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2020-21 NBA regular season: Three predictions no one’s talking about regarding the New Orleans Pelicans

Don’t be shocked if Zion Williamson makes an All-NBA team next summer!

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

We’re literally only hours away from the first regular season NBA game, so let’s make several fun predictions regarding the Pelicans.

Many have tried to peg where New Orleans will finish in the Western Conference standings, but that honestly feels like a futile exercise. With a condensed 72-game schedule amid the backdrop of COVID-19, the majority of teams are certain to endure key players missing important time due to injury and illness. If you’re desperately seeking a specific finish based on estimated wins and losses, however, go throw a dart on a board marked with numbers ranging from say 5 to 13.

Jokes aside, here are some of my more bullish picks that I feel confident enough to print.

Zion Williamson makes a 2021 All-NBA team

Williamson averaged 23.3 points per game in the 2019 preseason and he followed that up with 22.5 PPG through 24 games in the regular campaign. In two exhibition games over the past week, Williamson proved even more unstoppable, posting 28.5 PPG and a seemingly improved free throw stroke. Considering many great players enjoyed statistical jumps in their sophomore campaigns before him, a fitter Zion surpassing the 25 PPG plateau is more than well within reason.

If the Pelicans finish the 2020-21 season with a winning record, one has to believe that Williamson would have superb odds of getting selected to one of the All-NBA teams because history sits on his side. There hasn’t been a player left off one of those prestigious squads who averaged 25 points or more per game on an above .500 team since 2016-17. Kyrie Irving currently holds that dubious distinction when his 25.2 PPG average was overlooked on the 51-31 Cleveland Cavaliers four years ago. (DeMarcus Cousins and his 25.2 PPG average missed inclusion in 2017-18, but remember that he only appeared in 48 games due to the ruptured Achilles.)

Of course, the Anthony Davis rule could save Zion if need be: if one posts otherworldly numbers in highlight worthy fashion, a spot on an All-NBA team can still be had despite the weight of a losing team because unicorns have often been lavished and praised for their unique beauty.

Steven Adams finishes top 5 in rebounding

It’s true, Adams has never been a prolific rebounder, failing to average double digits in rebounding in each of his first seven years in the league. However, I think last year revealed a trend that we should expect to continue and place Adams towards the top of the 2020-21 rebounding leaderboard.

All too often, Adams was tasked with the dirty work of boxing out and taking up space in the paint in OKC, yet others swooped in to claim the board. I don’t mean to belittle Russell Westbrook’s list of accomplishments, but he wouldn’t have garnered near the amount of triple-doubles had Adams made it his mission to clean the glass himself.

New Orleans Pelicans v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With Westbrook on the Rockets, Adams averaged 9.3 rebounds on the Thunder last year, but realize it came in an average of 26.7 minutes per game. He easily posted the best defensive rebounding percentage of his career with a mark of 24.0%, and that should continue, along with the coaching staff’s priority of pounding the offensive glass, in New Orleans.

Considering the Pelicans do not possess the most dominant group of rebounders, Adams is going to feast on the glass every night like most of us do on Thanksgiving Day. Remember how dominant Derrick Favors was last season despite not looking as athletic or mobile while he was in Utah? D-Fave wound up with an average of 18.7 rebounds per 100 possessions — easily the best of his career.

I know it was only a small sample size theatre of two matchups, but Adams’ 18.9 rebounds per 100 possessions figure in preseason rhymes with Favors’ contributions. And with Stan Van Gundy expected to lean heavily on his top-7 players, Adams should see north of 30 minutes more times than not. All of these facts bode extremely well for a new career-best for The Big Easy Kiwi (let’s make this a thing?), and quite realistically, a finish inside the top 5 rebounding leaders.

Pelicans will be a much improved in clutch minutes

New Orleans might have been the worst team in finishing close games down the stretch last season. They finished with the second-worst net rating (-23.3) inside the final five minutes of contests (plus any applicable overtimes) where the disparity in the lead or deficit was five points or less. Their 28 clutch losses led the league.

While it’s nearly impossible to do worse in those important situations, I think New Orleans will show vast improvement, perhaps finishing somewhere in the middle of the rankings once we’re through the regular season schedule.

There’s three good reasons for my optimism: maturity on the part of the young core, Van Gundy’s much more clearly defined roles and use of offensive sets, and the two new guys, who are expected to soak up a lot of minutes, have a track record of production in crunch time.

For all his playoff disappointments, Eric Bledsoe has been money in clutch situations.

Year Total Minutes PTS per 36 REB per 36 AST per 36 STL per 36 BLK per 36 FG% 3PT% FT%
2017-18 Regular Season 2322 20.4 4.4 5.7 2.3 0.7 47.3% 34.7% 79.5%
2017-18 Clutch 157 25.7 5.3 3.9 2.1 1.4 46.2% 31.3% 78.9%
2018-19 Regular Season 2272 19.7 5.7 6.8 1.8 0.5 48.4% 32.9% 75.0%
2018-19 Clutch 101 24.6 4.3 5.3 2.5 1.4 46.3% 41.2% 63.2%
2019-20 Regular Season 1646 19.9 6.2 7.2 1.2 0.6 47.5% 34.4% 79.0%
2019-20 Clutch 35 18.7 5.2 8.3 0.0 0.0 46.2% 50.0% 100%

In case I need to remind some, Jrue Holiday often failed to come up big in many key moments. If the Pelicans need a clutch basket or play, Bledsoe looks like a really solid option, especially since he isn’t expected to be Van Gundy’s go-to closer.

While he’ll never be considered a first, second, third or even sometimes fourth scoring option, Steven Adams appears a viable choice to close out games when New Orleans isn’t facing particularly fast and small lineups.

Year Total Minutes PTS per 36 REB per 36 AST per 36 STL per 36 BLK per 36 FG% 3PT% FT%
2017-18 Regular Season 2487 15.3 9.9 1.3 1.3 1.1 62.9% 0.0% 55.9%
2017-18 Clutch 165 8.7 9.4 0.4 0.7 0.7 72.7% N/A 50.0%
2018-19 Regular Season 2669 14.9 10.3 1.7 1.6 1.0 59.5% 0.0% 50.0%
2018-19 Clutch 150 8.6 9.6 0.7 0.5 0.5 52.0% N/A 47.6%
2019-20 Regular Season 1680 14.7 12.5 3.1 1.1 1.4 59.2% 33.3% 58.2%
2019-20 Clutch 140 10.8 10.3 2.1 2.3 1.8 70.0% N/A 70.0%

Don’t dismiss having a large target near the rim, a rebounding machine on both ends and a savvy player capable of coming up with a key steal, block or some other necessary play.

Provided injuries don’t ravage the team, the combination of New Orleans top-7 players (solid mix of veteran experience and explosive young talent) and Van Gundy’s tutelage should pay dividends come closing time.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.