Pelicans

Consistently Inconsistent Pelicans Struggling to Stay Afloat

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As long as New Orleans has adopted the name ‘Pelicans’, the basketball franchise has struggled for consistency.

Stretches of promise were met with despicable losing streaks. No matter the coach — Monty Williams, Alvin Gentry or Stan Van Gundy — the DNA seemingly points to a franchise that doesn’t have the desire to play hard constantly.

Polar-Opposite Results

The first two games after the all-star break personified the notion. A thirty-point destruction at the hand of Minnesota, followed by a crushing win over the competitive Cavaliers, was jarring to watch. In order to understand the Pelicans’ problems, one has to watch them night-in-night-out. Catch the team on the right night, and they look like a top-three seed.

Watch them on a night like Minnesota, however, and you think they are trying to tank. Or even most recently against the Portland Trail Blazers, where a 17-point lead with under six minutes to play was eviscerated.

Through every game this year, the emotions of Pelicans fans mimic a rollercoaster. From quarter to quarter, emotions fluctuate from despair to joy constantly. The issue is New Orleans plays quality basketball enough to make everyone believe they are a good team.

That idea resonates here as well. This year, we’ve all seen games like their win over the Jazz before the break to indicate the group is dangerous. Similar to the Clippers, however, New Orleans struggles for consistent effort, primarily on the defensive end.

Under the Gentry era, the team had the same issue. From the get-go, David Griffin understood that a defensive-minded coach may bring the best out of the team. The sentiment made sense. As a result, Griffin hired Van Gundy, who brought an old-school mentality and defensive attention Gentry lacked.

The short preseason and training camp primarily focused on the defensive end. Acquiring both Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe was set to assist the young group with development.

While the coaching staff assumed the team would struggle initially and build into an elite defensive team, the narrative flipped. New Orleans ranked 10th in defensive rating through the first ten games, although posting the 20th offensive rating. Since then, the mindset flipped dramatically. Since January 14, New Orleans has the third-most potent offense but the second-worst defense.

The inconsistency highlights itself. Of course, with a newly focused attention to the offensive end, slippage was evident. However, to fall to that extent was confusing, concerning and uncomprehending all at the same time.

When scanning the roster, New Orleans has enough ‘defensive-minded’ players to be a good team on that end. Adams, Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are all above-average-to-good defenders who work extremely hard. In particular, Bledsoe was brought in to make up for the loss of Jrue Holiday.

Unfortunately, Bledsoe seemingly has lost his defensive toughness. The guard is posting career-lows in defensive box plus/minus, defensive win shares and steals.

The drop-off is obvious, too.

Bledsoe constantly seems lethargic and slow. The clip above highlights this idea. Bledsoe collapses into the paint right next to Ingram instead of zoning up between Jake Layman and Ricky Rubio. When the pass goes out to Layman, Bledsoe, unlike Ball, makes no effort to close out. Effort plays like that are what helps you win games, and Eric doesn’t do so currently. Previously, I indicated a trade should happen and the possibility seems unlikely. 

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Widespread Issues

Let me be clear, Bledsoe isn’t the only issue with New Orleans’ defense. The team generally struggled to find a source of energy. Besides Hart and Jaxson Hayes on the odd occasion, the bench fails to provide the energy boost the starters require. Similarly, the starters rarely begin games and halves with energy reflective of a desperate team. It is quite puzzling to see a young team lack energy or desire to make the second effort from an outside perspective.

Any league-pass watcher can throw on a lousy team and see them play hard, but you don’t see that when you watch New Orleans most nights. There are glimpses and stretches — like their games against Cleveland and Utah — where the effort is there and New Orleans looks destined for greatness.

The sample size is now large enough to indicate that the team’s mentality is what it is. Therefore, changes are needed. Deep bench players like Wenyen Gabriel, Naji Marshall and Will Magnay will provide a spark. Consequently, a team needing relatively inexperienced players to log significant minutes indicates they aren’t ready to make a playoff leap.

The team is built to win now. Failure to make the play-in game would be a disaster. Ending the season 36-36 gives them a chance to be the No. 10 seed, but anything less will (most likely) result in the lottery. 

Looking forward, the eleven-game stretch from April 1-18 is where the Pelicans can make up significant ground. Over the span, New Orleans only plays two teams with winning records, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. With Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid injured, there is a chance those games may not feature either star. Regardless, New Orleans has to win at least nine of those games.

The talent and potential are there. A focused New Orleans is a scary team to face for any team. It is well established that Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are a fearsome offensive duo, and with Lonzo becoming a knockdown shooter, the tools are available. New Orleans’ version of the big three needs to rest of the team to come along with them.

Josh Hart and Steven Adams have done so consistently throughout the season. Eric Bledsoe, J.J. Redick and Jaxson Hayes have shown they can, with the former two having done so over their careers.

The stretch run is here. The consistently inconsistent Pelicans must string together quality games to stand a chance at a playoff birth.

Follow us on Twitter @PelicansLead for the latest Pelicans news and insight. 

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About Vance Abreu

An Australian trying to make it big in Toronto, Canada. Weekly articles about the Pelicans journey to a NBA championship

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