Just 3 games into the NBA season the Pelicans have shown flashes of how good they can be. After the loss of DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo this offseason, many people doubted if the Pelicans would even make the playoffs in the loaded west. Now, they have a 3-0 record including a blowout against the Rockets. Throughout this stretch, Anthony Davis has looked like an MVP candidate and Nikola Mirotic has been on fire. But, the real question remains: Can they compete in the West?
Pelicans: Contenders or Pretenders?
While it’s unlikely they can topple the Warriors’ super team, New Orleans has played as well as anybody else in the NBA. This season the Pelicans are playing at an extremely fast pace, currently 4th in the NBA. Their pace has led to 21 fastbreak points a game (up 6 ppg from last season) and the number 1 offense in the NBA. That’s right. New Orleans currently has the #1 rated offense after torching the Rockets for 132 and the Kings for 149. The leaders of this offensive assault have been Anthony Davis (30 PPG) and Nikola Mirotic (28 PPG). The problem with their fast pace offense is it might not be sustainable.
Last night against the Clippers, Anthony Davis looked very fatigued by the end of the game. He still played well because he’s Anthony Davis, but his defensive intensity and willingness to sprint down the court weren’t there. Additionally, Jrue Holiday has not been able to adapt to the new pace and his play has suffered. After a career year scoring 19 points a game on 49/33/79 splits and an amazing playoff run, Holiday hasn’t looked like himself. He has scored just 11 points a game on horrendous 31/0/75 splits. His 3 point shooting has been so bad he has made 0 threes on 3.7 attempts per game. Even though they have been winning without him they will need him to step up once Mirotic inevitably stops scoring 30 points a game.
Even without Holiday playing well the Pelicans have been fine on offense, but defense may be a problem. Currently, they rank 17th in defensive rating. Not many teams reach the conference finals with below league-average defense. Davis is still a great rim protector, averaging 3.3 blocks so far, but the perimeter defense is very questionable. Opposing teams are averaging the 6th highest amount of 3 pointers made against the Pelicans. The perimeter players are allowing dribble penetration much too easily, leading to open threes. This can’t be much of a surprise when Elfrid Payton, E’twaun Moore, Darius Miller, and Ian Clark all play significant minutes at the guard spots.
Last season this team wasn’t great defensively either, but they managed to pull out gritty games. They had a +1.3 win margin, which is extremely low for a 48-win team. This team will always play hard which should help them lock up a playoff spot. But, this season they probably aren’t true contenders in the West. Luckily, Davis is only 25 and may be the best player in the NBA in a couple of years. If the Pelicans’ front office builds around him properly, this team should be a threat to win it all.