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New Orleans Pelicans in better position than you think to stamp ticket to 2020 playoffs

When looking under the hood, there’s a lot to like

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

As soon as that first basketball gets lofted into the air at half court by an official on July 31st, it’ll be a mad dash to the finish line for those teams striving to secure a spot in the 2020 playoffs. However, what initially looked the most formidable of challenges for the New Orleans Pelicans to squeeze into a potential Western Conference play-in tournament doesn’t quite feel as daunting upon fuller examination.

The Grizzlies are no doubt starting from prime position, up 3.5 games on the field in the standings with only eight contests to be decided, but at a minimum, the ninth seed will be entirely up for grabs if Memphis fails to open the door with an abundance of subpar play and you have to like New Orleans chances.

Although the schedule is yet to be finalized, the Pelicans should be able to control much of their destiny, with the Kings, Spurs and Grizzlies likely to account for five of the eight games. Knocking off teams who are also hotly in pursuit of a spot in the play-in tournament makes for great strategy, but there are additional factors that may favor New Orleans.

This Pelicans squad has shown a strong tendency in beating sub-.500 teams on the season, posting a 67.9 winning percentage (highest figure among Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Kings and Spurs). That bodes well since only the Clippers and Jazz loom as opponents with winning records.

In addition, let’s not overlook New Orleans success on the road as the resumption of play in Orlando will not feature any true home court advantages. The Pelicans performed better away from the Smoothie King Center, posting a 15-17 record overall and a sparkling 13-6 mark since December 18th, the turning point of the season for New Orleans.

Digging deeper, the expectation is that the resumed NBA play will be sloppier than usual after such an extended break and this could benefit the Pelicans more than the rest of the competition. It’s common knowledge that teams simple aren’t nearly as sharp at the start of seasons that later on the schedule. Case in point, have a look at how the 22 teams destined for Orlando fared in their first eight regular season games as compared to the rest of the completed portion of the 2019-20 campaign.

Team First 8 games TOV% Rest of Season TOV% First 8 games 3PT% Rest of Season 3PT% First 8 games Pace Rest of Season Pace
Heat 17.9% 14.5% 40.5% 38.0% 104.82 97.56
76ers 17.7% 13.7% 35.1% 36.3% 104.38 98.68
Jazz 17.5% 14.7% 36.9% 38.5% 98.38 99.03
Nets 17.1% 14.8% 40.5% 33.1% 105.93 100.87
Grizzlies 16.9% 14.4% 30.5% 35.8% 106.18 102.84
Kings 16.9% 14.1% 35.2% 36.6% 100.13 98.93
Raptors 16.7% 13.9% 40.4% 36.7% 104.02 100.42
Suns 15.8% 14.6% 37.3% 35.0% 103.53 101.51
Pelicans 15.7% 15.4% 36.1% 37.4% 106.67 103.57
Thunder 15.6% 13.2% 35.7% 35.4% 101.63 98.87
Clippers 15.6% 14.2% 35.4% 36.8% 102.81 102.33
Wizards 15.4% 13.2% 34.1% 37.7% 104.25 103.41
Spurs 15.1% 11.6% 32.7% 37.7% 102.81 100.28
Lakers 15.1% 14.8% 30.8% 36.1% 101.11 101.13
Nuggets 14.7% 13.8% 35.4% 35.8% 97.05 97.75
Rockets 14.6% 14.0% 33.0% 35.1% 107.44 103.08
Mavericks 14.5% 12.5% 34.9% 37.2% 101.13 99.57
Trail Blazers 14.2% 12.6% 37.2% 37.2% 105.06 100.61
Magic 14.2% 12.5% 26.6% 35.1% 98.38 98.75
Pacers 13.7% 13.1% 34.4% 36.5% 101.00 98.77
Bucks 13.1% 14.3% 35.4% 35.6% 107.35 105.08
Celtics 11.5% 13.9% 35.4% 36.4% 102.56 99.39

All but two teams saw their turnover percentages decrease after the first eight games. 16 of the 22 teams shot the ball better from three-point range as the season progressed. And did you notice the pace numbers? They were noticeably higher out of the gates for most teams.

This data favors New Orleans once the games resume, even if they endure a lot of rust as expected. Their fast style lends itself to more familiarity and productivity in chaotic environments so that feels like a leg up during the eight-game stretch to finish out the regular season.

“It’s meant to be unpredictable,” JJ Redick said early in the season about New Orleans offense. “Sometimes I think by playing fast, you’re naturally just going to turn the ball over a little more. As we kind of go through the season, we’ll get more comfortable with each other and the flow and the rhythm of playing that speed. There is a lot of room for improvement.”

While the Pelicans failed to cut down on their turnover rate significantly, Alvin Gentry’s system paid more dividends as the season progressed. Just as we got a taste of their explosiveness in preseason (125.6 PPG), the Pelicans watched their points per game average jump from a pre-Zion level of 114.4 points to a league-best 120.1 points after the 19-year-old rookie made his debut.

It must be noted that the Pelicans were averaging a solid 16.4 fast break points per game, but that mark jumped to 18.9 FBPS once Zion Williamson joined the active roster. New Orleans also found itself inside the top 5 in free throw attempts and they went from averaging 13.5 second chance points to a second-best 16.2 2nd PTS in the league after January 22nd. However, my favorite stat involves the large upticks witnessed in close proximity to the rim.

The Pelicans offense failed to distinguish itself from the competition in points in the paint and attempts in the restricted area for the first three months of the season, but that all changed once Zion entered the fray. New Orleans suddenly went from an average of 46.7 PITP to 55.3 PITP, which was bolstered by the most field goal attempts at the rim (37.5) in the league.

Offenses tend to struggle more than defenses upon season start-ups, but the Pelicans are brimming with talent that is fantastic at producing an abundance of easy points. This area should not be as affected following a long lay-off than say shooting from distance or teams reliant on chemistry and five-man cohesion to produce points.

At the end of the day, it should serve as a benefit that Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram are both 20-point scorers who operate well in isolation, the Pelicans have a stable of good three-point shooters and New Orleans possesses the biggest bowling ball in the business.

Despite the current negatives, Zion Williamson’s extraordinary rim volume and gravity makes him a top 50 range player right now and fuels his true superstar upside...Zion’s gravity comes as a result of unparalleled rim volume, thanks to his 100th %tile athletic profile and New Orleans’ offense playing to his strengths. Per 100 possessions, Zion Williamson is taking 18.9 shots at the rim. Excluding outliers, that number, even accounting for Zion’s relatively few minutes played (215), is totally unprecedented.

While New Orleans posted a near .500 record (10-9) with the top overall pick from the 2019 NBA Draft in lineups, they were a markedly more potent team on the court upon his return. New Orleans preferred starting lineup came together quickly, posting a spectacular +26.3 net rating in 230 minutes. Considering the fact that the coaching staff had to incorporate Zion on the fly with minimal practice time, it feels like this group can pick up right where they left off once the games tip in Orlando, especially since they were not firing on all cylinders.

Derrick Favors failed to look 100% for practically the entire season, and he announced on a recent Pelicans Podcast that he’s utilized the down time to get his body right. Brandon Ingram was also a bit banged up over the last couple of months before the coronavirus suspension, so his knee issues should now be in the rearview mirror. And let’s not forget to include Zion in this discussion.

The wunderkind averaged 23.6 points and had a 58.9 FG%, but did you know he didn’t feel like he had all of his legs under him for the better part of his 19 games played? Following the 2020 All-Star break, Zion revealed to Rachel Nichols, “It’s tough, to be honest. I still haven’t gotten my legs fully under me.”

With Zion beginning to round into peak physical form, the NBA schedule came to a grinding halt, but we soon learned that Williamson never stopped working on both his conditioning and game.

“The league made a decision when they closed the buildings that players that had urgent need of rehab protocols could still use the facility and go through rehab,” David Griffin told media on a conference call in May. “We’ve had Zion and Kenrich (Williams) rehabbing in the building throughout this period of time. They’re able to do a lot of the things that they needed to do from a strength and conditioning pliability standpoint. As you guys know, the flexibility aspect of Zion was really critical, so they’ve been able to continue to focus on that. They weren’t able to do any court work during that period of time, but they were able to get the work in needed on the table, and so that was important.”

As for that ever important on-the-court work to stay as fresh as possible, Zion let TNT’s Ernie Johnson know in late April that he had access to a hoop so “with the goal, there’s a way.”

Is it conceivable that Zion exhibits some improvement once the league returns to action?

We saw firsthand that Williamson’s free throw efficiency needed further honing, and other parts of his game required refinement. Imagine if Zion’s placed a focus on his ball-handling or he’s had the patience to watch hours and hours of game footage to improve defensive fundamentals and positioning...

Ahh, let’s get back to the topic at hand, but don’t be surprised if we see a version of Zion who is at least a little more sure of himself. Think of his 19 regular season appearances to date as lagniappe — it’s not entirely indicative of what’s in store on the menu, possibly even as soon as July 31st.

When one looks at the environment that’s expected in Orlando along with New Orleans modus operandi, it’s hard to not start feeling a little giddy. Personally, I feel the race for the 8th and 9th seeds will come down to the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers and Pelicans because I do not believe Memphis will run away with that last playoff spot. They’re expected to have a tough slate of remaining regular season games.

San Antonio would have been included in the aforementioned group, but they’ll be without LaMarcus Aldridge. The Suns sit too far back, and as for the Kings, they’re a fun, upcoming group but I don’t think they have the requisite experience.

If Memphis wins their fair share of games, that’ll apply extra pressure because circumventing Portland will be no easy task for New Orleans. On top of needing to finish with an additional win (wining percentages are determinative and the Blazers have a slight edge), reading about Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins returning and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum feeling healthy is a scary proposition. The Trail Blazers have the most experience of the group, having appeared in six straight postseasons, and Dame has more than proven himself in countless of clutch-time scenarios.

While Portland gets the edge in big-game wisdom, New Orleans is not entirely devoid of maturity. Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick will be critical, useful components who will be relied upon for many key minutes. They should be able to effectively guide Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, along with Zion, in what will be the most important games of their young professional lives.

Before beginning the necessary research for this article, my attitude aligned more with the idea that fans should all just be happy with New Orleans receiving meaningful games at this stage. To not have many expectations. But that’s changed. So much so, I’m starting to get vibes somewhat similar to a couple of years ago when I ventured out on a limb and said New Orleans would dominate Portland in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.

Hope is beautiful unless it is fantasy — but I don’t feel like it’s overly optimistic to say the New Orleans Pelicans will put themselves in a great spot to stamp that last available Western Conference ticket bound for the 2020 playoffs.