What is New Orleans’ New Ceiling?


Heading into the final stretch of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans are primed to challenge to the tenth and final play-in spot. Trading for CJ McCollum signified a win-now mindset. At 23-36 and two games behind Portland, New Orleans is in a great spot.

New Orleans’ revamp of their roster at the trade deadline pointed to their ambitions for this season.

Following a disastrous beginning of the season, the Pelicans have regularly played high competitive basketball, challenging playoff teams. At times, their consistency and youthful exuberance shone through, but under Willie Green, New Orleans’ identity and playstyle has become clearer.

Team Identity

Offensively, their blend of perimeter creators and inside presence creates a flexibility and adaptability depending on matchups. Jonas Valanciunas‘ productivity inside and out has made him the perfect center for New Orleans. Accompanied by Brandon Ingram and the newly acquired CJ McCollum, New Orleans has three healthy players who can carry the offensive load on any given night.

Of course, if Zion Williamson returns, New Orleans’ offensive upside shoots through the roof.

Defensively, New Orleans still struggles. Herbert Jones is the steal of the draft, but carries a heavy defensive burden. Tasked with guarding the best player on the team at all times, Jones has shown his malleability and versatility. Only Jones, Jose Alvarado and Garrett Temple currently post a positive defensive box plus/minus.

Their 112.8 defensive rating is one of the league’s worst, and the eye test backs it up.

New Orleans struggles to guard the pick and roll and guard penetration. Both McCollum and Devonte’ Graham are subpar defenders, with Graham being terrible (to put it nicely). The lack of resistance at the top of the key places immense pressure on the interior and wing defenders, leading to defensive breakdowns all over the court.

Trading Hart away as well only decreased their defensive upside. 

The Stretch Run

New Orleans’ improvements to the roster were also set to take time. Implementing a star like McCollum has its growing pains for all involved. Although CJ has been great statistically, it is evident the team is still working out rotations and kinks.

A lineup alteration with Hayes starting was the first sign. With Hayes in the lineup, New Orleans has athletic wings and bigs who have shown to be competent in switch-heavy schemes. Utilizing Hayes as a forward instead of a center can reap rewards similar to Boston, when they moved Robert Williams to a forward. Even though Hayes is not the defensive presence like Williams, he has all the necessary tools to be an elite help defender.

The starting lineup ensures that Ingram and McCollum have the right blend of slashers, dive men and shooters. Hayes and Jones are not established shooters, but Jones’ willingness to shoot makes him guardable from three. Graham shifts to the sixth-man role off the bench, which is his calling. He will be able to dominate the ball and provide a much-needed offensive spark.

Along with Graham, Tony Snell and Willy Hernangomez are seemingly set into the rotation. Snell’s shooting is essential. Green has opted to go with Temple a lot off the bench, but he is an analytical nightmare. New Orleans has been 300 points worse with Temple on the court through the season. With rookie Trey Murphy III and sophomore Naji Marshall more than capable, it’s obvious that either two get an extended run.

Lastly, the potential return of Larry Nance Jr. only solidifies the rotation and would see Temple or Hernangomez removed.

Final Remarks

New Orleans has the most challenging schedule strength compared to San Antonio and Portland. They are still primed for a playoff push given the mass overhaul in Portland and San Antonio’s inconsistencies to score at times. The Pelicans will see both teams twice, and a 4-0 run there will undoubtedly provide a catapult into the play-in range. That coupled with the Lakers floundering without Anthony Davis may also give New Orleans the chance of becoming the ninth seed, but that seems somewhat far-fetched. 

Based on the strength of schedule and matchup through the final stretch, New Orleans’ record needs to hover around 37 wins to have a realistic chance. A winning run and the possible return of Zion could spark and realistic play-in seeding and potential playoff appearance.

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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