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Pelicans-Cavaliers matchup features dichotomy of roster depth

If Ingram, Hart and Valanciunas can’t play, New Orleans might have to pull a rabbit out of a hat

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans will go for the season sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers this Monday evening, but it could be the tallest of orders.

The Cavaliers have won eight of their last 10 games and sit two games behind the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference. They’re a legitimately good team, especially with their best players are active.

Cleveland Cavaliers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen appear in the same game, the Cavaliers sport a razor sharp 24-10 record. When one or more of these players have sat out — as was the case when the Pelicans edged past the Cavs 108-104 on Dec. 28 — Cleveland’s proven to be much more beatable at 6-10.

Although the Cavaliers will be without three key pieces in Lauri Markkanen, Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton, Garland, Mobley and Allen are the biggest difference makers and all are expected to play tonight.

Adding further to the worries in New Orleans, Brandon Ingram (right ankle sprain), Jonas Valanciunas (non-Covid illness) and Josh Hart (left knee contusion) are all listed as questionable. When any member of this trio misses a game, the Pelicans have struggled to find the win column as evidenced by eking out just five victories in 23 attempts.

Many fans continue to clamor for C.J. McCollum, De’Aaron Fox and other names in trade rumors, but the fact is that New Orleans’ lack of depth has been the biggest stumbling block to a stronger overall record.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker has failed to eclipse a 40 field goal percentage in any month. When he shot a useful 37.9% from 3-point range in December, that was accompanied by a 44.4 free throw percentage.

Jaxson Hayes seemingly produces a play or two every game that takes everyone’s breath away, but only two of the top eight lineups in minutes played with the third-year big man have a positive net rating. His rebounding and block percentages are identical to his first two seasons, and his defensive impact near the rim is below average for his position.

Comparable young players like Nic Claxton (48.5 DFG%), Daniel Gafford (54.0 DFG%) and Mitchell Robinson (56.1 DFG%) have all defended the five-foot radius around the rim more effectively than Hayes (61.8 DFG%).

Garrett Temple is struggling through the worst shooting month of the season (33.3 FG%, 20.8 3PT%), and Tomas Satoransky has been a shell of his former self during his entire New Orleans tenure.

Despite the poor play of the reserves, Naji Marshall and Trey Murphy III haven’t been able to crack the regular rotation.

Honestly, the largest bright spot may be the play of Jose Alvarado, but even he has had issues with putting the ball through the hoop efficiently (39.5 FG%, 31.4 3PT%, 63.2 FT%).

Meanwhile, even without Ricky Rubio (13.1 points, 6.6 assists), the Cavaliers have enjoyed a renaissance campaign from Kevin Love (14.1 points, 40.2 3PT%), received solid contributions from Cedi Osman (10.8 points, 43.0 FG%) and gotten boosts from Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade at times.

Since Sexton was lost for the season, the Cavaliers usual starting lineup of Garland-Okoro-Markkanen-Mobley-Allen has a +13.8 net rating. The Pelicans most oft starting group of Graham-Ingram-Hart-Jones-Valanciunas has compiled a +12.2 net rating.

The most obvious difference between the two ball clubs throughout this season has been the production of the players behind the main five. And if any one of Ingram, Hart or Valanciunas sits tonight, the Cavaliers are going to heavy favorites over the Pelicans, who could find themselves on a four-game losing streak leaving Cleveland.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (18-31) at Cleveland Cavaliers (30-20)

When: January 31, 2022, 6:00 p.m.

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, NBA League Pass

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.