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Predicting the New Orleans Pelicans rotation to begin the 2020-21 NBA season

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Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

With training camps opening across the NBA later this week, let’s delve into potential New Orleans Pelicans playing rotations to start the 2020-21 season. How do you think Stan Van Gundy should allot playing time? Will he primarily have an 8-, 9- or 10-man rotation? Also, be sure to include a minutes breakdown.

Kevin Barrios

I believe that Van Gundy will employ a 10-man rotation, with a starting unit of Eric Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Steven Adams.

As I stated in our previous roundtable, it seems clear that SVG views Ball more as a combo guard with wing-like tendencies. They’ll be some staggering of Bledsoe and Ball, but the two should play together for a large portion of their minutes, as their individual games do complement each other. Lonzo will probably get the task of guarding SFs in three guard lineups, too — as the Pelicans were unable to add another wing stopper following the Adams trade.

While the lineups will be tested defensively, they should shine offensively — hopefully offsetting some defensive inefficiencies. I also envision SVG having to play Ingram at the 4 for stretches as well, with Nicolo Melli being the only stretchy true big on the roster. Again, not ideal defensively, but I do see a Bledsoe, JJ Redick, Ball, Ingram and Williamson grouping seeing decent run — perhaps in a closing lineup if the Pels aren’t in total defensive mode when protecting a lead.

This team is built to have a real chance to win now, but it isn’t without holes. Winning now is surely a priority; however, further evaluation and development should also be a very strong focus. It’s going to be a balancing act in the rotations, but I see a relatively clear path to attempting to have their wins and eat it too.

As much as I love the Adams’ addition, it did create two issues: a lack of flexibility this season due to the cap, and with his extension partnered with the addition of Willy Hernangomez, it could be an indictment on Jaxson Hayes. It wouldn’t shock me if Hayes gets sold low at some point this season to open up cap space to bring in a stretch big or a wing defender. I would expect this move more than a Bledsoe trade, whom I believe is here for at least 2 seasons. Training camp is thus likely more important for Hayes than any other player on the roster.

Here is how I see the minutes breaking down.

Player Minutes Per Game
Eric Bledsoe 30 minutes (all at PG)
Lonzo Ball 30 minutes (23 minutes as a Guard and 7 playing on the wing)
Brandon Ingram 35 minutes (19 minutes at the 3, 16 minutes at the 4)
Zion Williamson 31 minutes (20 minutes at the 4, 11 minutes at the 5)
Steven Adams 26 minutes (all at C)
JJ Redick 27 minutes (all at SG)
Josh Hart 22 minutes (all at SF)
Young point guard 16 minutes
Nicolo Melli 12 minutes (all at PF)
Jaxson Hayes/Willy Hernangomez 11 minutes (all at C)

Obviously certain situations (foul trouble, injury, blowouts, back-to-backs and extreme brain farts) will lead to SVG digging deeper into the bench, but I believe he will try to keep his rotation at 10 whenever possible.

I copped out a little with my minute breakdowns, but I think the backup PG and C jobs will be fluid and situational. I’m not a big fan of development minutes coming in at under 10 minutes per game. I believe that players need to get a feel for the game and be allowed to adjust and recover from mistakes. Playing guys give minutes does little to help their growth. Therefore, the backup PG and center minutes should go to one player per game, but those players could change from game to game due to match-up reasons, for the sake of developing multiple players and how practice looks.

With an abbreviated offseason, a two-game preseason and no summer league, I’d expect Nickeil Alexander-Walker to get the backup PG duties to start the season. If the Pels do participate in the G-League bubble, it would make a ton of sense to let Kira Lewis Jr. get a lot of early run with the Bayhawks — while still giving him some NBA time starting a few weeks into the season — or if NAW blows his opportunity.

To me, there is no training camp battle more important than the Hayes-Hernangomez battle. Whoever wins should be given all of the non-Adams/Zion minutes at the 5. If Hayes loses the battle, then I do believe you’ll hear whispers of him being shopped. It isn’t so much that I don’t think Hayes can be a solid player, but with Adams locked in, Hayes still has enough shine to help you fill another hole without sacrificing a core piece. Ideally though, he gets flipped for draft capital that can be paired with other draft capital to nab Cam Reddish or DeAndre Hunter from the Hawks — addressing this roster’s biggest glaring need (perhaps after a short-term vet known-commodity at the back up PG spot).

While I like Wenyen Gabriel a lot. I don’t think he sees consistent minutes unless he develops a decent outside shot. If he does, his defense could have him stealing Nicolo Melli’s minutes at some point.

This season will tell us a lot about those two holdover bigs entering their second seasons with the Pels. Are they long-term contributors? Were they bad additions or busted picks? Will the front office keep them as sunken costs? Or will they move them to improve other areas? Their minutes in the rotation early on will likely tell us a lot about their futures in New Orleans.

David Fisher

I expect Stan Van Gundy to lean heavily on the top eight guys.

Player Minutes Per Game
Eric Bledsoe 28
Lonzo Ball 30
Brandon Ingram 34
Zion Williamson 32
Steven Adams 26
JJ Redick 24
Josh Hart 26
Wenyen Gabriel 18
Jaxson Hayes 12
Nickeil Alexander-Walker 10

Initially, Melli may be ahead of Gabriel, but by the midpoint of the year, I believe Gabriel will have earned SVG’s trust and his defensive versatility will prove difficult to keep off the floor. If the starting lineup is as successful as I anticipate, SVG will lean hard on them as a unit and play them upwards of 15 minutes a night together.

This team will struggle against elite wings. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Jimmy Butler are going to have a field day unless Brandon Ingram has undergone a physical revelation over the offseason and packed on the requisite strength. Josh Hart is going to be overtaxed in those matchups.

I have the Pelicans here with about 10 minutes without a traditional center on the floor, and even that seems a bit high. I expect most of those Zion-at-center minutes to come with Gabriel at the power forward slot, but we might catch glimpses of some tiny ball lineups with Ingram and Zion at the 4 and 5. Josh Hart will be a requirement at the 3 in those lineups for rebounding purposes. New Orleans is again paper thin at center and the whole season could come off the rails if Steven Adams misses any significant time.

David Grubb

I’m not trying to be the most scientific when it comes to these numbers. The job is to make them equal 240. Missing a minute or two here and there, is something that doesn’t bother me while I’m thinking about this roster.

Player Minutes Per Game
Eric Bledsoe 30.5
Lonzo Ball 32.5
Brandon Ingram 33
Zion Williamson 30.5
Steven Adams 30.5
JJ Redick 24
Josh Hart 28
Nicolo Melli 10.5
Nickeil Alexander-Walker 8.5
Jaxson Hayes 6
Willy Hernangomez 6

The major questions for me are:

  • Is Zion going to be able to go for 30 minutes every night for 60-plus games? It’s the most important question to be answered this season.
  • What does the point guard rotation look like? If Lonzo and Bledsoe are the starters, who leads the second unit? Is Nickeil Alexander-Walker ready for that responsibility?
  • Who spells Brandon Ingram on the wing? Ingram will be logging more minutes at the 2-spot based on comments made by David Griffin and Stan Van Gundy this offseason. Right now, 6-5 Josh Hart is the only viable backup at the small forward position. For all that Hart does well, he can be overmatched against taller, more athletic players. Will that lack of depth on the perimeter physically wear down either player?
  • What do you do with the frontcourt backups? There are no proven commodities on the Pelicans bench at the 4 or 5 — Jaxson Hayes, Willy Hernangomez, and Nico Melli have a lot to prove. Melli was a bit of a disappointment in his first season, Hayes isn’t ready, and Hernangomez has been a little-used journeyman to this point in his career. Any extended absence for Steven Adams or Williamson could prove disastrous.
  • How much are the Pelicans counting on Adams? He has proven to be durable, but he’s only averaged more than 30 minutes per game twice in his career. Can/will he be asked to top the 30-minute mark this season? Today, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Oleh Kosel

I’m envisioning for Van Gundy to begin the season relying consistently on eight players in his regular rotation, with the potential of Hayes, Gabriel and/or Alexander-Walker bumping that number up to nine or possibly even ten following a solid showing or two out of training camp.

Player Minutes Per Game
Eric Bledsoe 30
Lonzo Ball 32
Brandon Ingram 34
Zion Williamson 32
Steven Adams 28
JJ Redick 25
Josh Hart 26
Nicolo Melli 15
Hayes/Gabriel/NAW 18

If NAW falters early, Sindarius Thornwell could steal his minutes, as it’s difficult to expect Kira Lewis Jr. to be ready after just three weeks of training camp and two preseason games. If Hayes fails to grasp required defensive responsibilities, then Hernangomez or Gabriel could bump him from the rotation for several weeks or so. However, the big wing defender role is a huge issue to start the season for this team. We shouldn’t expect for Gabriel to be ready for a consistent role, so how will the Pelicans make due? Can either Ingram or Zion prove more apt defensively, or will Lonzo Ball be tasked with guarding small forwards, similar to Jrue Holiday in years past?

Update: Following Monday’s media day event with David Griffin and Stan Van Gundy, a reference was made to the effect that Zion Williamson will receive playing time at the 3.

If the Zion-at-small-forward experiment shows promising signs early, that could squeeze the guard rotation a little tighter, perhaps knocking Alexander-Walker out, while opening up minutes for Gabriel or Melli.

The first preseason game on Dec. 14 against the Miami Heat can’t get here soon enough!

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow these authors on Twitter at @OlehKosel., @Fish_TBW, @DMGrubb, and @kevinbforbounce.