Through 26 games the best team in the NBA’s Western Conference are your New Orleans Pelicans. Yes, you read that correctly. The team that had to make the play-in tournament last year and finished 10 games below .500 is the best team in the West ,and they are legitimate title contenders.
You are probably asking yourself, what kind of sorcery or voodoo magic have they conjured up to make such a drastic turnaround? No magic, just very good to excellent players being healthy and believing that they are the best.
Elite Offense And Defense
The popular Twitter account stat muse uses regular offensive and defensive ratings in their stats. By that metric the Pelicans are the only team in the NBA on the top five in offense and defense.
The only team that is top 5 in offense and defense. pic.twitter.com/Zir2DIdIUZ
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 12, 2022
We like dunks and threes aORTG and aDRTG. By that metric the Pelicans are sixth on offense and third on defense. Still elite and the only team in the top six on both sides of the floor.
Zion Williamson, Jose Alvarado, and Herb Jones lead an aggressive squad defensively who get steals and defend without fouling.
On offense they score most of their points in the paint and midrange. They attempt the third-fewest threes per game but shoot it at almost 37 percent, top 10 in the league.
Injuries are going to happen in the slog of an 82-game regular season. The teams with the best depth have the ability to weather the storm of a top player being out.
Last season the Pelicans were 12-22 the day after Christmas. They played .500 basketball the rest of the way. Remember, they were without Zion all season, and McCollum didn’t join them until after the trade deadline.
That meant a lot of playing time and development for Jones, Alvarado, and Devonte Graham.
Jose Alvarado isn’t a gimmick, he’s a legitimately terrorizing perimeter presence. Relentless ball-pressure, elite impact stats, 50.0% on corner 3s, gets an assist on 16.1% of his drives (94th percentile), and a legit finisher
One of the best backup point guards in the game… pic.twitter.com/IJT8flLDiA
— NBA University (@NBA_University) December 10, 2022
After last season’s play-in tournament win and run to the playoffs, where they pushed the top seed Phoenix Suns to six games, this team gained valuable experience and reference points.
It also created a culture where anyone who head coach Willie Green puts on the floor believes he has the confidence to contribute.
You’re seeing that this year with Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall, and rookie Dyson Daniels, who is already an elite defender.
While the Pelicans are an excellent team, they are devoid of proven playoff performers on their roster. Last year’s series against the Suns was fun and as mentioned a huge reference point. But it’s one series with this group, and Zion didn’t play.
History tells us that young teams with limited playoff experience don’t tend to win championships.
But the Pelicans are in a position to be a major player at the trade deadline as a result of the draft pick haul they received in deals for Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. The only other contender that has draft capital to make significant moves is the Memphis Grizzlies.
So, to recap, the Pelicans own all their own future picks, a right to swap with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2023, an unprotected Lakers pick in 2024 or 2025 and an unprotected first from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2027.
Add that to the young talent they have and they can easily make a move for an All-Star-caliber wing player.
They may not want to part with Murphy III, Jones, Daniels or ANY of their young talent. But they have the option.
Zion Williamson Putting Up Numbers
The Pelicans are 9-1 in their last 10 and winners of seven straight and Zion has been a monster over the past seven games. By now you know we don’t rest our hat on counting stats here, but they have been impressive.
Zion in the Pels 7 game winning streak:
35 PTS | 8 REB
35 PTS | 7 REB
29 PTS | 10 REB
25 PTS | 6 REB
30 PTS | 15 REB
33 PTS | 10 REB
23 PTS | 8 REB
MVP candidate? pic.twitter.com/m5EJmLdGTI
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 11, 2022
Zion ranks in the 97th percentile in EPM at +5.3. He remains elite offensively as he has in every season he’s been a pro. But for the first time he’s making a huge impact defensively. He ranks in the 93rd percentile in defensive EPM. He’s defensive rebounding at a higher rate and taking the ball off the glass and pushing the pace, initiating the team’s offense.
“Point Zion” is unlocking his game and the team’s offense like never before and his assist percentage is the highest of his career.
The San Antonio Spurs’ legendary head coach Gregg Popovich once said about Kawhi Leonard that the game unlocked for him once he understood that a play design wasn’t necessarily for him to score, but for the team to score.
Zion is all about the team scoring, which naturally makes it easier for him to score.
"That was a little out of character for me. But you gotta understand … They sent my teammates home last year.”
Zion speaks on his late 360 windmill dunk during the Pelicans-Suns game. He kept receipts ✍️ pic.twitter.com/OmLHkDBnTt
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 10, 2022
“It’s A Vibe All The Time”
At the beginning of the season Pelicans assistant coaches Corey Brewer and Ryan Pannone told The Shadow League how excited they were about this team. It wasn’t your typical “first day of school” rhetoric you get from NBA coaches. There was a light in their eyes and they raved about the team’s collective competitiveness and how elite their team scrimmages had been during training camp.
So far all of that has translated into excellent play and great vibes.
Chemistry and vibes are a tenuous thing in the NBA. All it takes is a three-game losing streak or some other storm and the strength of those vibes will be tested. So far the Pelicans seem up to the challenge.