Months after being a popular pick as a darkhorse playoff contender in the aftermath of the Anthony Davis saga, the New Orleans Pelicans stink. Head coach Alvin Gentry being escorted off the court after receiving his second technical foul for arguing a non-call in the third-quarter of a 130-119 home loss against the Orlando Magic signals new lows. The Pels have dropped 12 straight games, leaving them with a 6-21 record. That matches the Hawks and Knicks, and only bests the hapless Warriors.
The Pelicans are missing their central piece. Zion Williamson is supposed to be the franchise-saver that makes losing Davis hurt less. But the rookie’s absence shouldn’t make New Orleans drop this low in the standings.
In the 12-game losing streak, New Orleans has been outscored by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, per StatMuse. Zion’s yet to play an NBA game, but the team still has Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors and Josh Hart. They aren’t playing a glorified G-League core like the Warriors. So what’s wrong with New Orleans?
The Pelicans have turned in some rough performances
New Orleans is playing uninspiring basketball right now, and they haven’t won a game since Nov. 21 against a Suns team missing three of its four best players (Deandre Ayton, Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes.) Three of their other six wins have come against the Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard didn’t play), Golden State Warriors (D’Angelo Russell, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry didn’t play), and Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard didn’t play). The only true wins New Orleans owns are over the Denver Nuggets on Halloween and Charlotte Hornets.
Some of the Pelicans’ losses have been egregious, too. An 11-point home loss to the Magic stings, as do 11-point home and 38-point road beatings by the Mavericks in a four-day span. A 15-point loss to the Bucks, 25-point loss to the Clippers, 18-point loss to the Raptors, and double-digit losses to the Warriors and Nets don’t help either. This team isn’t chasing the eight-seed. It’s chasing more lottery balls.
What’s going wrong?
The Pels have the No. 26 net rating in the league, getting outscored by 7.01 points per 100 possessions. Their offense ranks No. 20 in the league, and defensively, they rank No. 29, better than only the Wizards.
We may have placed expectation a bit too high on the young Pels. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kenrich Williams, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Frank Jackson and Jaxson Hayes combine as seven players in the rotation with four or fewer seasons experience. Williamson will make eight.
The defensive side of the ball has been weighing New Orleans down more than anything else. Mike Prada broke down the common threads of what’s gone wrong, including botched switches, late rotations, and maybe even an ill-fitting scheme for a team this new and raw. The Pels’ defense is led by former Rockets guru Jeff Bzdelk, but his methods might be too intricate for a contingent of unfamiliar kids. New Orleans is allowing two more points per 100 possessions than last year.
It’s hard to pin blame on any one player for what’s gone wrong on either end of the ball, but Ball is having an especially disappointing season, and has lost his starting job. On the defensive end, he and Holiday were to form a stout perimeter, but that hasn’t happened. His reformed jump shot has fallen, too. He’s shooting an ugly 37 percent from the field, and just 34 percent from range.
The loss of a stud rookie coupled with a plateauing core piece and a mess of a defensive ensemble is causing this slip. It’s unreasonable to think Zion can clean so much up so quickly.
There is one big win from this mess, though
Brandon Ingram is, at long last, playing at an All-Star level. The biggest piece of the Anthony Davis trade is scoring 25 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field, and 41 percent off six attempts per game from three. He’s improved his free throw shooting to make 84 percent of six tries per night, too, along with seven rebounds and four assists.
Ingram is a star — on the offensive end, at least — which is enough in the long term if Williamson is able to hold up to a percentage of his hype. Ingram’s been a really bright spot for a team that stinks.
So what should New Orleans do?
The Pelicans have a number of tough decision ahead, but some are simpler than others. At this point, with such an outside chance at the postseason (and really, for what?), New Orleans should be a big-time trade deadline seller. Starting right now, the Pelicans should start a thoughtful search for Redick’s and Favors’ next homes, hopefully stockpiling more draft picks and young pieces along the way.
At 35, Redick is still shooting 46 percent from range on seven tries per game, and he has another year after this one remaining on an NBA-affordable $13 million per season contract. Could New Orleans land another first-round pick for him? Favors is a utility big man off the bench on an expiring deal, too. The Pels should be in no immediate rush to ship either of them off. But they should let buyers know now, and let the bidding commence.
The more difficult questions lie on the coaching staff. Is Gentry the right fit for what’s to come long-term? Will Bzdelk modify the defensive scheme that worked so brilliantly in Houston? Those decisions carry more weight. And it may be too unfair to make those calls before Williamson plays a game. But monitor them closely.
What is clear is that Zion won’t even save these Pelicans. New Orleans tried to field a competitive team but couldn’t, and that’s ok. It’s Year One of what’s to be a long and arduous process, and the franchise has more than most do at this early stage. Maybe that’s why we expected too much.