Pelicans believe they’re ‘close’ to making leap, have options via lottery, future draft picks

The end-of-season NBA standings always provide indisputable clarity on how each of the league’s 30 teams performed, featuring two straightforward columns listing wins and losses. For the New Orleans Pelicans, the left-side number of 31 was not enough to reach the Western Conference postseason, marking the club’s inability to achieve a primary goal.

However, a few details from the Pelicans’ just-completed 2020-21 campaign illustrate why David Griffin expressed optimism Monday about the team’s outlook for next season. Over the 72-game schedule, New Orleans flashed excellence at both ends of the floor - but rarely at the same time. The Pelicans were good enough to beat all but one member of the Western Conference’s top 10 at least once – but inconsistent enough to lose multiple games to teams at the bottom of the West. New Orleans’ talent was demonstrated by its ability to build double-digit leads – but its youth and erratic late-game execution meant losing a league-most 14 times when ahead by 10-plus points. In addition, as Griffin pointed out Monday, the Pelicans were a frustrating 3-10 in games decided by three points or less (also 2-4 in overtime).

“Those are things that you cannot do to be a winning basketball team,” Griffin said. “There are reasons for that. We are a young, developing team. We had players who, while they have incredible talent, we don’t have the winning mettle yet. And we know that to some degree. We know that this is a process and that it takes time.”

Perhaps no NBA team during the 2020-21 regular season so often demonstrated the thin margin between winning and losing as New Orleans. As Griffin noted, the Pelicans had 13 games decided by one possession, but they also played in 39 “clutch games,” going 17-22 in those instances (via NBA.com). While sustaining several excruciating losses in the second half of the season, the team tried to stay positive, something head coach Stan Van Gundy recognized as important.

“I think Stan did a very good job throughout the season of explaining to guys, ‘Look, we’re very close,’ ” Griffin said. “And we were very, very close. In those games we lost and leads we blew, we were right there at the end of those games. The reason we didn’t win those games is because we have not evolved enough as young players and as a young team to the point where we make winning basketball plays regularly.

“But (Pelicans players) know how talented they are. Our team could smell how close we were. Before all of the injuries, I think our team really believed we were going to achieve what we wanted to, which was to go into the postseason and be a threat to continue in the postseason. Our team knows we’re close. I think when you speak to many of them, Brandon (Ingram) and Zion (Williamson) included, there’s a great deal of confidence in themselves.”

As a team with one of the youngest core groups in the NBA, New Orleans will partly look for internal development to foster improvement next season, but the Pelicans also now possess a valuable asset in the form of a 2021 lottery pick. Exactly where that pick lands in the first round will be determined at the June 22 lottery drawing, but regardless of position, it could provide New Orleans with a path to upgrading the roster. The Pelicans also own numerous future draft picks from the Lakers and Milwaukee, the result of trades involving Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.

“There are issues related to the fit of the pieces that we’ll be able to address,” Griffin said, alluding to imperfect roster cohesiveness in 2020-21. “Perhaps some of that will be (addressed by) this draft pick. Perhaps our draft pick will go to work for us in finding another veteran piece who has more of that winning mettle. We’re in a situation where there is a world of optionality available to us.

“The pick assets we have give us incredible flexibility. And because we have a young group where most of them are on rookie-scale (contracts) – and other players we’re very high on, we’ve secured for multiple years at affordable numbers – we’ll be able to be aggressive if the right fit exists for us. I think you could see us do virtually anything in that space.”