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Ballin’ in the Bubble: The potential impact of the eight game postseason sprint on the future of the Pelicans

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What should we hope to see out of Zion, B’Easy, Jrue, Zo and the rest of the guys?

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

With the time to report to Orlando drawing near, NBA front offices are beginning to assemble their travel rosters for the schedule resumption of the 2019-20 season at the end of next month.

The New Orleans Pelicans are one of the 22 teams competing in the still yet to be tested “bubble” environment on the grounds of Walt Disney World.

With COVID-19 the most pressing concern, teams face other dilemmas, such as players who choose not to report (Trevor Ariza, Davis Bertans), the rustiness of a more than three-month layoff, and the potential for injury.

That last item on the list, injury, is one that is of particular importance to the Pelicans. Though the Pels do have a legitimate, although strange, path to the playoffs, this is not their season. And presuming that another surge in coronavirus cases this fall/winter doesn’t derail things, the 2020-21 campaign is slated to begin just weeks after the NBA Finals reach their conclusion.

David Griffin and his staff have been playing the long game since he took the reigns last spring. Phase One has been a success. The Pelicans proved that they have a solid core to build from, with potential All-Stars and quality rotational players in good supply.

There is still plenty of work to be done, of course. But any setback to the franchise’s timetable for true contention in the Western Conference and for an NBA championship caused by participating in this postseason chase, could prove to be disastrous.

For maybe the first time in over a decade, the New Orleans Pelicans shouldn’t be seeing any major turnover in its roster. Rookies Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickel Alexander-Walker, and Nico Melli aren’t going anywhere. Among the veterans, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart should be locked in as well. Darius Miller is also under contract for next season, though his $7 million deal is non-guaranteed.

Brandon Ingram is a restricted free agent, but it would be a major shock if the All-Star was not in New Orleans next season. You’d also have to imagine that center Derrick Favors is likely to return as well.

That would mean 11 returnees, including the entire starting lineup. It’s been 16 years since the Pels had the same starting five in consecutive seasons.

Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Rookies

Hayes and Alexander-Walker, won’t really change their statuses in the eyes of the team’s front office. Both were viewed as projects coming into the season, and though they have shown tremendous potential, they are still very raw.

Melli seemed to get more comfortable with his role, and the NBA, as the season wore on. Over his final 23 games, he averaged nine points and four rebounds while shooting 40 percent from distance — Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. was the only other rookie to reach those marks as a reserve during that span. Melli reached double figures in 12 of those games, after doing so only five times over his first 29 appearances. Melli won’t be a starter for the Pelicans, but he can be a major contributor. These next eight games will be a test of what he can add to the team on the boards and defensively, if he wants to secure major minutes next season.

Zion Williamson is approaching the restart like someone with something to prove, though the New Orleans Pelicans and its fanbase are more than happy with what they’ve seen from Williamson thus far. That’s the type of excitement that 24 points and seven rebounds on 60 percent shooting in just 30 minutes per night can generate.

Williamson has been in New Orleans, rehabbing with Aaron Nelson and the team’s medical staff. Reports are that he is ready to dominate.

The future of the franchise’s name has been everywhere during this unusual intermission. His undeniable box office drawing power had him in the middle of arguments over which teams should be invited into the Orlando “bubble.” After only getting to scratch the surface of what he can become in 19 tantalizing games, there may be no one more anxious to prove they belong than Zion.

Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The Vets

JJ Redick is a knock down shooter. Plain and simple. We knew that coming into the season, we saw it during the season, and we shouldn’t expect anything less now.

Redick, if you can recall, has never missed the postseason in his professional career. That’s an incredibly impressive streak for someone 14 years into their career. JJ was very clear about having no desire to have that streak snapped this year. Redick now gets to put his veteran leadership to work to see if he can keep a young team focused on the task at hand under extremely difficult circumstances.

Though Zion Williamson is the face of the franchise, Jrue Holiday is still “Mr. Pelican.” When last we saw him, Jrue was one of only 12 players in the NBA averaging at least 19 points, four rebounds, six assists, and one steal per game.

Defensively, Jrue was still a terror as he’s always been.

But something just seemed...off.

We did learn that Holiday had not fully overcome last season’s injury earlier, but he played through it. However, there were still too many nights when Jrue was a non-factor, or worse, a negative factor offensively. He turned the ball over three times or more in 11 of his final 21 games, but it wasn’t just the turnovers. It was how they happened, and when.

Maybe now, without the burden of having to live up to the preseason hype that surrounded him, and with Williamson hopefully back near the peak of his physical powers, Holiday can resume his role as downhill scorer, elite defender, and most importantly, team leader, similar to the production witnessed after the turn of the new year.

He, Redick, and Derrick Favors are exactly what you envision when you discuss “professional basketball players.” Jrue is your favorite’s favorite. If he plays like it, the Pels should soar.

Speaking of Favors, he could still be the Pelicans’ most important player. The “Favors Effect” is real. In games that he played at least 20 minutes, New Orleans was 19-17. Playing through injury, and the loss of his mother, we never really got to see Favors at his best.

With eight games in 14 days, conditioning will be key. Teams will also be rusty, offenses could be ragged. Favors’ defense, rebounding, and offensive efficiency will be critical elements to any postseason pursuit.

And as he approaches free agency, he’s going to have to prove that he can be the defensive anchor the Pelicans need while players like Williamson and Hayes learn the ropes. Because if he can’t control the paint, New Orleans doesn’t have many options behind him.

Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball have contracts running through next season, so the former Lakers aren’t playing for contracts like Favors or, in some eyes, Ingram.

Hart has been steady for the most part, and spectacular at times. He’s perfectly suited for his role as sixth man. He’s willing to do the dirty work defensively. Hart plays bigger than his frame and is the consummate teammate.

New Orleans loves Josh Hart, and will always be there to give him a high five when teammates fail to on the court.

Ball has nothing left to prove this season after defying most of the conventional wisdom regarding his game. Over the first quarter of the season, there were thoughts that Lonzo might not get to the All-Star Break in a Pelicans uniform.

And then he got healthy. Suddenly, Lonzo began rising to meet the expectations that have followed him since he was a teenager. He has an unorthodox, yet classic game as a point guard, and is uniquely suited to play with Zion Williamson. The two have had a bond from their first moments together on the court, and there is Kemp/Payton potential for the duo (yes, I know Zion’s ceiling is higher than Shawn Kemp’s, calm down).

Next year is critical for Lonzo as he tries to prove both that the second half of this season was no fluke, and that he too is worthy of a max contract. But this year, he golden.

Darius Miller...he has to prove he’s alive? Short of going on one of the greatest scoring tears in NBA history and leading the Pelicans to the playoffs by himself, I don’t see him returning next season.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

THE FREE AGENTS

Yes, Brandon Ingram is a restricted free agent, and the Pelicans have the ability to match any deal he’s offered. Yes, Ingram was playing the best basketball of his life and carried the Pelicans for many nights on his slender shoulders.

And yes, Brandon Ingram has something to prove. It was obvious that Ingram was wearing down right before the coronavirus pause. He had been battling some nagging knee soreness. His offensive numbers took a noticeable dip, and there were outside questions as to whether Ingram and Zion could play together.

In recent videos of his workouts, Ingram’s movements have appeared fluid. The rest certainly didn’t do anything to worsen his condition. For B’Easy, there is an opportunity to get more time on the court with Williamson, the rest of a lineup that only got 19 games together. With another season right around the corner, the Pelicans need their reps.

E’Twaun Moore has been an asset to the Pelicans since his arrival. He’s played out of position at small forward, and he’s been a starter, a reserve, and a DNP-CD. Unfortunately, it looks like his time in New Orleans may be coming to an end. Moore is caught in a log jam of players with similar heights and builds to his.

His best asset has always been his shooting, but with players like Ingram and Ball becoming major threats from the outside, Moore’s value has been diminished.

If E’Twaun wants to return to New Orleans, or if he wants to audition for the other 29 teams in the league, he should get an opportunity to showcase his wares in Orlando. Depth is going to be a huge factor in determining the survivor of this postseason, and the Pelicans do have that in their favor.

With the Pelicans’ tempo, and that schedule again, Alvin Gentry may have to consider utilizing hockey shifts to offset fatigue. That and a little more Uncle E.

When Frank Jackson was picked, he was seen as a super athlete at the point guard position. After one and a half seasons, it’s clear that Frank is a good, but not great athlete, and that he is not a point guard.

He is a streaky scorer, an average defender, and a pending free agent. The Pelicans love Frank Jackson. But with Didi Louzada waiting in the wings, and four draft picks upcoming, the investment in Jackson doesn’t seem to be worth it.

Frank has everything to gain and nothing to lose at this point. If he plays well, he may stick around another season. If he plays poorly...we’re used to it.

Kenrich Williams...A quality person and a player who gives everything he has for every minute he’s on the floor. Also, an abysmal shooter with bad knees and a long injury history. Let’s move on.

Jahlil Okafor...Owner of some of the softest hands and quickest feet in the post you will see. Also, an abysmal defender and rebounder who just lacks aggression all too often. For Kevin Barrios’ sake, let’s move on.

THE TWO WAYS

Zylan Cheatham and Josh Gray have arguably more to gain from this opportunity than any other players on the roster.

Cheatham was outstanding, playing for the Pelicans’ G-League affiliate in Erie. He averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds in 34 appearances. At 6-8, 220, he can be all of the things that the New Orleans hoped Kenrich Williams would be.

He’s quick enough to defend threes and strong enough to bang inside. He should be given an opportunity in practice, especially considering the Pels’ struggles against scorers with height at the small forward position, and may find his way into a few games.

Gray, the former LSU standout, will be chasing NAW and Frank Jackson for minutes. After scoring 22.5 points and handing out 7.3 assists per game in the G-League, Gray has to be confident that he’ll get his chance to prove himself. Particularly, if the Pelicans fall out of contention early.

Either way, if Gray can demonstrate that he can score and distribute consistently at the NBA-level, he may create some difficult decisions for David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, and Alvin Gentry.

A great two weeks could mean full contracts with the Pelicans, or someone else next season.

THE COACH

Whether you love or you hate Alvin Gentry, you have to admit the man has had some awful luck. Injuries, trades, more injuries, and some impossible-to-explain (expletive) have been a way of life for the last five years.

It’s quite possible that this could be Gentry’s last season on the bench. An exit that follows a playoff berth would be a more deserved ending than another lost season, were that to be the case.

If Alvin wins, that means the Pelicans are winning. And right about now, I think fans can put away the petty for just a moment and root for a head coach that has embraced the city, the fans, and the culture of New Orleans.

Ultimately, the biggest victory or gains won’t come in the form of a championship trophy. The best possible outcome for everyone involved is that these players, coaches, support staffs, and their families, emerge out of Orlando safely.

The nation has clammored for sports to come back. In the midst of a growing pandemic, they are about to return.

For more, listen to our conversation with Grubb, Oleh Kosel and Kevin Barrios on these topics, the remaining schedule and more!

Good luck. And go Pels.