New Orleans Pelicans basketball is back, and we’re only a few days shy of Christmas. Having never been a fan of the October starts, this feels right, doesn’t it?
Of course, seeing a victory would make today exponentially more joyous, but that’s been something of a rarity. The Pelicans have managed just a lone season-opening victory against four losses over the last five years. (Believe it or not, they possess an impressive 9-4 opening day record prior to the Alvin Gentry era.)
Standing in the way of head coach Stan Van Gundy notching his first win with New Orleans are the Toronto Raptors. Or to be more precise, the Tampa Bay Raptors.
If you missed the news, the Raptors are scheduled to play all of their home games in Tampa this season because the Canadian government denied a request to host NBA contests in their country due to Covid-19.
So, what awaits the Pelicans after the short flight across the Gulf? A slightly different looking Raptors squad, one that maybe doesn’t frighten as much as their predecessor.
Last season’s group had Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the center position, but with both players departing in free agency, Aron Baynes and Alex Len will be tasked with protecting Toronto’s middle. They’re serviceable players but a step down. Chris Boucher will also garner minutes and he’s probably their best defensive option at the five.
Regardless, even passable production at center still makes Toronto a solid bet to find the playoffs. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are a potent scoring trio and OG Anunoby and Norman Powell can be counted on to provide plenty of support. The tried-and-true group is sure to not lead off SportsCenter, but Nick Nurse’s roster can be counted on to play hard, together and the right way.
Despite Kawhi Leonard leaving after securing the 2018 championship, the 2019-20 Raptors remained a staunch defensive unit, finishing behind only the Bucks in efficiency. They were fantastic in limiting opponent shot attempts near the rim, but that could be in jeopardy with Gasol and Ibaka elsewhere. There may not be a better team in the league to challenge that notion than the Pelicans.
Zion Williamson appears on the verge of taking the league by storm, after leading the preseason in scoring and proving minute restrictions are in the rear view mirror. While Derrick Favors was no slouch, Steven Adams is bigger and stronger and a thorough menace on the offensive glass. Combine that with Brandon Ingram and Eric Bledsoe’s penchant for taking the ball to the rim, New Orleans should be able to keep the pressure on the Raptors all night long.
It will be interesting to watch how Lonzo Ball performs as well. Although the entire regular rotation struggled against the Raptors outside of BI last season (Zion didn’t get a chance to face Toronto), no one suffered as many difficulties as Ball against their defense, averaging 6.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 turnovers, with a dreadful 26.7 FG%. However, it is important to point out that both of New Orleans’ matchups against Toronto came during the first month of the 2019-20 campaign — when Lonzo was nowhere near the caliber of player he showed to be during his much improved three-month stretch right before the Covid-19 shutdown.
If the Pelicans can continue their preseason trend of dominating the glass, getting to the free throw line and keeping turnovers to a minimum, one has to like their chances of starting a brand new season on the right foot.
That would most certainly be a welcome change of pace.
Let’s geaux Pels!
Who: New Orleans Pelicans at Toronto Raptors (Tampa Bay)
When: December 22, 6:30 p.m. Central
Where to watch: FSNO
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM
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.