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New Orleans Pelicans entering 2022 together and on bonafide upswing

A date against the Milwaukee Bucks kicks off the new year, but it doesn’t threaten the progress that’s been made

Cleveland Cavaliers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

There’s two ways to look at 2021, I suppose.

As a collective whole, it stunk, even if only concentrating on basketball. The New Orleans Pelicans didn’t do much winning, posting a 41-61 record over the the previous 365 days. Zion Williamson appeared in just 56 of those games. There was an infinite amount of greater NBA trade machine talk than discussion of postseason hopes.

If breaking down last year into segments, however, several important delineations can be made, with optimism clearly on the rise.

The ‘21 part of the 2020-21 season was undoubtedly a flop. The Pelicans never made a certifiable charge at the Play-In Tournament. Although injuries were not a season-long issue, they hit at the most inopportune time. And the major front office decisions to add Stan Van Gundy, Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe all proved to miss the mark by a wide margin.

Thankfully, gears were changed.

On top of the rookie arrivals of Trey Murphy III and Herbert Jones, this past summer witnessed the replacement of pieces that didn’t fit. Jonas Valanciunas arrived from Memphis; Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte. While everyone still itches to find the reset button on the Lonzo Ball trade, there’s no denying the positive impact of the team’s biggest upgrade — Willie Green has demonstrated every day that he was the perfect coaching hire.

Following a 1-12 start out of the gates, the Pelicans didn’t come apart at the seams. The team wasn’t losing games consistently by double digits. The players always stayed committed to the cause by pushing through adversity. They showed genuine belief in each other and the coaching staff.

Now, as Green had predicted, dividends are beginning to pay as the Pelicans have righted the ship. This despite not a single minute from Zion. They’ve gone 10-6 over the last 16 games and sit 1.5 games out of the last Play-In spot. They’re 5-2 in clutch time contests over this stretch.

There’s also been some real individual success stories. Brandon Ingram’s play has taken a major leap forward, though there’s not much statistical data in support. His late-game iso-ball tendencies have vanished, he’s giving off two-way vibes and we’re seeing examples of much-needed leadership.

Josh Hart has become an indispensable member of the roster and put himself in the running for the next Most Improved Player Award.

Jonas Valanciunas has been a home run both on and off the court.

And no one can get enough of Herb Jones and rightfully so. The 35th pick from the last NBA Draft is drawing comparisons to players like Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green.

So, yeah, damn straight the arrow is pointing upwards in New Orleans.

The prize to begin 2022? The Milwaukee Bucks, to be followed by matchups against the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors — the three best teams in the Western Conference.

Unlike in the December 17 meeting that resulted in a 116-112 Pelicans victory, the current World Champs will have their Big 3 in Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo today.

The Bucks are 15-2 on the season when this trio plays.

Valanciunas is out due to COVID protocols, but the Pelicans could see the returns of Hart, who is probable with a left ankle sprain, and Ingram, who is questionable with left Achilles soreness.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, along with Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall, have cleared health and safety protocols.

The Pelicans could lose on New Year’s Day and go on to drop three more consecutive games, but don’t let that obfuscate the reasons to have greater hope in this franchise.

Since November 13, only five teams in the West have posted winning records. One of them is the New Orleans Pelicans. That’s pretty darn impressive for a team that’s been without their best player for the entirety of this season.

Hopefully, we’ll see Zion soon and often in 2022.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (13-22) at Milwaukee Bucks (24-13)

When: January 1, 2022, 5:30 pm

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, NBA TV Bally Sports Wisconsin

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

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.