The trade deadline has come and gone without a major shakeup to the Pelicans roster, so it will essentially be the same Pelicans roster facing the Nuggets that defeated Denver last Sunday 113-108.
Lonzo Ball, who missed that contest, is still questionable with a right hip flexor strain.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, could look much different after acquiring Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic in exchange for reserves Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a first-round pick.
For a time, Gordon was coveted by Pelicans fans for precisely the reasons Denver does. He brings size, athleticism, versatility, and a solid three-point stroke. Adding his 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 37 pct shooting from distance, bolsters the front court of the Western Conference’s current fifth seed.
Gordon has guarded everyone from point guards to centers this season, bringing a key element to a Denver defense that hasn’t come close to matching the output of its elite level offense.
The Nuggets also added more length and defense to their lineup by bringing in three-time NBA champion JaVale McGee. Even in limited minutes, McGee was a solid rebounder (5.2 rpg) and shot blocker (1.2 bpg) for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Both newcomers could have an immediate impact should they be available to play Friday night.
In the last meeting between New Orleans and Denver, the teams played to a stalemate on the inside, with 54 points in the paint each. The Pelicans held a slight edge on the boards at 45-37.
Paul Millsap, who had just six points and three rebounds for the Nuggets in that game, will likely see his role reduced if Gordon steps into his starting spot.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans will be looking for their fifth win in their last seven games, and their third consecutive win over a team above .500. They have accomplished neither feat so far this season.
(Just for the sake of reference, the Pels last won at least 5 of 7 between Jan. 26 and Feb. 11 of 2020, when they won 6 of 8. Their last three-game win streak over winning teams was from Dec. 25 - Dec. 29, 2019, with wins over Denver, Indiana, and Houston.)
New Orleans has been playing some of its best basketball as of late. Over the last six games, the Pelicans rank fifth in the NBA in offensive rating (118.4), eighth in defense (107.9), and third in net rating (10.5).
Teams are shooting only 43.5 percent against the Pelicans during that span, second worst in the league.
They’ve also maintained their season-long dominance on the glass, sitting atop the league in offensive and total rebounding percentage, and second in defensive rebounding.
They’ve even improved at keeping the opposition from scoring in the paint, cutting their average allowed by 7.5 points.
The Pelicans’ biggest problem as a team has been their turnovers. New Orleans gives it away more than 15 times per game, and opponents are converting those into 20.3 points per game. That’s nearly 19 percent of all of their points allowed since beating Cleveland two weeks ago.
Denver is one of the NBA’s best at scoring off of miscues, with 18.3 points off of turnovers per game.
If Ball sits, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr., and Brandon Ingram will have to make sound decisions with the basketball. Two of the three tend to get into trouble when trying to undertake too much of the playmaking duties.
In many ways it’s like pitching a baseball. Coaches tell you to throw it, not to aim it.
When the Pelicans intentionally try to create for each other, they stumble. When the passes flow from movement and penetration, they find seams in the defense for attacking the basket or open jump shots.
With the roster now in place for the rest of the season, New Orleans has to be fully committed to gathering enough information on its young roster while still playing basketball that’s competitive enough to contend for a playoff spot.
The talent is there, the consistency has not been. Tonight, the Pelicans have another chance to prove that this most recent surge is a sign of true progress, and not just another appetizer preceding a main course that never arrives.
With just 29 games to go in the regular season, and 17 wins needed to reach .500, the Pelicans had better get to cooking.
I’m hungry for more wins, how about you?