NEW ORLEANS – Have you ever seen a bird fly without wings? Squirrels, spiders, fish and snakes can all fly without wings, but not a bird. You can say the same thing about the New Orleans Pelicans. They are trying to fly without their wings. In this case, the wings represent their shooting.
From top to bottom, the Pelicans have one of the most competitive rosters in the NBA. President of Basketball Operations, David Griffin, once stated, “27 other teams would trade their roster for ours.” To an extent, I agree.
Well, that begs the question, why is this team consistently inconsistent when they have a potentially top 5 roster in the league with Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum side-kicked with elite role players like Jonas Valanciunas, Trey Murphy and Herb Jones?
They aren’t optimizing their roster, and their style of play doesn’t fit schematically nor prioritize winning.
The team has a .500 record (6-6) against teams with a sub .500 record, yet the Pelicans are 10-6 against teams with an above .500 record. Essentially, the beignet boys have been playing with their food and trickling powdered sugar on their black uniforms.
In Willie Green’s tenure, the focus has been about defense, energy and effort. With a young team, that mantra is easy to digest and understand. What happens when your team isn’t the underdog anymore, and you’re forced to be the hunted and not the hunter? Being more methodical in your approach is necessary for survival.
Periodically, the Pels have started games off flat and lethargic, and relied on the second unit to bring energy that is necessary to win games from behind. Also, third quarters and crunch minutes have been execrable. Those are pinnacle moments of a game. It is a time where your collective basketball IQ has to show. This team has yet to convey their IQ continuously, especially in losses to the Rockets, Jazz (twice), Bulls, and Memphis.
The Pelicans lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 115-113 at the Smoothie King Center. The Pels led by 24 and held the Grizz to a 16-point second quarter. Losing a 20-point lead is not a new phenomenon in the NBA. Yet, losing to a 6-win team on a back-to-back while welcoming back their star player from a 25-game suspension doesn’t bode well when you have championship aspirations.
The team currently sits 16-12 on the season. This season, Zion has played 23/28 games, BI has played 25/28 games, and CJ has played 15/28 games. For two years (3 seasons), the goal has been to get these three on the court healthy to see what they could be.
As nearly 30 games have passed, the pivot foot has to be changed without traveling. The Pelicans’ team and coaching staff have been public about shooting more 3’s. CJ McCollum has been on record saying the Pelicans need to shoot 40 3’s per game, yet the Pelicans are averaging 30 3’s per game which is 27th in the league. This doesn’t help with the fact Trey Murphy III launched only one 3PA attempt in 20 minutes of play in the loss against Memphis, and Jordan Hawkins, who was on pace to break rookie single season 3 point record, logged another DNP. Those are your two of your top three best 3-point shooters.
Not optimizing Zion, Brandon, and CJ’s time on the court is a cardinal sin. Those units have not been excellent to start nor finish games. I’ve been a proponent of inserting Trey Murphy into the starting lineup, and allowing Jonas Valanciunas to come off the bench in your second unit. This move isn’t to an indictment of Jonas. He’s been the most consistent player on this team this year. His minutes with the second unit next to CJ as the lead guard or alongside Zion in the 4-5 pick-and-roll, have been masterful. He’s nearly averaging a double-double without being a focal point of the offense.
Willie Green, after the home win against the Timberwolves, said that rebounding from the wings would be critical from their success. The Pelicans are currently 11th in the NBA in rebounding. With playing Trey over Jonas, you may lose rebounding, but you create more space for Zion, BI, and CJ to operate.
The Pelicans can no longer attempt to fly without their wings. It cannot be about energy, effort and defense. Defense can only win you championships if you get there. While shooting is a premium, creating space while playing with pace, and scoring at a high rate is how you get to the playoffs. It’s easier to teach an offensive player how to play defense rather than a defensive individual to play offense. Shooting is necessary for this team to soar.