With the regular season kicking off in a few days, what New Orleans Pelicans starting lineup do you recommend in the 2021-22 opener? What changes once Zion Williamson returns?
When healthy, I believe the Pelicans should start Devonte’ Graham, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Trey Murphy and Jonas Valanciunas. This starting unit allows the ball-handling to flow through Zion and Ingram, with another capable playmaker in Graham on the court as well.
It’s a relatively long line-up that should be able to play passing lanes and create some transition opportunities to compensate for some of the other defensive deficiencies. Offensively, it should create a lot of space for Zion. JV isn’t a space creator, but unlike Adams before him, he is capable of and willing to hit an open jumper from the mid-range and beyond the arc. Everyone else on the court will have defenders making tough decisions.
Without Zion, I’d start Tomas Satoransky, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naji Marshall, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas. Satoransky will mainly be a starter in name only — playing about 15-18 minutes per game.
This lineup is long and gives you in theory — though I know his preseason was less than inspiring — a veteran offense organizer in Satoranksy to settle things down in the halfcourt. It also allows Graham to thrive against second units while still getting a lot of time with starters, much like his role in Charlotte.
I’ve actually watched a lot of the Hornets over the last 2 years because I love Miles Bridges and was into the LaMelo Ball experience. While doing so, Graham always stood out. With Zion on the court it makes sense to link them together due to his catch-and-shoot ability, but while Zion’s out, it may better suit Graham to cook weaker guards off-the-dribble.
If you’ve followed me for awhile, you may remember me cheering for NAW to fall to us as I tweeted from the draft room on Airline Drive. My fandom has never waned. I believe that Alexander-Walker is in for a huge leap if Willie Green can keep the ghost of the ghost of Garrett Temple out of his way. Without Zion, Ingram needs someone else who can create for themselves and others — NAW has all of the tools to be that secondary or maybe third scorer behind Jonas.
I also like the size and switch-ability of this line-up. I would like to see Naji and Satoransky sub out early so that Graham and Murphy could space for JV. Later, Naji would come in for Ingram and get some minutes across from Murphy, giving the Pels two guys that definitely understand their roles on the floor together. This pairing is very appealing to me and I wouldn’t be upset if Murphy was in the starting lineup instead of Satoransky — putting the point guard duties in NAW’s hands.
Devonte’ Graham/Nickeil Alexander-Walker/Brandon Ingram/Zion Williamson/Jonas Valanciunas should be the starting lineup once everyone is healthy. Alexander-Walker is expected to prove that he can be a more balanced and productive contributor than Josh Hart, and his doing so would solidify this group of five players as the best five on the team. Maximizing their minutes together is going to be crucial, because Hart-for-Alexander-Walker aside, the drop from each of the other starters to their presumed backup is pretty steep.
Naturally, the Pelicans must start their season by replacing the hardest player to replace on the roster. Hart or Naji Marshall could absorb some of those starter minutes, though I wouldn’t be opposed to kicking the tires on Jaxson Hayes lining up next to Valanciunas. They are both giant humans with legitimate and unique skills that I hope we can to see overlap and intersect.
Garrett Temple or Tomas Satoransky starting in any context would be the least exciting, and I truly hope we don’t see that happen.
When Zion is healthy, the Pelicans should start Graham, Murphy, Ingram, Williamson, and Valanciunas. Devonte’ Graham and Trey Murphy will maximize the space for Zion and Jonas to operate and also get a lot of easy looks on offense. I do expect New Orleans to finish with Graham, NAW, BI, Zion, Jonas but NAW’s most likely to be the 6th man in my mind.
For as long as Zion is out, I would slide Naji Marshall into Williamson’s slot in the starting lineup and keep the rest of the group together. This should improve the defense for the starters. Spacing shouldn’t be horrendous with Graham, Trey, BI, and Naji around Jonas who should be a focal point of the offense until Zion is ready to go.
Please can Willie Green just stop with all the Garrett Temple minutes? We’ve seen enough. He shouldn’t even be in the rotation.
To be fair, it’s difficult to give a strong vote of confidence for any specific Zion-less starting lineup. Ingram’s only appearance of the preseason came in the opener and he was tied to Willy Hernangomez and Garrett Temple.
Does an Ingram-Valanciunas centric grouping need to fill Williamson’s vacancy with Nickeil, the next best team’s offensive weapon? I honestly don’t know, and I’m not sure the coaching staff does either after being limited only to practices for information over the last week.
There’s no doubt NAW was potent off the bench against the Timberwolves alongside Josh Hart, Sato and Murphy, a group that developed a lot of synergy during the first week of training camp. But NAW also looked good against the Magic in the starting lineup — and posted positive averages in 13 games as a starter last season (19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 56.5 TS%).
One thing I am confident of, Naji Marshall’s energy/defensive effort next to BI, Devonte’ and Valanciunas at tip-off seems ideal, especially with Hart able to provide very similar production off the bench. As many have mentioned far and wide though, Garrett Temple cannot continue to masquerade as a fill-in starter.
Based on his preseason play, I’m hopeful to see Kira Lewis Jr. slide into the open slot of the 10-man rotation over Temple. Going that route would mean starting one of NAW or Sato. I’m not opposed to either because there’s rhyme and reason for both — and Nickeil should undoubtedly receive important closing minutes.
As for when Zion returns, there’s several arguments to be made, but I’m leaning towards Graham-Nickeil-Ingram-Zion-Valanciunas, the team’s five best players right now. However, I believe that assumption could change later this season because it’s impossible to ignore the direction that Trey Murphy is trending. His perimeter shot is a game-changer, he’s helpful on the glass and he’s shown the ability to hold his own defensively. No moment has seemed too big yet and his basketball IQ is already an asset.
There’s not much to think about here.
With Zion: Devonte Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Jonas Valanciunas
Without Zion: All same, but insert Naji Marshall.