NBA Season Preview: New Orleans Pelicans

2019-20 Regular Season Record: 30-42 (.417%), 13th in Western Conference, Missed Playoffs
Head Coach: Alvin Gentry

Injuries played their part in the Pelicans 2019-20 season, as Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram all missed at least 8 games in the season. Even though he was spectacular, Zion Williamson only played 24 games in his rookie year and was on a minutes restriction when he did play – which hurt his opportunity to win Rookie of the Year. Following an awful 7-23 start, the Pelicans started to heat up, going 21-13 all the way up to the COVID-forced break, reaching the 10th seed in the West. The good stretch of play earned the Pelicans a chance in the bubble, but they were unable to hit their stride and went 2-6, which dropped them down to 13th place in the West. They followed their early exit by dismissing Alvin Gentry after five years of service in New Orleans and officially started looking to the future.

Zion Williamson

Year 2 of the Zion Williamson era will get under way with tons of hype, and justifiably so. Zion announced his entrance in his 1st NBA game with a bang - scoring 17 straight points in the 4th quarter - and never looked back. If he had been healthy enough to play all year, odds are Zion would have won Rookie of the Year over Ja Morant. He averaged 22.5 ppg on 58.3% shooting, adding 6.3 rpg and 2.1 apg on a tight minutes restriction – 27.8 mpg. He lit up the highlight reels night after night and if he can stay healthy, he will be one of the most exciting players in the NBA for years to come. The big question of course is not about his highlights. What can Zion do to get better and help his team win? He will no doubt have to continue his shooting improvement – both from the free throw line (64.0% on 7.4 attempts per game) and from 3-point land (42.9% on a small sample size, 6/14). Extending his range will only open up more opportunities to drive to the bucket and use his impressive frame and athletic ability to attack the rim. While the internet has been overly harsh on him regarding his body, he does have to improve his conditioning so that he can get north of 30 minutes per game and be an effective player in crunch time. Year 2 should see significant strides for Zion – look for him to dominate games and be the imposing player on the floor.

Can Brandon Ingram Back up his MIP Season?

Due to Zion missing the first 44 games of the regular season, there was plenty of opportunity to shine in New Orleans, which is exactly what Brandon Ingram did. Ingram balled out all year and won NBA Most Improved Player by averaging 23.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.2 apg on 39.1% 3-point shooting (on 6.2 attempts per game) and an overall FG 46.3%. Now that Ingram has proven his ability to score the ball, can he take his game to the next level by becoming a secondary playmaker to Lonzo Ball? His 4.2 apg were a career-high, and there’s no reason to think he can’t jump it up to 5.5-6.0 apg, and if he can improve his efficiency from the floor Ingram can make the jump from MIP to a star player. Defensively, Ingram needs to become a tougher defender on the wing and be more versatile defending multiple positions. With Zion, Ball and Ingram the Pelicans are setup for success for years to come. 

Stan Van Gundy

"You’re not punking the New Orelans Pelicans… Ever!"
Needless to say, Stan Van Gundy is pretty jacked about having Zion Williamson and new addition Steven Adams as a front court duo. In Van Gundy’s 12 years as a head coach in the NBA – Miami (2003-06), Orlando (2007-12) and Detroit (2014-18) – his teams have finished top 10 in defensive rating nine times. The Pelicans need help in that department, as they finished last season 21st in defensive rating (118.8) and 28th in both opponents points in the paint and fast break points. Van Gundy’s focus is clearly on the defensive end of the floor, and he has four areas of improvement: 
  1. Getting back in transition
  2. Keep the ball out of the paint
  3. Cut fouls down
  4. Better defensive rebounding
The new coach will be able to get the best out of Lonzo Ball, allowing him to be his creative, expressive self on the basketball court, but also make sure he isn't too wild. He should also be able to set Lonzo loose on the defensive side of the ball - look for Lonzo to creep towards 2.0 spg. 

Tom's Take: The Pelicans will work their way into the seeding games, gaining valuable experience along the way. 

Photo Credit: Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire