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New Orleans Pelicans turnaround worth celebrating — even if 2019-20 season ends prematurely

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COVID-19 interrupted the most unique campaign seen this far this century

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

If the 2019-20 NBA regular season doesn’t resume and finish out the remaining schedule because of the various obstacles created by the COVID-19 virus, the New Orleans Pelicans will be left daydreaming about what was heading down the track of being the largest in-season turnaround since the turn of the century and quite possibly resulting in an unprecedented playoff berth.

On December 17th, 2019, the Pelicans had amassed but six victories through very nearly the first two months of the season, sitting just a game ahead of the league’s cellar-dwelling Golden State Warriors. However, following one of the most disappointing starts in franchise history, New Orleans immediately got their act together and proceeded to resemble a top 10 team by winning 22 of their next 36 games.

A 21.4 winning percentage over the first 28 games morphed into a 61.1 win% in the stretch following the conclusion of a still almost unfathomable 13-game losing streak. Although the Pelicans trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games as of this writing, with several other Western Conference teams sitting in the mix as well, the vast improvement has had many thinking playoffs for some time.

The regular season games which remain to be determined are pivotal for so many, from teams trying to slip their way into the postseason to those sitting comfortably inside the bubble but still wanting to finalize seeding a bit more in their favor; however, New Orleans’ case is perhaps the most interesting because of their latest trajectory, easiest remaining schedule and an unprecedented march towards the playoffs.

Since the 2000-01 campaign, a total of 38 teams have begun a season with six wins or less in their first 28 games of the schedule. The New Orleans franchise is responsible for four teams on that list, but the 2019-20 roster has a realistic chance to do something that their predecessors and every other team in the aforementioned link failed to accomplish: make the playoffs after the most dreadful of starts.

At the very least, the current roster is in line to post the best winning percentage from that group of 38 — a good omen that this is a smartly comprised unit and success in the future could come quicker than expected.

Team Final win% Win% in first 28 games Win% over remainder of schedule
2001-02 Miami Heat .439 .179 .574
2019-20 New Orleans Pelicans .438* .214 .611*
2014-15 Detroit Pistons .390 .179 .500
2018-19 Atlanta Hawks .354 .214 .426
2012-13 Washington Wizards .354 .143 .463
2012-13 New Orleans Hornets .329 .214 .389
2005-06 Toronto Raptors .329 .214 .389
2011-12 New Orleans Hornets .318** .179 .421
2011-12 Washington Wizards .303** .214 .368

*Season not finished

**Recall 2011-12 was a lockout season

If the Pelicans could maintain their 61.1 winning percentage clip over the unfinished portion of the schedule, they would add 11 more victories to their total and finish with a record of 39-43, or a 47.6 winning percentage for the season.

Closing with an 11-7 record isn’t remotely far-fetched. Although a lot of variables could change given the lengthy time off, it wouldn’t dismiss the fact that 14 of the Pelicans’ final 15 games are against teams with losing records. So not surprisingly, projection models have long favored New Orleans despite the size of deficits faced behind the eighth seed in the West. 538’s NBA Predictions, for instance, currently has the Pelicans squeezing into the playoffs with a probable record of 40-42.

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Another strong beacon of hope comes from the Pelicans dominant starting lineup. Bad teams stay bad through the course of a season. Good teams reveal their true colors once significant barriers are removed. Since Derrick Favors and Zion Williamson became mainstays in the rotation, the Ball-Holiday-Ingram-Williamson-Favors grouping has ripped apart opponents, posting the best net rating among starting lineups with a minimum of 200 minutes together.

  • Favors has proven to be a necessary interior stalwart, harmonizing the defense and work on the glass
  • Zion quickly cemented himself as the league’s most dynamic offensive option from below the free throw line
  • Ingram was recognized as an all-star for the first time in his career for greatly improving his scoring efficiency despite the several upticks in volume
  • Jrue and Lonzo were rounding into peak form after having reached a confident level of comfort following major injuries suffered last season

Throw in JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Nicolo Melli’s solid contributions off the bench and New Orleans top 8 are a formidable force that deserves greater recognition.

As associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik pointed out on the latest episode of Pelicans Playback, the Pelicans are 11-5 in their last 16 away games. A big reason for the overall improvement has been the strides made on the defensive end. That’s the hallmark of potent teams: stopping opponents and finding ways to win on the road.

If fairness wins out, these Pelicans will eventually get a chance to continue building on their newfound success this season. However, if fate continues to intervene and winds up derailing the journey in some unfortunate way, I plan on taking solace in the fact that we witnessed the best in-season turnaround since the turn of the new millennium.