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Pelicans listed as underdogs against Hornets, but don’t count out this improving team

If New Orleans gets off to a fast start, playing on the second night of a back-to-back may not matter

Charlotte Hornets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Ten days ago, the New Orleans Pelicans were smashed by the Hornets inside the Smoothie King Center, 142-120. What can we expect in the second go-around between these two teams in Charlotte?

Although their 12-9 record places them in more mediocre territory (12th), the advanced stats say that the Pelicans have been seventh-best team (+6.1 net rating) in the league since the start of February. They’ve been quite good on both ends of the court, with the offense and defense each ranking eighth.

What’s the easiest way to explain the discrepancy?

Nine of the 12 victories were by double figures; conversely, six of the nine losses were by 10+ points. So the stats were padded to a degree in New Orleans’ favor. But the analysis shouldn’t stop there because something deeply interesting lies under the hood.

Not only have the Pelicans enjoyed more big wins than bad losses recently, their six largest margins of victories on the season have all occurred since CJ McCollum arrived in New Orleans — and the last two have come without Brandon Ingram.

While there remains a need for greater consistency, these Pelicans have shown multiple instances of their best basketball of the season, with or without key players. That certainly wasn’t the case prior to the trade with Portland whenever BI missed time or not.

The obvious answer is that New Orleans is an upgraded team, having taken yet another step forward since training camp. McCollum is as advertised, a star, and Jonas Valanciunas continues to be a model of consistency; however, there’s been a lot of improvement around them, both in player’s games and Willie Green’s rotations.

Jaxson Hayes is faring well as a starting 4 and he continues to come into his own, averaging 15.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks over the last five games.

Since becoming a regular member of the rotation again, Willy Hernangomez is boasting averages of 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds.

Naji Marshall, Herb Jones, Devonte’ Graham and Trey Murphy have all been averaging double figures in points since Ingram landed on the shelf with a sore right hamstring.

And Jose Alvarado is the engine that’s been driving New Orleans second units into relevancy and opponents, batshit crazy, for some time now.

There’s a good balance of players contributing on both sides of the ball. In last night’s victory, for instance, Trae Young and the Hawks had to contend with far more than Jones’ individual defense.

The biggest question is, after two timely road victories that have vaulted the Pelicans into ninth in the Western Conference standings, how will this fledgling group fare on the second night of a back-to-back when consistency has often proven elusive?

The oddsmakers seem to be demanding more proof, listing the Pelicans as 6-point underdogs against the Hornets.

It must be noted that Charlotte has won four in a row, posting double digit wins over not only New Orleans and OKC but Atlanta and Dallas as well. However, if the Pelicans get off to a good start, expect for Las Vegas to be proven wrong.

In their last ten victories, New Orleans was leading after the first quarter in eight of those contests. The last time they were ahead at the end of the first frame but lost the game? One has to go all the way back to Jan. 31 when the Pelicans fell 93-90 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Pelicans will be missing a lot of firepower against the Hornets, but they’ve suddenly made a habit of finding avenues to wins through others stepping up. And if New Orleans finds itself in the lead after 12 minutes in Charlotte, their track record says that it would be wise to not bet against them.

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Who: New Orleans Pelicans (29-41) at Charlotte Hornets (36-35)

When: March 21, 2022, 6:00 p.m.

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, 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.