New Orleans Pelicans Looking Like Serious Contender in 10-Game Win Streak
By: Peter Egan
The New Orleans Pelicans are in unfamiliar territory. The perennially mediocre Western Conference NBA franchise is typically trying to make up ground in order just to make the playoffs around this time of the season. For much of the season, it looked like the Pels ceiling was 7th place in the West, and would have surprised no one had they finished in 10th place.
Even while they had a winning record at the time, the loss of DeMarcus Cousins sparked a downturn that saw the Pelicans fall to the 9th place position. However a free agent signing of a long-retired center and a blockbuster trade that brought the diverse Nikola Mirotic to New Orleans. After a five or six games, the Pels had lost the majority of games since the trade. Then the newly acquired players began to gel with guards Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, Ian Clark and E’Twuan Moore, not to mention Anthony Davis and 3-point specialist Darius Miller (acquired from Europe in the offseason).
Since the team became familiar with one another, they’ve looked unbeatable. They seem unbeatable, having won 10 consecutive games, a streak second only to the West’s First-Place team, the Houston Rockets, who have won 17 in a row. During that time period, the Pels have moved from 9th place in the NBA’s Western Conference to 4th, and are only 1/2-game out of third place. The team now sits at 12 games over .500 at 38-26, well on pace to top their record the last time the team made the playoffs. That would be the ’14-’15 season, in Monty Williams’ final season as coach, when the team went 45-37 during the regular season, nearly upsetting the Spurs in the opening round of the playoffs. Had they won that game, who knows how the series would have played out, as the Pelicans traditionally play the Spurs tough.
Anthony Davis has been putting up historic numbers since Cousins’ injury, and the Pelicans appear to have figured out a way to win close games that are decided in the final few minutes.
They also appear to have shaken their 3rd quarter woes, which have been well-documented. The Pels probably have an extra 3-4 wins had it not been for atrocious third quarters in which they blew a big halftime lead, and several close games would have never been in doubt.
In their most recent outing, a 114-101 road win over the Sacramento Kings, the Pels played the Kings to an even 23 apiece in the 3rd frame after building an 18-point halftime lead. Similarly, in their previous game before that they played the Los Angeles Clippers to a 30-30 tie in the third after the Pelicans built a 15 point halftime lead. In their win 126-109 win at Dallas, the Pels only game up 3 net points in the 3rd after building a 16 point halftime lead. The Pelicans actually outscored the San Antonio Spurs by 1 in the 3rd after San Antonio led by 9 at the break in their 121-116 loss to New Orleans.
Should the Pelicans continue this level of play through the remainder of the regular season, with 18 games remaining, the Pelicans could realistically have the conference’s best record aside from Golden State and Houston. If they revert back to their typical form since the franchise was re-branded from the Hornets to the Pelicans, they could just as possibly get edged out for the 8th and final playoff spot. As of March 08, 2018 at 7:20 pm, a grand total of 4 games separate the would-be #3 playoff seed from the #8 seed. Two additional teams (Nuggets & Jazz) are within 1/2 game of being tied with the Clippers for 8th place in the Conference.
While James Harden will likely win the NBA’s MVP award for the season, a strong case can be made for Pelicans forward Anthony Davis. During the month of February, Davis averaged 35 points, 13 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.2 blocked shots and 2.5 steals per game, averaging 37.8 minutes per game for the month. For the season Davis is averaging 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.5 steals per game in 36.5 minutes.
Holiday has been playing much more aggressively lately, something the Pels need to happen if they are to have success short-term or long with the amount of money they committed to Holiday. Mirovic can score in a myriad of ways, can defend multiple positions and shoots the 3 at a high clip, even with DeMarcus Cousins out for the remainder of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, the Pels have plenty of firepower and there’s a legitimate debate as to whether they’re a better team in general without the superstar center.
My personal hope is that the Pelicans do re-sign Cousins in the offseason, providing the Pelicans with the most dominant front-court in the NBA. I like the idea of having at least one of the two in the game at all times, and I think the improvement as a team the Pelicans have experienced since the All-Star Break would have happened anyway had Boogie been present. Those two with Rondo and Holiday as your starting guards and Mirotic at the wing (3, small forward… whatever you want to call it) is as formidable a lineup as any. That lineup, especially with guys like Ian Clark and E’Tuan Moore coming off the bench (both shoot better than Rondo fro outside), all the team lacks is depth. They need another good wing player (perhaps Solomon Hill when he returns from injury) and another big (Okafor works if he can maintain the level of play he’s provided since coming out of retirement to play for Alvin Gentry’s Pelicans, provided he wants to play another season). Cheick Diallo, while he still needs to add weight, has looked very promising as an up-and-coming young player with lots of upside. Diallo recorded 13 points and 15 rebounds in the Pels’ recent win over Dallas.
This is a Pelicans team missing one of the best players in the league and arguably the league’s best at his position to injury has played their way to hosting a playoff series if the season ended today. This is a team that at 28-26, and in 9th place in the West looked like the least likely team of the ten in contention to secure one of the top 8 spots and allow the season to continue.
Perhaps the most impressive detail about this ten-game winning streak is that seven of the ten games have been played on the road, and the Pels have played some good teams during the streak, such as the Bucks, Spurs and Clippers – all appear to be playoff-bound and all three games were on the road.
At 38-26, having won ten in a row, the Pels’ next three games are winnable, at home against Washington, Utah and Charlotte. Following that are the three games that may tell us more about this Pelicans team than any they’ve played so far. The team has to go back to San Antonio and play the Spurs again, this time with a presumably healthier lineup. They then come home for games against the league-leading Rockets and one of the best teams from the Eastern Conference in the Boston Celtics.
If the Pels can figure out how to go 4-2 in those six games, I would wager that barring a major injury, the New Orleans Pelicans are going to host a playoff series this season.
If they’re good enough as built to get the 3rd or 4th seed in the West without Cousins, I think that assuming he makes a full recovery and re-signs, this team will be every bit as dangerous a title contender as the Warriors and Rockets are this year. I think this year they definitely make the playoffs, perhaps win a series, then bow out when matched up with Golden State or Houston. I think next season, the Pelicans – as constructed plus Cousins, are a legitimate title contender.
The NBA’s next “super team” may well be the New Orleans Pelicans. I think next year they’ll be a legitimate title contender that can use it’s strengths to dictate style and tempo, leveling the playing field between themselves and teams like the Rockets and Warriors.