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The New Orleans Pelicans won’t pick up where they left off — they’ll be better

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There’s plenty of reason to believe the Pels will look stronger in Orlando than prior to the coronavirus shutdown

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In a New Orleans Pelicans recent media availability session, head coach Alvin Gentry said “our guys in particular feel like we’re going to pick up where we left off,” in reference to the team resuming play later this month in the Orlando-based NBA bubble.

Here’s the thing: The Pels and the NBA look completely different than they did on March 11, when the season came to a screeching halt. We don’t know what New Orleans or the rest of the league will look like, but it certainly won’t be the same as it once was.

The Pelicans have plenty of reasons why they’re a new-look team, and the rest of the association should be shaking in their boots — specifically the 8-11 seeded Western Conference teams.

Fitness of Zion and Derrick Favors

Zion Williamson is absolutely shredded.

The Pelicans rookie has been recognized as a freak of nature since his high school days, with unreal athleticism showcased via a multitude of viral videos saturated with explosive dunks. Those types of genes don’t just translate to an unfair vertical jump, they can also result in rapid muscle growth and weight loss. Oh boy, did they do that for the young man from Spartanburg, South Carolina — potentially to the tune of 25 pounds of fat lost and 10 pounds of muscle gained.

Since quarantine began, Williamson has continued to put in work on and off the court with his stepfather, Lee Anderson. Per Andrew Lopez of ESPN, Zion said that he got on the court “every day” while also having access to the Pelicans training facilities to continue rehab on the knee that kept him out of all but 19 games so far this season.

Williamson also said that he continued to work on the fundamentals of his game, saying “(I) just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

The praise for Zion continued to be heaped on by teammates as the Pels have been made available to the media. “He’s ready to dominate again,” Derrick Favors said. “I think he’s got something in store when we come back. I think he’s going to be great and help lead us to a lot of wins.” E’Twaun Moore added.

And the thing is, Zion isn’t the only one who’s more fit this time around. Favors has continued to put in work — both physically and mentally.

The former member of the Utah Jazz missed nearly a month of basketball between November and December of 2019 due to the untimely passing of his mother. “I just wasn’t in a good place, and I always used basketball to kind of take my mind off of it. Now, I feel like I’ve had my time to grieve and self-reflect on her passing away, and now I feel like I’m in a better place mentally,” he told the media.

Pairing the mental battles with little time on the basketball court, Favors looked like an elderly 28-year-old in 2019-2020, even as a mainstay defensively for New Orleans. Watch one series of the Georgia Tech product running up and down the floor and you’ll see it.

But, Favors recognized the issue at hand, and he’s done something about it. “During the break, I was doing small stuff, like making sure I was stretching certain muscles, making sure I was keeping flexible, just trying to do the best I could, and it worked out. … “If we had a game tomorrow, I’d be ready, so when we get down to Orlando I’ll be ready to go.”

The Pels have also gotten plenty of solid work in since arriving at the bubble. All the more reason to be confident in the health of two of their most relied-upon players.

BI and Zo believe they deserve max contracts

Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, both former No. 2 overall picks to the Los Angeles Lakers, have had the spotlight on them since they entered the league. With that spotlight comes great scrutiny, especially while under the magnifying glass that being a Laker brings.

With that said, neither particularly lived up to the unattainable hype that came with them to the Staples Center, even when LeBron James came to town in 2018. Zo couldn’t shoot free throws (or shoot period) and Ingram was struggling to ascend to stardom next to the likes of James.

Being traded to a smaller market team like New Orleans, much of the pressure was taken off of these two, and they’ve been able to simply play the game of basketball. Ingram is in the running for Most Improved Player while posting career highs in points, rebounds, steals and assists per game, and Ball is averaging career highs in points and assists per game while drastically improving his free throw and three point shooting percentage this season.

But the pair hasn’t done anything in the playoffs — they haven’t even gotten in yet.

Oh, they’ve easily earned new contracts, and Ingram will (or certainly should) sign a max deal this off season with the Pels. However, if they step up in the remaining eight-game regular season schedule, lead New Orleans to the playoffs and sneak a game or two from the Lakers in the first round, that payday will be more deserving than ever.

All the more incentive to kick some tail and take some names in the bubble.

Players sitting out — bad teams, easy schedule

This one is out of the Pelicans’ control, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take advantage of it.

Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, LaMarcus Aldridge, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo won’t be playing the remainder of the season. There are more players sitting out, but those listed and their teams directly or indirectly affect the Pelicans and their opportunity to garner some wins in the next few months.

In reference to Beal and Bertans, the Pels play the Wizards on August 7. A win is a win in the current scenario, and without two of their best players, it looks like a guaranteed W over Washington.

Aldridge (who put up 32 against the Pelicans in January) and Ariza are a part of two teams, the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers, who are also vying for the eight and nine seeds.

Bradley (their top perimeter defender) and Rondo (possible starter, and playoff Rondo is always a factor) are members of the championship-contending Lakers, of whom the Pels may face in the first round of the playoffs.

To boot, (if you don’t know this by now, you must be living under a rock), the Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule of the 22 teams participating in Orlando. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Blazers are among the teams that have the most difficult schedules to be played.

Opposing fans can be angry and claim “the NBA just wants Zion in” all they want, but that doesn’t change the structure of what is left of the league’s season.

Compared to other NBA teams — chaotic style of play and season

The Pelicans 2019-2020 season has been a roller-coaster of sorts. You name it, it more than likely applies: emotion, health, utter despair, hope, sadness, excitement, etc.

There’s also been a ton of turnovers. Lots and lots of turnovers.

New Orleans is currently second-to-last in the NBA in turnovers, just ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers and tied with the Atlanta Hawks at 16.2 per game. Notice the common theme between these three teams — youth and lack of experience playing as a collective unit.

There were only five players from the 2018-2019 roster that were brought back for the 2019-2020 season in New Orleans — Moore, Jrue Holiday, Jahlil Okafor, Frank Jackson and Darius Miller. Holiday, Jackson and Moore are three that continued to earn consistent minutes for New Orleans.

That doesn’t mean Jrue didn’t contribute to the problem, though. He was third on the roster in turnovers per game with 2.9. Ingram and Ball each averaged 3.1 per contest to lead the team.

Here’s the thing: The basketball is going to be sloppy initially in Orlando. The turnovers will come aplenty for every team, and the Pelicans will come prepared.

Even with the number of turnovers, New Orleans won plenty of games. Following the 6-22 start, the Pels went on a tear, going 22-14.

This was also accomplished with little-to-no consistency in their starting lineup. Zion missed 45 games, Favors was out for a month as previously mentioned and every player misses time due to lingering injuries. Who knew what players were going to be available versus not?

Lastly, we can’t forget the Pels excel at running the floor. With Lonzo at point, New Orleans is one of the best teams at getting up the court, even off a make. Easy buckets come when you’ve got a pass-first point guard, and they come at an even higher clip when your team is well-prepared to get up and down the court at a good clip. Fresh legs don’t hurt either.

Chemistry

Not a lot of teams are getting this luxury. As mentioned previously, there are a good amount of organizations that won’t have significant role players and even their star players come late July.

While three Pelicans did, at one point, test positive for the Coronavirus, none will be sitting out from the Orlando bubble. None of the Pels are out with an injury, and none of them are choosing to pass on account of attempting to secure a hefty contract this off season. There was also concern that Gentry wouldn’t be attending because of his age and health concerns — our coach was had zero time for that. Everyone is good to go.

Given what we saw from the Pelicans in their 19 games with Zion and their turnaround starting in December, these men love playing this game together, and they’re damn good at it.

Rapport has been built, trust has been cultivated. They have veteran leadership, youthful energy, grit from their bench, defensive stalwarts and can score at will. The Pelicans have bought in.

And now is their chance to get fans around the league to buy in, too.

New Orleans is ready, and this is an opportunity to start a winning trend for years to come.

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 @EliotClough.