Are the New Orleans Pelicans finally ready to ascend up the
Western Conference standings?
With an enticing young core led by Zion Williamson, who’s on the
brink of superstardom (if he’s not there already), New Orleans
could easily become this season's surprise breakout team. In
addition to Williamson’s freakish talents, New Orleans has Brandon
Ingram, who made his own leap to near-star status after the
Pelicans acquired him as the centerpiece of the Anthony Davis
Williamson and Ingram form a terrific one-two punch and they
should have the Pelicans competing for a playoff spot. However, put
quite simply, New Orleans hasn't been able to construct a roster
around their young duo that is best suited to their strengths. With
a lack of spacing – a death sentence in today’s NBA – the Pelicans
clipped their wings and were unable to fly towards legitimacy.
Also, last season, the coaches didn't connect with the young core.
Stan Van Gundy was a fun idea on the surface, but his old-school
ways didn’t fit with the Pelicans’ roster and there was reportedly tension behind the scenes.
That’s why hiring former Phoenix Suns lead assistant Willie Green
as their new head coach is significant.
Green was an integral piece to the Suns’ puzzle over the last
two seasons, serving as head coach Monty Williams’ right-hand man.
The former NBA veteran was tasked with running Phoenix’s defense
and helping as a primary player development assistant. Green
thrived in both roles, helping the Suns go from a completely
undisciplined squad on the defensive end to one of the NBA's best
with the flip of a switch.
Meanwhile, key pieces of the Suns’ young core such as Deandre
Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson improved their all-around
games under Green’s tutelage. Even NBA castaway Cameron Payne
revived his professional-basketball
career in the Valley after joining the Suns right before the
Bubble. Now, given what the team needs from their new head coach,
Green and the Pelicans are a perfect match. Not only will Green
have New Orleans’ key players hustling on both ends (and likely
improving their 23rd-ranked defense), he'll be able to connect with
the young core and help them reach their full potential while also
providing a calm, relaxing presence since he's seen just about
everything at the NBA level.
While Green seems like a perfect solution to the Pelicans’
on-court issues from a schematics standpoint, how did GM David
Griffin do from a roster-construction perspective? Acquiring Eric
Bledsoe and Steven Adams last offseason was a mistake, but Griffin
seemingly owned up to that by sending them packing this summer in a
trade with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Although the Pelicans gave up the No. 10 pick in the 2021 NBA
Draft (which became Ziaire Williams) in the deal, they only moved
down seven spots and obtained Jonas Valanciunas to replace Adams.
And with the No. 17 pick, New Orleans selected sharpshooting wing
Trey Murphy III, who's widely regarded as one of the most
high-character, NBA-ready prospects in the entire draft and
exactly what the Pelicans
needed. Valanciunas is a smoother fit next to Wililamson
compared to Adams since he provides a bit of extra spacing. While
Adams didn’t have any range (making just one three-pointer
throughout his career), Valanciunas will at least keep defenses
honest at times since he shot 35.8% on 1.1 three-point attempts
over the last two seasons. During NBA Summer League, Murphy showed
that he's already too good for that stage, so he may be poised for
a 20-plus-minute-per-game role right out of the gate in New
The Pelicans’ biggest blow this offseason was losing Lonzo Ball
to the Chicago Bulls in a sign-and-trade that saw them acquire
veteran guards Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple. Ball and New
Orleans were ready to move on from one another, as the former No. 2
overall pick wanted a fresh start and the organization didn’t feel
comfortable paying him over $20 million annually on a new deal.
Valanciunas, Satoransky and Temple will provide veteran leadership
to a young locker room in desperate need of it.
To offset the loss of Ball in the starting lineup, New Orleans
hoped to sign six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, but he opted to join
the Miami Heat. Instead, the Pelicans made their most interesting
offseason move: dealing a future protected first-round pick to the
Charlotte Hornets as part of a sign-and-trade for Devonte’ Graham.
In Charlotte, Graham's ceiling was capped after LaMelo Ball and
Terry Rozier thrived last season and the Hornets drafted James
Bouknight at No. 11. In New Orleans, Graham should slide right in
as a starting guard who provides even more floor-spacing value for
Williamson and Ingram. Graham’s offensive profile is unique and
rather inefficient — 37.6 FG%, 36.4 3PT%, 53.4 TS% — however, he
won’t be asked to do anything but provide a little playmaking and
stay beyond the three-point line.
Last season, Graham’s three-point attempt rate was at 71.3%,
which is well above-average and a significant jump from his 60.7%
rate in 2019-20. If Graham shoots 8-to-10 threes per game at a
near-40% clip, he will have done a fantastic job for the
This offseason, New Orleans' main focus was to ease the scoring
burden for Williamson, who just averaged 27.0 points per game in
his age-20 season. The only players in NBA history to score at
least 27.0 points per game before turning 21 years old are LeBron
James, Luka Doncic and Williamson. That’s legendary,
best-player-in-the-world company for Zion.
And as he began to get even more comfortable in the second half
of the 2020-21 campaign, New Orleans made him a point-forward
and ran the offense through him on every possession. Despite
Williamson’s youth, that’s absolutely the right decision because he
could become a LeBron-esque bully in one-on-one situations driving
towards the rim. Williiamson flashed that potential during his lone
collegiate season at Duke, and he’s already doing this on a regular
basis in the NBA, taking veterans' lunch money in scoring
The Pelicans set out to make Williamson’s job easier, which in
turn should help everyone around him as well. Now, there’s real
potential for Williamson to average around 30.0 points per game
this season, which could lead to some dark-horse MVP discussion if all
goes well for New Orleans and they take the next step as a team.
Add in Ingram’s ascension as one of the best young wings in the NBA
and New Orleans just needs their new additions to play their role
to the best of their abilities in order to climb the standings. If
that occurs, the Pelicans should (at the very least) fight for a
spot in the play-in tournament. And if Williamson makes an even
bigger leap and becomes a top-10 player in the league (which could
actually occur given his insane ceiling), New Orleans could
comfortably make the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Entering the 2021-22 season, here’s a look at the
Pelicans’ projected rotation:
Starters: Devonte’ Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Brandon
Ingram, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas
Reserves: Kira Lewis Jr., Tomas Satoransky, Josh Hart, Trey
Murphy III, Jaxson Hayes
With all the youth New Orleans has added in recent years, this
is a team that is just now turning the corner and cracking open
their contention window. Led by Williamson, who's poised to be one
of the faces of the Association for the next decade-plus, the
Pelicans seem to have aced this offseason after being rightfully
questioned at various points.
By adding the right complementary pieces around their superstar
and hiring Willie Green to help the young core continue their
development, the Pelicans seem to be pushing all of the right