Late January was probably the first time I looked at the jam-packed Western Conference standings and felt extra excited to watch how it would ultimately shake out. We're now about to reach April, and with 10 days left in the regular season, we're no closer to understanding the playoff picture.
This dogfight in the West has been insane. The fourth-place Phoenix Suns and 12th-place Utah Jazz are separated by just 4.5 games, with most teams only having five or six contests left on the schedule.
No team in this glob has been able to separate themselves. Any momentum generated in the final weeks of the season could be crucial for playoff positioning — which makes the New Orleans Pelicans' quiet resurgence significant.
New Orleans is eighth in the West at 38-38, but was rolling on a five-game winning streak before fumbling away a great start to Tuesday's game against the Golden State Warriors. The Pelicans have the best defensive rating (107.0) in the league across the last 10 games.
This team was atop the West standings on Dec. 12 and 11 games over .500 on Dec. 30. Then, injuries and simply poor play sent them tumbling; the Pelicans went 10-25 from New Year's Eve up until the current recovery.
Now, at the most critical point of the year, the Pelicans seem to be back on track.
Brandon Ingram missed all of December and most of January with a toe injury and it understandably took the star some time to regain form. But he's been electric since the All-Star break, averaging 26.7 points, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 49.3% from the field and 40% on threes. Zoom into the last six games and it gets even more explosive: 29.2 points, 8.3 assists (!) and 5.8 rebounds on a 51.6% shooting clip (47.4% from three).
Ingram's 40.4% overall efficiency from distance is a career-high even as he continues to glide his way inside. The 25-year-old is one of the premier mid-range maestros in the league, and he's still improving his presence closer to the basket. According to PBP stats, Ingram is driving the ball once every five possessions and making 52% of his shots via drives — both the highest rates of his career.
This and-one from Tuesday's loss is simply tough. In the midst of his faceup touch, Ingram spins to drive right, but sees Stephen Curry has left his assignment to help on the right drive. So Ingram then twirls back, drives left, takes the contact from Anthony Lamb and has the touch to finish the floater. It's an impressive display of quick processing and calm determination.
Ingram's continued development as a fulcrum plus New Orleans' injury struggles have given him the largest on-ball role in his seven years as a pro. His usage rate (30.9), touches per possession (0.96), seconds per touch (4.02) and dribbles per touch (3.03) are all career-highs. The lanky forward has matched his 2021-22 playmaking breakout with those opportunities.
So far in March, Ingram has seen 18.7% of his total passes turn into assists. That rate ranks second in the NBA during that span, behind only Trae Young (19.4%). In the last six games, Ingram has led the league with a 22.6% assist-to-pass ratio. How is he doing it? Ingram dished out 4.6 three-point assists per game across those six contests, second in the league behind only Luka Doncic.
Ingram's gravity as a mid-range scorer creates these types of plays. Trey Murphy III screens to get Ingram open and then clears out to the arc. The Warriors are anticipating an Ingram isolation and react as such, with Curry and Jordan Poole losing Murphy in the process. Ingram then applies pressure but doesn't overcommit himself, and kicks it out for the easy three.
Here's another example. The Houston Rockets are preparing to contain Ingram off of the high ball screen and it looks like CJ McCollum might help with a second screen, but then McCollum jets out to the perimeter. Houston is still focused on Ingram for just that split-second though, opening up another window. It's an easy pass to make, but it works because Kevin Porter Jr. overcommits to helping stop Ingram's drive.
Of course, it helps that the Pelicans' cast of shooters have caught fire all at the same time. Murphy is knocking down 48.1% of his 8.7 treys across the last six games. McCollum (44.7%), Josh Richardson (50.0%) and Herb Jones (41.7%) are each clearing 40% on at least two attempts per game.