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New Orleans Pelicans favored to finish as eighth seed, but superior mental and physical health could punch their playoff ticket

If the Pelicans can come together in Orlando, Zion Williamson believes something special may be in store

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The FiveThirtyEight website has updated their 2019-20 NBA Predictions to reflect the schedule and format of the upcoming Orlando restart of games, and as expected, New Orleans playoff odds have slipped — but they still maintain an edge over Memphis, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix.

Prior to the Covid-19 suspension, the Pelicans were given a 60% chance of grabbing the final spot in the playoff standings, sitting well ahead of the pack outside the top seven teams in the Western Conference. Despite a 3.5 game lead on its nearest competition, the Grizzlies (15%) were considered a long shot, with the Trail Blazers (14%) and the Kings (9%) nipping on their heels.

“Right when the pandemic hit, it was a perfect groove for us and we felt like we kind of had that (eighth) spot for sure on lockdown,” Jrue Holiday said via a Zoom media conference call on Wednesday.

Fast forward to today, that comfortable margin has vanished according to 538’s RAPTOR player ratings and playing-time forecasts. The Pelicans are still slotted as the favorite at 45%, but the Grizzlies (37%) have significantly closed the gap. Somewhat surprisingly, the Trail Blazers (10%) and the Kings (7%) remain well off the pace.

Understanding the bones of this prediction is rather straightforward. New Orleans will now have ten less games to make up the current deficit in the standings, the Pelicans’ strength of schedule has become somewhat harder while the Grizzlies’ a little easier, and all 22 rosters traveling to Orlando are collectively vastly healthier than they were in March.

In short, the Pelicans perceived advantages have dwindled. But as I mentioned on social media right after the eight “seeding” game schedules for each team were released, everything we knew about the 2019-20 season before it came to a grinding halt due the pandemic may not matter in Orlando.

“It doesn’t matter to me what our winning percentage of the teams we’re playing is because, again, we have no idea,” David Griffin said to media earlier this week. “By the time we play games, we’ll be off 15 weeks. That’s longer than the previous offseason. So to think we’re going to be the same teams we were heading into that is almost naïve.”

With the increases in randomness and unpredictability more likely to invalidate projections, is there anything else that fans can cling onto for hope of prosperity? Quite possibly, yes, and it starts with Zion Williamson.

This lone picture speaks for itself.

From well before the time the Pelicans selected him with the first pick in the 2019 Draft, Williamson’s fitness level has consistently been a hot topic. Who can ever forget ESPN body-shaming the prized rookie during his professional debut? But not to belabor the past further, Zion appears more trim now than he has at any other point these last few years.

Combining a svelter figure with Griffin volunteering information about improvements in ball-handling and shooting, Zion seems capable of taking the league by greater storm in the restart.

“I think body-wise, he looks amazing,” Josh Hart said yesterday to media. “He looks good. His shot looks better than it has been in a while, so he’s been putting the work in, and that’s great to see. He’s one of the players that’s got one of the brightest spotlights in the league and in the world right now. He handles everything great, humility, and I’m very surprised and proud of how he handles all of it.”

However, Zion is far from the only Pelican who prioritized conditioning during the basketball stoppage. JJ Redick has described his regular levels of activity on podcasts, and there have been numerous posts on Instagram displaying Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram working tirelessly on their fitness.

That said, the Orlando bubble is going to demand so much more than physical attributes like strength and quickness. The mental battles are going to be unlike anything ever experienced by all of the attending participants.

“I think it’s probably ten percent physical, ninety percent mental honestly,” Hart said. “At the end of the day, we’ve been playing basketball since a lot of us could just walk. We’re going out there, we’re doing what we love, we’ve got the muscle memory. We’ve been working out, we’ve been putting the work in on the court, but a lot of it is going to be off the court...obviously having all that free time, not being able to see friends, family, children, wife, girlfriend, and all that stuff like that. I think that could take a toll on a lot of the guys.”

Loved ones and other select guests are not permitted to join players on campus until after the completion of the first round of the playoffs. So, whoever can best adapt to unfamiliar surroundings while summoning all their potential inside a lonely and restrictive environment could very well come out ahead.

Realizing these upcoming psychological challenges, the Pelicans have worked on combating potential mental hurdles and promise to continue doing so once in Orlando.

“I think it’s critical and it’s going to be really essential,” Griffin said. “Jenna Rosen has done a really good job throughout this period during the pandemic of Zooming with players, doing individual meetings, doing team meetings, etc. We’re going to make that a focus of what we do. It’s going to be a built-in part of our practice time. Literally every day that we practice in the bubble, we will have mental preparedness. We will work through mindfulness training with Jenna literally every day, because it’s paramount to our success there. Again when I said this is going to be about who wants to be there more, it’s going to be about who can keep themselves in the best frame of mind, quite frankly, to stay on task, not think about the enormity of what’s going on. We’re going to invest a great deal of our time and energy on that side of things.”

Mental preparedness. Mindfulness training. And these exercises are to be included in key practice time, even once the gloves are taken off and teams are finally allowed to participate in group activities. The front office is obviously placing a premium on the spiritual well-being of every player, and the players have already responded postively.

“Yeah. I think it can be beneficial,” Holiday said. “Again, this is a new normal like many of you guys said, and people have different ways of handling that. Sometimes you have people to talk to, which might be over the phone for some people, but sometimes you need to sit down face-to-face and get things off your chest. Especially during times like this, it would be huge for not just basketball going into the ‘bubble’. It could be things about your family. It could be about social injustice, not feeling like you are doing enough. So many things, so I’m really happy that we’re taking mental health very seriously.”

Barring any injury or coronavirus setbacks, the Pelicans can expect to spend a minimum of 37 days in the ‘bubble,’ arriving on July 8th and potentially leaving right after their final seeding game against the Magic on August 13th.

Considering that the novelty of being sequestered inside the Disney World campus will wear off quickly, that’s a long time. However, if New Orleans can overcome most obstacles, something special could be in store.

“I think this team can be really special when we’re all healthy,” Williamson said. “It’s just a matter of us coming together, fighting those mental battles of being in the bubble. Honestly, coming together, I feel like if we can come together and fight the battles together I think we can be something really special.”

A strong body and mind — this could prove to be of greatest consequence and most responsible for potentially propelling the New Orleans Pelicans to the play-in tournament or beyond.

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