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New Orleans Pelicans have lost their way, feel like the worst team in the NBA

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According to Zion Williamson, the whole team has to want it more

New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Fact: The New Orleans Pelicans are terrible right now.

Three squads sit with a worse win-loss record in the standings today (Wizards, Timberwolves, Pistons), but it’s not a controversial take to say that the Pelicans are in all likelihood playing like the worst team in the NBA at the moment.

After a 4-2 start out of the gates, the Pelicans have lost eight of their last nine games, and both the eyes and data clearly delineate a deterioration into the abyss.

The Pelicans were able to hang their hat on their defensive effort through the first five games of the season despite some really meager offensive production.

In the next three games, the scoring side of things showed signs of life, but the ability to slow opponents worsened considerably.

Since a 118-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, the offense has remained competent more times than not, but the bottom has fallen out defensively, with only a more laughable display from the Sacramento Kings topping the Pelicans over the same span.

Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Points Per Game Opponent Points per Game
First 5 games (12/23 - 12/31) 102.6 (25) 101.0 (4) 101.6 (27) 99.2 (2)
Next 3 games (1/2 - 1/7) 111.6 (13) 110.9 (19) 115.3 (8) 115.0 (21)
Last 7 games (1/8 - present) 110.6 (14) 119.4 (29) 109.9 (17) 118.7 (28)

Six of the Pelicans’ seven worst individual defensive ratings on the season have come in the last seven games.

I’m not sure we’ve seen a larger nosedive down the rankings in a shorter time frame once we’ve gotten outside of the first few weeks of a new season. That’s really saying something considering all the uneven play witnessed throughout franchise history.

On January 7th, the Pelicans had the fourth-best defensive rating (104.9) after eight games. 15 days and half-a-dozen plus one contests later, that statistic has plummeted to 111.6 overall, seventh-worst in the league.

Some may choose to argue that a schedule with plenty of strong opponents have led to the dismal showings; however, that wouldn’t be entirely correct. Please note that this stretch includes bad defeats to the Hornets and Timberwolves, and very nearly, the Kings.

  • 121.6 DRTG vs CHA
  • 119.4 DRTG @LAC
  • 116.7 DRTG @LAL
  • 123.0 DRTG @SAC
  • 121.6 DRTG @UTA
  • 122.9 DRTG @UTA
  • 111.1 DRTG @MIN

Had Marvin Bagley Jr. nailed a wide open corner three inside the final minute or New Orleans missed a few freebies down their perfect-from-the-charity-stripe stretch — they’re the fourth-worst free throw shooting team in the league, the Pelicans would probably be currently riding a nine-game losing streak.

Sure, it’s all a matter of perspective, but right now this team doesn’t deserve the benefit of doubt. Not with the inconsistencies witnessed. As one of the thirty professional teams, the Pelicans have looked anything but, failing in their basic duty to give it their all from tip-off to the final buzzer on a nightly basis.

To be honest, the Pelicans deserve a reasonable amount of ridicule from fans and pundits alike. They’ve seemingly become complacent with losing. How else can one explain the continuation of head-scratching, half-hearted basketball action despite postgame interviews discussing the need to inject more effort and focus ad nauseam?

Stan Van Gundy has preached defense from day one — the part of the floor where New Orleans should have been able to make the most improvement from last season. After witnessing mild success during the first few weeks of this campaign to the train wreckage strewn about now, there’s little doubt that the team’s identity must be forged on the defensive end of the floor because they lack reliable firepower outside of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. But that work must also be accompanied by supreme effort.

These Pelicans need to provide resistance for the full 48 minutes on the clock, not just play with energy when shots are dropping. And above all else, show a general sense of pride. When opponents are throwing haymakers during scoring runs, New Orleans must respond with impactful answers of their own.

“We just don’t put any pressure on anybody,” Van Gundy said after Thursday’s loss to the Jazz. “It’s very comfortable to play against us. We’ve got to change our defense. I’m not saying we don’t have some offensive problems. But we can’t give up this number of points and have any chance of having a good season.

“We just can’t. We’re going to have to develop a much, much, much, much, much, much better defensive mentality and pride than we have right now.”

In the very next game after these comments were made by the head coach, the Pelicans laid an egg against a team that’s sitting in the cellar of the Western Conference, the Timberwolves, who were missing both of their marquee players in Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.

The Pelicans should have beaten the short-handed Timberwolves, but instead closed out a long, disappointing road trip with a 120-110 loss in Minnesota.

In what’s become an all too familiar theme, the Pelicans grabbed a not insignificant lead and then allowed the opponent to flip the momentum, retaliating without the necessary combination of physical and mental fortitude.

This, I fear, is the Pelicans’ biggest weakness and it must be soon corrected. They’re a locker room brimming with lots of high character guys, but there’s too few gladiator mentalities operating at the moment. Sure, young teams must be shown patience and given time to develop, but the Timberwolves are the youngest group in the league and they kicked the Pelicans’ ass after halftime.

In a bad second-half display of basketball which saw both teams shoot poorly, how did Minnesota end up with more offensive and defensive rebounds, more free throw attempts, more assists, more steals, more points in the paint, more fast-break points, more second-chance points, and more points off turnovers?

The Pelicans understand what’s happening. They’ve been drilling important concepts since the first day of training camp. They’ve talk about their failings after games and practices. Yet when they’re in the midst of that desperate moment, potential defeat isn’t inspiring them enough to go make a smart play, give a second or third effort on a single possession, or simply put a rear end into an opponent to ensure the rebound falls into a teammate’s hands.

NBA games are a battle of attrition. Even the most mediocre of teams will not lay down if presented an opportunity. How many times have we seen the Pelicans build a sizable lead during this latest 1-8 stretch to only fold at some point thereafter?

“I think we have our moments,” Eric Bledsoe said after the Pelicans most recent loss to the Jazz. “I think we have our moments where we’re really, really good. And then I think we go stretches where we’re just fucking shit.”

Inexperience, fundamentals not yet ingrained and unfamiliarity with schemes is one thing, but lacking the requisite mindset to compete on every possession is inexcusable for players on this level. Regardless of age.

When New Orleans’ effort was present earlier in the season, they were largely holding opponents in check and winning results typically followed — even when they couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean. Van Gundy has previously said on multiple occasions that they should be “a good defensive team,” and we saw them execute on that end of the floor right out of an abbreviated preseason.

“Steven’s an outstanding defender, but we’ve got other guys who can guard. It’s just a matter of developing trust in one another. Eric Bledsoe’s obviously all-defensive team guy. Lonzo Ball is certainly capable of defending at that level. So when your guards can defend like that, that is a big part of it. Brandon’s very capable as a defender and Zion’s got good instincts off the ball. It’s been a little bit tough for him in that he’s had to guard a lot of perimeter players...And Josh Hart, to me, is a really good defender.”

This isn’t how one would comfortably describe the Pelicans today. They can’t stop anyone right now, from LeBron James and Donovan Mitchell to Naz Reid, Jarred Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin.

McLaughlin blows by Nickeil Alexander-Walker from well beyond the arc and Jaxson Hayes offers less than zero help defensively by effectively screening NAW from being able to even contest the shot attempt.

One 5’11 player beats two much larger, more athletically gifted defenders with relative ease. That’s just ugly to watch, but indicative of what’s plaguing New Orleans.

“I think it’s more of a team thing,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, certainly, every individual has got to do their part. But my concern, defensively, is number one that we get the effort that we need. Number two, that we understand what our philosophy is and what are priorities are defensively. And then number three, we really learn our system and how we’re covering different situations.”

Why have the Pelicans gotten off to a 5-10 start to the 2020-21 season? Tell your spouse, kids, other family and friends that when these Pelicans have taken Van Gundy’s message to heart, executing defensive concepts, various schemes, you name it, with vigor and purpose, they’ve walked away winners. When they haven’t, they’ve been shit.

“We just got to want it,” Zion Williamson said after the Wolves’ loss. “Each player has to want it. I’ve got to want it for myself. The whole team has to just want it. It sounds simple, but we just got to want it. We have to give more effort.”

Amen, Rafal.

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.