Local fans are keenly aware that looking back at preseason previews and predictions is oftentimes an uncomfortable exercise.
Since a trip to the 2018 playoffs, the New Orleans Pelicans have consistently failed to meet expectations. However, for an unusually pleasant change of pace, the 2021-22 season contains a surprising number of positives despite the team currently residing 11th in the West.
In examining the Best Case, Worst Case and Most Likely Case scenarios, elements from each plot line have come to fruition.
The Pelicans aren’t poised to make the playoffs and win a first round series, but the Willie Green hire has been a smashing home run. A Best Case box gets checked because the new head coach has generated an unbelievable amount of buy-in. There wasn’t a hint of disharmony even after the vastly disappointing 1-12 start out of the gates.
Zion Williamson not playing a single minute obviously classifies as Worst Case, a key injury that may prevent the Pelicans from reaching the play-in tournament. Toss in just one appearance with reporters back on media day, Pandora’s box sits wide open as to the young superstar’s future in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, the Most Likely Case scenario is living up to billing. The Pelicans remain likely to reach the play-in, Brandon Ingram has shown defensive improvement, and a number of young Pelicans — Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes — are displaying promising development.
For a lot of the reasons already mentioned, it’s hard to not be excited for the remaining schedule. New Orleans is in decent position to taste the postseason, with or without its generational talent, but even if the group fails in that mission, there exists plenty of other motivating factors to keep watching.
How about Jonas Valanciunas has handled the center position with aplomb, Jones displays proof every day of being one of the biggest draft day steals, and the Pelicans arguably landed the greatest shooting guard in franchise history, CJ McCollum, at the trade deadline for starters?
Watching this New Orleans team compete much harder than in recent years has been great fun. Adding McCollum to the mix should soon prove dividends. And if Zion returns sometime after the All-Star break as its been recently reported, what NBA fans wouldn’t want to watch a Big 3 that is likely to surpass the exploits of Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday?
While there’s hope that the season ends on a high note, odds are the Pelicans will fall short of my 40-42 prediction and a ninth place finish in the standings. They sit 13 games under .500 (23-36) at the All-Star break. Only 23 games remain and New Orleans trails the Los Angeles Lakers by 4.5 games for ninth.
A more realistic prediction appears to be in the neighborhood of a 35-47 W/L record and a 10th place finish. While the Trail Blazers currently occupy that seed, it’s difficult to imagine them fending off the Pelicans, and potentially the Spurs. A finish in this year’s lottery ensures Portland hangs onto their 2022 first-round pick.
According to 538’s website, the Pelicans are on track to finish with a 34-48 record — the same as the Trail Blazers and one game better than the Spurs.
DraftKings gives New Orleans the 10th-best odds (+20000) of emerging the Western Conference winner.
Everything’s pointing towards a photo finish. That’s something considering Williamson highlight reels are but a distant memory and this team had every reason to fold when sitting in the cellar of the entire league nearly midway through November.