did for the game of basketball in Minnesota and in general, and check out Canis Hoopus for their game preview.
The Wolves and Pelicans share the same record, but Minnesota is towards the bottom of the standings because all of their talents is young, not for failing to meet expectations. Andrew Wiggins took a step back as a shooter, but he's doing almost everything else you want from a young star wing: 20.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, good defensive potential and gets to the line. Karl-Anthony Towns (15.5 points, 9.5 rebounds) is right behind Anthony Davis in the young, great big man race in my mind and Zach LaVine, who's not really a point guard, has taken a step forward as a bouncy ball-handling wing.
Those three, combined with Ricky Rubio and his fancy passing, Shabazz Muhammad's unorthodox style of play, and Gorgui Dieng and his bounce back into being a respectable backup big, gives the Wolves a handful of young and impactful players. Guys like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller provide the-the veteran leadership needed for younger rosters.
The Wolves have a good thing going on with their main roster. Of all the lineups with at least 125 minutes played, Minnesota's lineup of Rubio, Wiggins, Prince, Garnett, and Anthony-Towns have a 12.4 net rating in 255 minutes played. The fifth-best mark in the league with that qualifier. That lineup allows a 90.3 defensive rating, capable of slowing down and pestering most offenses, which is good because it sports one of the lower level offenses - 100.2 offensive rating.
The bad? They're last in the league in three-point attempts at (15.3 per game) and three-point points percentage at 15.5 percent. The Wolves have some shooters, but in unconventional areas - Karl Anthony-Towns is a budding floor spacer (shudder in fear, NBA), Zach LaVine is at 33.3 percent, Kevin Martin is at 35.9 percent (but is a terrible defender, thus, limiting his minutes), and Nemanja Bjelica, a rookie, is hitting 38.1 percent on 2.8 attempts per game.
Part of the problem is that they have wings who can't hit them on a 2-3 per game rate (Wiggins at 25.0 percent, Rubio at 32.5 percent), but they also don't aim to shoot threes, which is one of the reasons they aren't a bit better. No matter, the Wolves have two generational talents and a bad season could give them another top player to pair with Wiggins, Anthony-Towns, and LaVine.
Keys to Victory
Force long twos and threes - As I mentioned above, Minnesota doesn't like to shoot threes. It's not a shot they go after, partially because they lack that one good shooter. New Orleans, in order to stifle Minnesota's offense, should try to extend possessions and force Minnesota to shoot threes, specifically, some of their bad shooters, like Rubio.
Defending Karl-Anthony Towns - Wiggins is special, but Karl-Anthony Towns may be more so. Towns scare me because he can stretch the floor a bit and is quite effective at the rim -- he's going to be a top 15 player soon enough. I think New Orleans needs to put Asik on him at the rim, hoping our big man can stifle his game. If he extends the range, then you have to go, Anthony Davis, as I doubt Ryan Anderson can stop him from the wing.
Jrue Holiday - I think the Pelicans need a big game from Jrue Holiday, with the status of Tyreke Evans being up in the air. Holiday can put points together in a flurry, which is great, but his value will be from properly orchestrating the offense and finding Davis, Anderson and Eric Gordon, as well as properly probing through the defense. Rubio will be a tough matchup, but I think Holiday can have a great game.