The New Orleans Pelicans come into the 2020-21 season as one of the most physically imposing teams in the NBA. General Manager David Griffin acquired bruising center Steven Adams to pair with 20-year-old sensation Zion Williamson in the frontcourt. Adams is universally known for his physical play on the block and provides new Head Coach Stan Van Gundy a heavy one-two punch.
Van Gundy hasn’t coached since being fired by the Detroit Pistons in 2018. The 61-year-old possessed a dual role as president and coach with Detroit where he absolutely crippled the franchise. This time around, he is handed the keys to a team with exceptional young talent so one hopes he has learned from the error of his ways.
With a new coach and new player personal, the Pelicans hope to take the next step in their development.
New Orleans Pelicans Look to Pound Teams with New Bruising Identity
Reviewing a Missed Opportunity in 2019-20
When the Pelicans returned from the enforced COVID-19 break last season, they had an opportunity to make the post-season. The Pelicans possessed the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA and had to win at least five of its remaining eight games to reach the play-in game. Instead, New Orleans played terribly, winning just two games to finish 13th in the Western Conference.
In hindsight, the Pelicans were a complete mess. Former Head Coach Alvin Gentry appeared lost on his rotations while Williamson failed to get into decent shape. The 2019 number one pick pouted and moaned about his playing time which ultimately led to Gentry’s departure.
This was a valuable opportunity to earn post-season experience but the Pelicans failed to capitalize.
Busy Offseason provides the Pelicans with flexibility
Undoubtedly, the trade of the NBA offseason featured the movement of Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks. General Manager David Griffin acquired Eric Bledsoe, Adams, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps.
MIL: Jrue Holiday, No. 60 pick Sam Merrill
NOLA: Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, ‘25/'27 1sts, ‘24/'26 swaps via MIL
OKC: George Hill, Josh Gray, Kenrich Williams, Zylan Cheatham, Darius Miller, ‘23 protected 1st via Denver, two 2nd round picks
DEN: RJ Hampton
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) November 22, 2020
Despite some of his limitations, Bledsoe is an All-Defensive guard averaging 14.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists on 47.5 percent shooting and 34.4 percent from three. The 30-year-old is a fantastic on-ball and team defender who pairs well with Lonzo Ball in the back-court.
Adams is an enforcer, an excellent screen setter, and an elite offensive rebounder who had a sound 2019-20 season. The New Zealander averaged 10.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 59.2 percent shooting while anchoring a Top-10 defense in Oklahoma City.
Perhaps the most important signing overall was that of All-Star forward Brandon Ingram. The 24-year-old took a massive leap last season averaging 23.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on 46.3 percent shooting and 39.1 percent from three. Ingram’s biggest improvement came from deep, increasing his three-point by six points while tripling in volume (6.2 attempts) compared to 2017-18.
New Orleans Pelicans Expectations for 2020-21
The 2020-21 season stands to be one of the most competitive in recent memory with 13 teams in the mix for the playoffs. Most pundits have the Pelicans on the outside looking in but there is optimism New Orleans can make some noise.
Below are three realistic expectations for the upcoming season.
Keep Zion Williamson’s weight down
One of the biggest stories last year was the weight of 2019 number one overall pick Williamson. Official websites listed him around 280 pounds but the 20-year-old looked closer to 320 or 330 than 280. While injuries played a part, the sophomore must do a better job accounting for himself. Additionally, the Pelicans pay good money for team nutritionists and sports doctors to monitor the big man off-court.
As gifted and impactful as Williamson is, the best ability is availability. The club and Williamson must work together to stay in shape. Another repeat of 2019-20 could result in a serious injury and a long period on the sidelines.
New Orleans is rich in defensive talent and will be one of the NBA’s elite. Adams, Bledsoe, Ball, Williamson, and Ingram are fantastic defenders and each brings something different to the table. Bledsoe and Ball are elite perimeter defenders while Ingram is steady on that side of the ball.
Where the Pelicans will truly realize their advantage is upfront.
Head Coach Stan Van Gundy absolutely loves the idea of a humungous frontcourt. Below are his thoughts on the Adams-Williamson pairing.
SVG on Zion Williamson and Steven Adams 👀 pic.twitter.com/GRBeAuErhc
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) November 30, 2020
Last season, the Pelicans finished with the 17th rank defense with a defensive ranking of 111.7. Interestingly, when Williamson was on the court, New Orleans’s defensive rating improved to 107.7 (seventh) with him on and 113.4 (27th) with him off. Couple his defensive impact with Bledsoe, Ball, and Adams, and the Pelicans have the makings of a stifling defensive team.
A top-three finish is absolutely achievable.
NBA teams are sleeping on the New Orleans Pelicans
If the Pelicans realize their defensive potential, they will surprise the NBA. Teams are built to win offensively, stacking the perimeter with shooting and a host of three and D players. However, it is difficult to find a team filled to the brim with defenders across the board.
Ingram will be the team’s primary offensive option and with the team around him supplementing his defensive workload, many will envision a heliocentric offense. Ingram is an excellent offensive player who can create for himself and others. He is solid in pick and roll as the handler, generating 0.9 points per possession while shooting 47.5 percent in these situations.
Pundits don’t expect much from the Pelicans this season but one can envision the team competing for a playoff spot. Behind a throttling defense and a heliocentric offense, they will be in the running for the play-in game. As constructed, their ceiling is the sixth seed but a seventh or eighth seed is more likely.
Record Prediction: 38-34
Main Image: Embed from Getty Images