Executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin longs to build some stability in New Orleans, but the team’s moves over the past three years indicate the elusiveness of that coveted franchise attribute. Each of the last two offseasons featured coaching searches, with the latest yielding the Pelicans’ third coach in three seasons in Willie Green to lead a franchise that hasn’t advanced to the postseason since 2018.
It’s tough to blame Zion Williamson given all the upheaval taking place around him with the jettisoning of teammates and coaches over his first two years in the NBA. Three of the four players logging the most minutes around Williamson last season are out in Eric Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball and Steven Adams. In his first season, Green needs to find a way to mesh three new starters with Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
New Orleans completed a three-team trade in August with Memphis and Charlotte that landed them center Jonas Valanciunas and guard Devonte’ Graham, respectively. You can expect Valanciunas to start in Adams’ place at center, but it’s unknown at this point how Green plans to deploy the team’s backcourt combinations. In addition to Graham, the Pels brought in Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky and re-signed Josh Hart for a backcourt that also features holdovers Nickeil Alexander-Walker and 2020 first-round pick Kira Lewis Jr. While defense has been an issue the last two seasons in New Orleans, perhaps the addition of Mike D’Antoni as a coaching advisor helps the Pels develop more punch on offense.
Can Green handle all the pressure he’s likely to be under on multiple fronts? Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen that New Orleans isn’t hesitant to fire coaches quickly. So, Green will be under intense pressure to win as quickly as possible or at least show major improvement across the board over the course of the season. He’ll also be the man charged with striking that delicate balance between coaching Williamson hard to elevate his game to another level, while also working to keep him happy and engaged. Winning takes care of a lot of that. But keep in mind Williamson is eligible next offseason to sign a maximum salary extension. It’s unlikely he’d decline it and take a one-year qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent after his fifth season. But you can never underestimate a player’s desire to consistently play for championships. So, while Green is tasked with coaching the entire team, you can bet he’ll direct a good portion of his efforts toward ensuring Williamson sticks around for the long haul.
Green says the Pelicans remind him of his time as an assistant coach at Phoenix, which is coming off an NBA Finals appearance, adding that the team is “really close to taking the next step.” It’s Green’s job to make sure that happens, and his track record as an assistant with the Suns and the Golden State Warriors indicates he’s capable of taking New Orleans to the next level. The Pelicans likely will be in contention for a spot in the Play-In Tournament. Predicted finish: 38-44.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Devonte’ Graham: 3-point numbers should improve with better looks created by Williamson and Ingram.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker: Looked promising in 13 starts last season, and offseason departures give him a real chance to crack starting lineup.
Brandon Ingram: One of the league’s most unstoppable wing scorers, Ingram needs to show more commitment on the defensive end.
Zion Williamson: Already a versatile All-Star talent offensively capable of creating, Williamson, like Ingram, can elevate his game another notch with more focus on defense.
Jonas Valanciunas: Fresh off a career season in Memphis, Valanciunas represents an offensive upgrade over Steven Adams.
Josh Hart: Versatile defender is working to improve his 3-point shot and will compete with Alexander-Walker for the starting nod.
Trey Murphy III: The 17th pick of the 2021 draft, Murphy was named All-NBA Summer League First Team.
Naji Marshall: A G League success story, Marshall is ready for a larger role after playing in each of the Pelicans’ last 25 games last season.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Pelicans have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
20.3 — Zion Williamson’s 20.3 points in the paint per game last season were the highest average for any player in the last 21 years (since Shaquille O’Neal averaged 22.5 in 1999-00). Williamson’s 22.0 points in the paint per 36 minutes were the most for any player in the 25 years for which points in the paint have been tracked, with his 21.7 per 36 as a rookie being the second most.
— John Schuhmann
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