Pelicans New Year’s resolutions for 2018

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

The 16th season in New Orleans franchise history has been a mixed bag, featuring several team and individual highlights and a competitive record, but also a nagging feeling that some golden opportunities for the Pelicans to better their situation have been missed. As a result, New Orleans is at exactly .500 as the calendar flips to 2018 and holding on to top-eight status in the Western Conference. The good news is that there are three-plus months remaining in the regular season, plenty of time to achieve many of the team’s primary objectives, including a return to late-April basketball. With that in mind, here are a few important resolutions for the Pelicans to make in the new year:

Improve defensively.

There’s a reason this item is No. 1 on the checklist for ’18. New Orleans has been spectacular on offense in recent weeks, including ranking second in the NBA in offensive efficiency in December, at 113.0 points per 100 possessions (only Houston was better in December at 113.9). Yet the Pelicans couldn’t fully capitalize on that high-octane production because they were second-worst in the league in defensive efficiency last month (110.6 points per 100 possessions). As a result, New Orleans went just 7-8, after going 8-6 in November. For the Pelicans to become a more consistent team – their longest winning streak this season is three games – they must get stingier defensively. Playing cleaner basketball at the other end of the floor will help in this area – New Orleans is giving up too many points off miscues and ranked 25th in the NBA in December by committing 14.7 turnovers per game.

Gain some breathing room in a bid to return to the playoffs.

The last time New Orleans reached the postseason, in 2015, it clinched a berth after a neck-and-neck, dramatic, nerve-wracking race for eighth with Oklahoma City that wasn’t decided until the final night of the regular season. While that was fun and may have been good for ratings, the Pelicans would prefer not having to sweat out qualifying for the playoffs this spring. At times in recent weeks it appeared that New Orleans (18-18) might not only be able to build a cushion on fellow postseason hopefuls such as the Clippers (16-19) and Utah (16-21), but also potentially move up the Western Conference ladder. Instead, the eighth-place Pelicans have continued to tread water around the .500 mark. Teams like Oklahoma City (20-17), Denver (19-17) and Portland (18-17) remain within immediate range, but New Orleans must pick up wins during an early-January stretch that includes just two home dates out of the next eight games. 

Protect homecourt.

One of the most baffling aspects of the Pelicans’ season to date has been their relative lack of effectiveness in the Smoothie King Center. New Orleans is exactly 9-9 at home and on the road, one of only six NBA teams who do not have more home wins than away victories (Portland is the only other such squad currently in the top eight of the West standings). There has also been very little rhyme or reason to the team’s outcomes in Louisiana so far, with home wins coming over plus-.500 teams San Antonio, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City and Denver, but losses to Orlando, Sacramento and Dallas. The Magic, Kings and Mavericks sport three of the NBA’s six worst current winning percentages overall. This month’s home schedule provides plenty of tests against teams with losing records in ’17-18, including Memphis, Chicago, the Clippers and Sacramento coming to NOLA, all between Jan. 20-30.

Keep knocking down threes.

The way New Orleans shot three-pointers in December is probably a bit unsustainable (led NBA by a wide margin at 43.2 percent, next-best was Cleveland at 40.1). In the final two games of the month, the Pelicans shot 8/31 and 6/26 vs. Dallas and New York, respectively, dropping the team’s monthly percentage by a few points. Still, at nearly the halfway point of the 82-game season, several Pelicans have established themselves as feared threats from the perimeter, led by E’Twaun Moore’s 46.8 percent rate, third in the NBA behind rookie Jayson Tatum and Nikola Mirotic. Darius Miller has been a revelation in his return to the NBA after a stint in Germany, sinking 44.0 percent of his three-point attempts (tied for 10th in NBA with Tobias Harris). Jrue Holiday started the season poorly in this category but shot 42.5 percent in December, while Anthony Davis is shooting a career-high 36.7 percent and reserve guard Jameer Nelson (37.5) gives New Orleans another rotation player who’s enjoying an above-average year from beyond the arc. As a team, the Pelicans are shooting 38.1 percent on treys this season, sixth in the NBA, a big reason New Orleans is also the NBA’s sixth-best offensive club (108.6 points per possession, via NBA.com), after a 26th-place finish (103.3 rating) last season.