If there’s one thing the NBA has benefited from in the past few years, it’s the installment of a play-in round as an extension of the league’s postseason.
In that strange 2020 bubble experience, we watched the teams that traveled to Orlando duke it out and saw the young Suns nearly sneak into the playoffs after reeling off eight consecutive wins—a run that set them up nicely the following year for a trip to the NBA Finals. Then in 2021, Ja Morant and the youthful Grizzlies stunned the Warriors in a play-in game and used the experience from a first-round loss to Utah as a springboard to finish as a vastly improved No. 2 seed last season.
In a way, those scenarios seem closely related to what we’re seeing now with the first-place Pelicans. Yes, the same Pels who under first-year coach Willie Green last season clawed back from a 1–12 start without Zion Williamson to finish ninth in the West before beating the Clippers in a play-in and seriously pushing a dominant, 64-win Suns club in the first round of the playoffs.
Don’t look now, but New Orleans is on a seven-game win streak, having won nine of its last 10, and holds a half-game lead for the West’s top seed nearly a third of the way through the season. If you’re thinking that seems a bit fluky, you’re misguided. The Pelicans, who knocked off the Suns twice in a row over the weekend, are now 18–8 and the only NBA club that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They sit right behind the Celtics in net rating, blasting foes by an impressive 6.9 points per 100 possessions.
Most impressively, perhaps, is the fact that they’ve done it without being fully healthy. Williamson has been on the court for the most part, for a change. But fellow star Brandon Ingram has missed 11 contests, while second-year wing Herbert Jones, who received a number of All-Defensive Team votes as a rookie (including mine), has missed nine games already.
That they’ve been able to win at this level with those absences—and with Williamson and CJ McCollum missing a combined nine games, too—speaks to how much depth this rotation has. Every player who’s a part of it is flat-out solid. There’s Trey Murphy III, who has a reputation as a shooter (and isn’t too far off from 50-40-90 range at the moment), but looks determined to show he’s just as great a dunker with every hyperathletic slam he throws down. You could make a case that Jonas Valančiūnas is the best rebounder on the planet. Larry Nance Jr. has long been one of the league’s most vital role players and is in the midst of putting up the best shooting numbers of his career by a mile. Jose Alvarado, better known as Grand Theft Alvarado for his backcourt thievery, is tenacious as ever and is also beginning to score in bunches, having logged 38 points and 20 points in separate outings in the last week and a half alone. Naji Marshall is a gritty, do-it-all forward who’s vastly improved at the rim and from behind the arc. And 6’8″ rookie guard Dyson Daniels—recently plugged into the starting five—has shown promise as playmaker and a defender, dicing opponents with his laser vision and disrupting offenses with his length.
Devonte’ Graham, who started 63 games for the team last season, plays just 15 minutes a night. Jaxson Hayes, a 22-year-old big man who shot better than 61% in all three of his previous seasons with the club, doesn’t even see playing time most nights anymore. That’s the depth of this team.
It goes without saying that the Pelicans could eventually opt to cash in on that depth by trading for another star by using rotational pieces and their numerous draft assets from the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday deals. Given how well they’ve done while shorthanded against one of the tougher schedules so far, it seems a decently safe bet that they’ll be a factor in the West in the coming months, perhaps even more so if or when they decide to make a big move.
In terms of how they’ve managed to play this well, so much of it comes back to Williamson. Not only is he finally healthy, but the way coach Green is using him differs from what Williamson’s had in the past. Specifically, while he’s still had the ball in his hands plenty as the guy running the show, Point Zion has often been Center Zion, too. What I mean by that is that Williamson has often been the lone big man on the floor for the Pelicans, as Green lets him play substantial minutes without Valančiūnas on the court. (In fact, 46% of Zion’s minutes this season have been at center, according to Basketball-Reference—an enormous spike from 5% in 2020–21, and 8% as a rookie back in ’19–20.) The alignment allows Williamson more space to roam, both on the ball and when playing away from it, as a cutter who’s barreling downhill toward the basket.
The advanced metrics show just how unstoppable he’s been. He’s created an advantage by compromising the defense on more than 33% of his on-ball opportunities this season, the highest rate in the league among players with 250 such chances, according to SIS Hoops. The metric illustrates how Zion is both shooting better than he ever has from close range while also dishing at the best rate of his young career. Williamson, who averages 25 points on 60.9% shooting and was just named Western Conference Player of the Week, is scoring better than 1.2 points per time he touches the ball in the paint. That’s a really ridiculous number considering that (1) he’s still just 22 years old and (2) he gets a whopping five paint touches per contest.
This isn’t to say there’s nothing for the Pelicans to think about or improve upon. Ingram, Zion and McCollum could use more time together, certainly. For all his otherworldly talent, Williamson, for now, is still seen as a walking injury risk. New Orleans shoots the three ball well but takes relatively few of them, something that may have to change if and when teams get more aggressive about walling off the paint against Williamson in a potential playoff series. (This was part of Milwaukee’s problem when Giannis first became so dominant, and it prompted Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks to transform the team’s roster and playing style.) To that point, the Pels haven’t performed all that well on offense when opponents throw a zone at them, logging one of the five-worst score rates in the league so far, at just 38.5%, per Synergy. Given that clubs have hit only 33.5% of their three-point attempts against New Orleans, it’s fair to assume the Pelicans won’t hold teams to that paltry a figure all season. And though it’s often overlooked at times like this, can the young team remain on the same page, with one agenda, with so many talented players on the roster, particularly with a few out of the rotation entirely?
The questions are all worthwhile ones. Still: for a team that, this time last year, was talked about in the media mostly because of constant speculation about how much longer Williamson would remain in New Orleans, these are incredibly good problems to have. These Pelicans are for real, and with how much talent they have on their shelf—and how much they could eventually trade for—this might be only the beginning of something big for the franchise.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a couple of thoughtful columns and remembrances paying tribute to longtime Sports Illustrated reporter Grant Wahl, who died last week at 49 while covering the World Cup in Qatar. While he was known to the sports world as a preeminent American soccer reporter and the guy who wrote the first big magazine cover story on 17-year-old LeBron James, he was so much more than that to the people at SI who knew and loved him. I wish so much that I’d had a chance to work with him. But recollections from Chris Stone, Richard Deitsch, Jeff Pearlman and Jon Wertheim helped give me an understanding of the sort of man he was: a great one.
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