It’s the start of another season of Pelicans basketball (!), with New Orleans welcoming the Philadelphia 76ers, the Eastern Conference’s top seed from the 2021 playoffs, in Wednesday’s opener.
Each team will be without a central figure in Ben Simmons and Zion Williamson, but it’s highly unlikely that someone is going to miss the drama surrounding both stars when the referee tosses the ball into the air at half court.
Williamson’s name is once again mired in health-related discussions. On top of breaking a bone in his right foot over the summer, Zion had an expectation of being available for the first game of the regular season. But that’s come and gone. Moreover, there’s no real inkling of when he’ll return.
Zion’s overzealousness, though, pales in comparison to Simmons’ self-inflicted wound.
Asides Kyrie Irving’s decision to remain unvaccinated, no story has dominated headlines more in recent weeks than Simmons and his camp of wanting out of Philly. A separation is inevitable, especially after yesterday’s course of events that resulted in a one-game suspension — leaving Simmons unavailable to play against the Pelicans.
Having Simmons in uniform and posing an enormous distraction could have increased New Orleans odds of a victory of course, but sidelining a three-time All-Star is still a win in my book. So, the Pelicans will be left to contend with Joel Embiid and a veteran lineup including Seth Curry, Tobias Harris and Danny Green.
There’s no mystery as to what that group will try and do on the court — play through Embiid and space the floor, but what can fans expect from the Pelicans? Well, no one can be sure. New Orleans never fielded a lineup at full strength even without Zion during the exhibitions. Fortunately, they were able to spend a decent amount of time in the lab since the last preseason game.
“I think the good thing about right now is we have 6-7 days to prepare before the first game,” Brandon Ingram said after last Wednesday’s practice. “Of course with Zion out, it’s a different dynamic, but we just have to figure it out. Other guys have to step up, and we’ll get to see what other guys can do.”
One positive about tonight’s matchup: everyone outside of Williamson is expected to play. This means Brandon Ingram will share minutes alongside Jonas Valanciunas for a first time in real action. That Jaxson Hayes will be back doing his thing after spraining an ankle in the preseason opener. This should result in the addition of some much needed firepower to a team that was demolished in their final two preseason games, losing by a combined 67 points to the Bulls and Jazz.
However, don’t expect things to gel so quickly as to everyone suddenly being on the same page.
“Well, it’s going to take some time,” Ingram said. “I think we have to develop the execution of the basketball game. I think just putting guys in the right spot where they can get to their stuff and be comfortable in what they’re doing.
“I think that’s what I saw from the previous games, our execution has to get better on the offensive end. Our defense has been pretty good but we have to get some pop on the offensive end.”
Does this pop mean that Willie Green starts Nickeil Alexander-Walker alongside Ingram, Valanciunas and probably Devonte’ Graham? It feels probable, as NAW’s role has seemingly changed.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker said in the preseason Willie Green talked to him about being able to step up off the bench and provide energy and get the second unit going.— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) October 19, 2021
But… he mentioned being confident in 2nd unit because he goes against them every day.
The potential move makes perfect sense as Ingram is a go-to scorer who can also facilitate, but he won’t have his usual sidekick in Zion. NAW could help alleviate opposing defenses from concentrating too much on BI. It’s important to surround Ingram with weapons to combat the unpredictability.
During preseason, Graham, Alexander-Walker, Valanciunas, Naji Marshall, Kira Lewis Jr. and Trey Murphy III all had their moments, but consistency proved elusive. We probably should have seen this coming though.
Setting aside the matchup against the Orlando Magic for obvious reasons, the Pelicans starting lineups during the exhibitions consisted of guys playing together for the first time against NBA opponents possessing far greater familiarity or experience. In addition, individual roles drastically changed without Zion and Ingram.
Outside of BI’s 23 minutes against the Wolves, the Pelicans had to rely on an offense featuring players not accustomed to serving in title parts. Teammates, who are largely new to one another, were asked to fill these immense voids. The lack of star power and continuity among the ranks were really exposed.
One week won’t cure all ills, but the Pelicans will have the services of Brandon Ingram, who I think is poised to take another step forward in the trajectory of his career this season. Valanciunas and Graham know their strengths and I’m sure the coaching staff is fully cognizant of them now as well. And if the summer league try-hards can produce the same effort from Vegas, tonight’s game could reveal a wide range of outcomes — some quite positive.
I’m betting on these Pelicans showing the type of consistent effort tonight that we longed to see last season and perhaps even pulling out the win over the semi-in-disarray Sixers.
When: October 20, 7:00 p.m. Central
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM