Gut check time.
Just one week ago, the Pelicans were three games back of the final playoff spot with the league’s third-easiest remaining strength of schedule. Two games later, the odds have considerably worsened. On top of that, New Orleans was smashed by the Celtics several weeks ago by a 140-105 score.
In terms of the future, it doesn’t ultimately matter. The Pelicans have a 22-year-old soon-to-be All-Star in Brandon Ingram, endless assets, promising kids (NAW, Hayes, Didi) and the NBA’s most exciting 19-year-old...ever?
But if the Pelicans want to develop their core amidst a winning culture, getting back onto the right side of the standings needs to happen. Like now.
How high did Zion get on this block?! pic.twitter.com/3EMbDUX9sp— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) January 25, 2020
Enter the Boston Celtics.
Winners of three straight, this group is just one game in back of the Eastern Conference’s second seed. While their projected win total based on their simple rating system places them fifth in the NBA (third-average scoring margin), their second-easiest strength of schedule indicates they might be a bit worse than their record says they are.
Regardless of schedule, the Celtics six-man rotation has been absolutely dynamite. The chemistry built in the summer in Australia (Team USA) has rolled over into the season. Free-agent acquisition Kemba Walker has been the perfect complementary teammate.
Their two most successful and frequent rotations:
Walker - Tatum - Hayward - Brown - Theis - positive 14.5 in 104 minutes
Walker - Tatum - Hayward - Smart - Theis - positive 13.9 in 148 minutes
The Celtics are a cohesive group, routed in discipline and fundamentals. Head coach Brad Steven leads a group that doesn’t turn the ball over (seventh) but inflicts damage on the other end at every opportunity (sixth in steals, fifth in blocks).
Offensively, this group is led by Walker’s scoring and playmaking (22.1 points, five assists) and Tatum’s usage (26.9%, 92nd percentile). Walker’s three-point shooting off the dribble has always been one of his most dangerous skill sets and it has continued this season (39.4 percent).
Aside from Walker, this group is an average three-point shooting team. However, Jaylen Brown’s development has him on the cusp of making his first All-Star game with his stout defense in addition to scoring 20 points on a 39.1 percent three-point shooting this season.
Defensively, this group is one of the very best (fourth). Daniel Theis has stepped in admirably for the departed Al Horford and Aron Baynes, ranking 12th in defensive real plus minus, while Jayson Tatum ranks third (Crazy, I know!).
No Time to Dilly-Dally
The Pelicans simply cannot afford to drop another game if they seek to remain competitive in the playoff race. With the trade deadline less than two weeks away, the Pelicans may look to offload some vets if they continue to lose ground. Zach Lowe and Tim McMenamin have already hinted at the Pelicans shifting into sellers. Dropping this one could bring that eventuality a bit further into the present.
The good news is that the future is bright regardless of the state of the present. Zion Williamson has lived up to billing in his first two appearances. In this simple sample size, Zion is third in scoring, first in effective field goal percentage and first in net-rating (per 36).
It’s everyone else who’s failed to step up. Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram have struggled. Derrick Favors’ effect has dissipated as the group’s defense has fallen off a cliff with the new addition. There’s still time to make a postseason push though. The group is healthy, they’re loaded, and they’ve got an easy remaining strength of schedule. But the vets need to step up and head coach Alvin Gentry needs to step away from these 12-man rotations.
"It's impossible to play 12 guys in a rotation. (Eventually) we'll get back to that 8-9 man rotation where we played our best basketball." - Alvin Gentry— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) January 24, 2020
The Pelicans continue to tinker and dabble with the lineups, with little to no success playing Jahlil Okafor, Nicolo Melli, Frank Jackson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker for just 10 combined minutes against the Nuggets after playing them 13 minutes against the Spurs.
What is that?
Zion at the 5 has been a revelation, however. His combination of athleticism, power, as well as his feel for the game make the Pelicans offense (135 offensive rating) unstoppable with speed and playmaking at every position.
As his workload continues to progress, the Pelicans should begin to discover their new identity and get back to their winning ways.
Will it be too late?
Where To Watch/Listen
What: New Orleans Pelicans (17-29) vs Boston Celtics (30-14)
Where: Smoothie King Center — New Orleans, LA
When: Sunday, January 26, 2019 5:00 PM CST
How: ESPN, FSNO