“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Right now, the New Orleans Pelicans are desperately trying not to fail their history class, although it already seems to some fans as though they are repeating history. In 2012, with the number one overall pick, the Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis from the University of Kentucky, as he was easily considered the best player in his class, and was a generational power forward. After multiple years fed-up with New Orleans, Davis eventually demanded a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, moved there, and won a ring.
Fast forward seven years, and in 2019, with the number one overall pick, the Pelicans picked another player who had an amazing one-and-done season at a blue-blood college, knowing he was the best pick in the draft and a generational-type talent. While he hasn’t demanded a trade, it’s Zion Williamson‘s third year in the league, not his seventh (it’s also worth noting that Davis and Williamson lost the Rookie of the Year Award to upstart point guards from small colleges, Damian Lillard and Ja Morant). As you can see, New Orleans is repeating itself, and this year is crucial to sending a message to Williamson, and showing that the Pelicans are going to be contenders, and not lottery bound for the next four years. Let’s dive right in to what New Orleans can realistically expect from its team this year.
The Pelicans made a few moves this offseason, and had a few signings come close… but ultimately never fall through. The Pelicans let Lonzo Ball go in a sign-and-trade to the Bulls, and in exchange received Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky, a 2024 second-round pick, and some cash. No GM would have normally made this move unless they were forced to, but the Pelicans front office did this because they believed that they were going to receive a much better point guard later during the summer… 7-time All-Star Kyle Lowry! If this move happened, it would have been amazing for the Pelicans and amazing for the team… but he went to Miami, teaming up with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo, and head coach Pat Riley. Lowry coming to the Pelicans was a huge part of their offseason plan, and it really crushed them when he was traded elsewhere. For now, the starting point guard will be Devonte’ Graham.
Believe it or not, the Pelicans have some of the worst depth in the entire NBA this season. At point guard, they have Graham, Satoransky, and Kira Lewis Jr. At shooting guard, they have Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada, and three guys who are on two-way contracts. At small forward, they have Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Garrett Temple, Naji Marshall, and another player on a two-way contract. At power forward, they have Zion Williamson and Wenyen Gabriel. Lastly, at center, the Pelicans have Jonas Valančiūnas, Willy Hernangomez, and Jaxson Hayes.
There are a few very concerning things to me about this depth chart. For one, there is only one other “true” power forward on the team (Gabriel), and he only played 21 games last season. Is Williamson’s body ready to fully handle the stress of the NBA (probably)? The shooting guard spot is near abysmal in terms of depth, and for those that didn’t know, Hayes was arrested this offseason on suspicion of resisting arrest. The Pelicans roster only has 13 players for this upcoming season, many of which haven’t played real minutes in the NBA.
However, there are a few bright spots on such a bleak roster. The Pelicans acquired Graham, who didn’t have a chance to shine with the Charlotte Hornets, playing behind LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. Many have called him underrated and this season could be a coming-out party for him.
The Valančiūnas trade was also a great move for the Pelicans, as he has entered his prime and is a much better center then Steven Adams. Last year, Valančiūnas averaged 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds on 59.2% shooting for the Memphis Grizzlies, which is amazing. He’s 28 years old, so he still has 2-3 more seasons in his prime before he (likely) begins to fall off. Valančiūnas can solidify the paint, but the one argument you could make against him is that he simply doesn’t shoot threes. He and Williamson are going to have an interesting time working out floor spacing; or maybe their head coach will.
As New Orleans gets more and more desperate to make Williamson happy, they are firing head coaches and bringing new ones in. After 2020, the Pelicans fired Alvin Gentry, and replaced him with Stan Van Gundy. After a single season in which Van Gundy did not meet expectations (the team went 31-41 and finished as the 11th seed in the Western Conference), he was fired. One season? This shows the kind of agenda the Pelicans have, and that to an extent, they are not thinking clearly. It is incredibly rare for rookie head coaches to coach a winning team and build a winning environment in only their first year with the team. Among 17 rookie head coaches in the past five years, only four have had winning records in their first year coaching: Nick Nurse (who came to a contender and helped lead the Raptors to a championship), Steve Nash (who joined a super team in the Nets), Joe Prunty (who joined a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, and was also the interim after Jason Kidd was fired), and David Fizdale of the Grizzlies. Willie Green, a former NBA player, has been an assistant coach for both the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns, but this is his first job as a head coach. If the Pelicans don’t give their coaches time to get to know the roster and find out what will help the team succeed, then they will never reach the lofty goals they have set for themselves.
Brandon Ingram has been a consistent 23 point per game scorer for the Pelicans, although his numbers did drop off a little bit in 2020-21 from 2019-20 when he was an All-Star. Believe it or not, his 23.8 points per game are the most ever points per game averaged in franchise history, with the second being Davis’ 23.7 points per game. His defensive game does need some work, and at this point in time, I don’t see Ingram as the second option on a playoff team. However, one of the Pelicans’ biggest problems are the never fading rumors that Williamson will leave the franchise as soon as he’s eligible to.
The fact that one family member of Williamson’s said that they don’t like Zion playing for the Pelicans, stirring up weeks of rumors and controversy, shows just how important Williamson is to the franchise, and what it would mean if he left. A similar thing happened when Williamson said that he “loves” playing in Madison Square Garden. These are off-hand comments, but everyone treats them as though it means he will be traded or leave in the offseason! If the Pelicans can persevere through this and keep Williamson happy, then that will be great, because I believe they can be contenders this year… for the play-in.
For the upcoming season, I predict the Pelicans will win between 30-35 games, assuming they don’t make any big trades (such as for Ben Simmons or Kristaps Porzingis). While I wish the Pelicans would be able to do more, given their lack of a supporting core around Williamson, and how stacked teams in the west are, I think it’s unreasonable to expect more. Even among the teams that may end up making the play-in, there is the Memphis Grizzlies with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, Jr, the Portland Trail Blazers with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as teams like the Jazz with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that have the potential to fall that low. I wish them success, but realistically, if they could make the play-in and even be the 10th seed, I’d be impressed.
How many games do you think the Pelicans will win this year? Let me know in the comments below, as well as any other teams you want me to preview, don’t forget to follow the NBA Blog, and as always, have an awesome day!