The last time the New Orleans Pelicans embarked on a lengthy road trip, they returned home battered and bruised after snatching just one victory in six tries. Starting tonight in Chicago, one has a sense that better fortune lies in store on the upcoming four-game trek around the league.
One reason for greater hope is rather obvious. The next four opponents on the schedule (Bulls, Mavericks, Pistons, Grizzlies) are nowhere near the juggernaut that the Pelicans faced on their completed six-game road trip through the Western Conference (Clippers, Lakers, Kings, Jazz (twice), Timberwolves). The combined record of the foursome that lies directly ahead: 35-56.
While the quality of opponent is an apparent downgrade, the grounds for optimism are really centered around how well the Pelicans have played over their last eight games. Underneath the hood of a 6-2 record, sits a buzzsaw.
Since a Jan. 27th win over the Wizards, the Pelicans’ offense is averaging 120.1 points per game, good for fourth best in the league. They’re not shooting the ball inordinately well (48.6 FG%, 39.8 3PT%, 72.6 FT%), but have instead relied upon improved fundamentals.
During their last eight games, New Orleans is averaging 27.4 assists (7th best) and 12.3 turnovers (7th best). They’re getting to the free throw line 25.1 times a game (3rd best) but not committing fouls on the other end (17.6 - 9th best). They’re also averaging more points off turnovers (16.3 vs 13.1), more 2nd chance points (17.6 vs 11.9), fast break points (15.1 vs 11.5) and points in the paint (50.8 vs 46.8) than opponents.
In essence, the offense has been one of the best (120.4 offensive rating — 5th), and the defense, passable (113.5 defensive rating — 17th).
From a personnel standpoint, things look even more inviting. The starting lineup is squashing whomever has dared line up against them the last two weeks. The group of Ball-Bledsoe-Ingram-Zion-Adams is breathing fire (137.9 ORTG) while the defense is putting the clamps on the opposition (100.5 DRTG). There’s been signs of life from the bench, too.
Coming off a scintillating 20-point, 17-rebound effort versus the Rockets, Josh Hart is rounding into everyone’s favorite form. He’s attacking the glass like a center but pushing the action in transition a la a speedy point guard. Willy Hernangomez might be the best backup paint presence in New Orleans since ... yeah, you catch my drift. And Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are showing glimpses of the future amid expected youthful growing pains.
Up first on the road for Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and company, the Bulls should present a golden opportunity for the Pelicans to stretch their winning streak to five games. While Chicago isn’t a world-beater when healthy, they’ll be without their starting front court of Lauri Markkanen (shoulder) and Wendell Carter Jr. (quad contusion). Granted, this isn’t an unusual situation.
Since Wendell Carter Jr. was drafted, the Bulls have played 169 games:— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) February 8, 2021
Carter -- 101 games played
Lauri Markkanen -- 116 games played
Carter and Markkanen together -- 69 games played
The Bulls will lean heavily on Zach LaVine (27.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists), perhaps everyone’s favorite trade target outside of Bradley Beal. Coby White is his running mate, but the second-year man is struggling with shooting the basketball proficiently (39.7 FG%). Rounding out their starting lineup should be Denzel Valentine, Daniel Gafford, and one of my favorite rookies this season, Patrick Williams.
Williams was the fourth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and while his numbers may seem mediocre to date (10.5 points, 4.4 rebounds), realize the 19-year-old is rawer than Kira, accumulating far less games on the NCAA level before moving onto the NBA. Williams’ raw stats may look boring, but a shooting line of 47.3%/39.2%/82.6% (FG%/3PT%/FT%) along with 1.5 turnovers in an average of 27 minutes a contest does not, speaking volumes about his future potential given his age and experience.
Despite some solid pieces on their roster, the Bulls have hit the skids of late. While the Pelicans have won six of their last eight games, the Bulls have lost six of their last eight.
Chicago would probably love nothing more than to add Lonzo Ball on the cheap in some trade. Well, one has to believe that ship has sailed, with Ball averaging 15.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 3.6 threes and a shooting line (46.9%/49.2%/83.3%) that is making hearts race across New Orleans the last eight games.
So forget the trade chatter for the time being. Two teams headed in opposite directions will battle tomorrow in Chicago. Should the Pelicans stay on course, a victory against the Bulls will be within reach. If they manage the feat, New Orleans will be riding their best winning streak since the last time they made the playoffs.
If the Pelicans extend their win streak to 5, it would be their longest streak since a 9-gamer that covered the final 5 games of the 2017-18 regular season and the four game sweep of the Blazers.— David Grubb (@DMGrubb) February 10, 2021
Who: New Orleans Pelicans (11-12) at Chicago Bulls (9-14)
When: February 10, 8:00 p.m. Central
Where to watch: FSNO
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM