First half summary: Inconsistency highlights the first half story for this young, talented team still trying to find its way in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. One night, you see the Pelicans slaying the league’s giants; dominating the NBA’s best rim-protecting squads such as Utah by erupting for 74 points in the paint. They’ll best expected playoff teams like Phoenix, Milwaukee and Boston … only to fall flat against the last-place Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s baffling and frustrating for the young squad, and its new coach Stan Van Gundy.
“I feel like we’re almost there,” second-year star Zion Williamson said on Feb. 27, after a 117-114 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. “There’s that final few things we need to figure out, but we’re almost there.” Losing nine of 13 games in January dropped New Orleans into a hole, only for it to deepen when the Pelicans lost seven of 10 from Feb. 10-27. Defending the 3-pointer has been one of New Orleans’ most glaring issues all season, but the Pelicans improved recently in that area by making some tweaks to pick-and-roll coverage. Will it hold? New Orleans remains optimistic. The Pelicans ranked sixth in offensive rating (115.8) through their first 34 games. So, there’s no question they can score. But being No. 28 in defensive rating (116.1) over the same span has to be frustrating for a defensive-minded coach like Van Gundy.
Biggest question going into the second half: Will New Orleans achieve a modicum of consistency? It’s a fair question to ponder based off what we’ve seen so far. The young Pelicans are one of the league’s most talented and exciting teams, but from night to night you never know which team will show up to the arena. Gifted scorers Williamson and Brandon Ingram combine to average nearly 50 points per game. Williamson and Steven Adams provide a physical edge in the paint. Four of the team’s starters average double figures in scoring, but New Orleans needs to figure out ways to consistently put together stops on defense.
Van Gundy’s track record suggests the Pelicans will be able to fix their defensive woes to transform into one of the NBA’s better teams in that area; or at least middle-of-the-pack. Van Gundy’s teams ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating in nine of his 12 years as a coach in Miami (2003-06), Orlando (2002-12) and Detroit (2014-18), prior to arrival to The Big Easy. Van Gundy has said on multiple occasions that New Orleans possesses enough talent to defeat anybody in the NBA, but he also adds his team makes too many mistakes and lacks consistency on defense.
Playoffs or lottery?: As the Pelicans work through issues with inconsistency, most of the teams above them in the standings (perhaps with the exception of Memphis) have already found solid footing. New Orleans figures to compete for a berth in the play-in tournament; especially when you factor in all the potential hurdles ahead in the second half of the season awaiting every team in the West. The concern is whether New Orleans can gain enough ground on the rest of the field.
The Pelicans will improve in the second half — it’s almost guaranteed. They’re young, hungry and gaining more confidence with every victory against quality opponents. It’s clear New Orleans is committed to returning to the playoffs as soon as possible. But it appears the first postseason berth since 2017-18 will have to wait. New Orleans is likely headed back to the lottery, where it will have another shot at adding to an already immensely talented pool of players. Remember, the Pelicans have already stockpiled plenty of assets from the trades of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. That should give New Orleans plenty of ammo to build around young stars Williamson and Ingram.
— Michael C. Wright