Thursday, May 26, 2022

Four reasons why the 2021-22 Pelicans make the playoffs: Zion Williamson, new coach will make the difference

Heading into the 2021-22 season, there may not be a more intriguing team, at least among the non-contenders, than the New Orleans Pelicans. With a revamped roster, a new head coach and Zion Williamson leading the way, the Pelicans have their sights set on their first playoff appearance since 2018.

Last season ended in a disappointing fashion, as they went 6-12 down the stretch, including a four-game losing streak to close things out, and missed the play-in tournament by two games. Coach Stan Van Gundy paid for that failure with his job, and a number of players were sent on their way as well. 

There was no debate that the Pelicans needed to make changes this summer, but there have been split opinions on whether they made the right ones. Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams are gone, replaced by Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Satoransky and Jonas Valanciunas, among others. Willie Green was hired away from the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns and will get his first shot at being a head coach. 

On the one hand, the Pelicans are still rebuilding following the Anthony Davis trade, but Williamson’s presence means they have no time to dally. There are real expectations, especially after last season, and they need to start turning some of this young talent into success on the court. 

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Ahead of training camp, here are four reasons why the Pelicans will turn things around and make the playoffs this season. 

New Orleans Pelicans roster

  • Guards: Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Satoransky, Kira Lewis Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Garrett Temple, Trey Murphy III
  • Forwards: Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Naji Marshall, Zion Williamson, Wenyen Gabriel
  • Centers: Jonas Valanciunas, Jaxson Hayes, Willy Hernangomez

1. Zion is the real deal

After a promising but abbreviated rookie campaign, Zion Williamson showed last season why he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, and one of the most anticipated prospects to enter the NBA in some time. Simply put, there are few players in the history of the game with his combination of size and athleticism. 

In his first full season in the league, Williamson put up 27 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game and made his first All-Star appearance. But it wasn’t just the numbers — eighth in the league in both scoring and field goal percentage (61.1 percent) — it was the way Williamson went about his work.

Despite the fact that every single person in every single arena he plays in knows all he wants to do is get to the rim, no one can stop him from doing just that. Last season, he was the only player in the league to average double-digit attempts in the restricted area, which is where he took 13.4 of his 17 shots per game. And thanks to his strength, leaping ability and craft around the basket, he shot 67.2 percent on those opportunities. 

As this chart from Seth Partnow of The Athletic shows, Williamson stands alone in terms of his ability to attack the basket. 

But he isn’t just a bully in the paint. He is a more talented passer and ball-handler than he probably gets credit for, and the Pelicans started putting the ball in his hands a lot as the season went along. That should continue, and whether you want to call him a point forward or point guard, Williamson is going to be running the show for the Pels this season. 

Even with Williamson (and Brandon Ingram) missing 11 games, the Pelicans were a borderline top-10 offense. If he stays healthy and shows the kind of improvement we usually see from young stars, the Pelicans will have one of the best offensive attacks in the league. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it does give you a good chance. In the past five seasons, only six teams that finished in the top-10 in offensive rating missed the playoffs. 

2. The roster makes more sense

The Pelicans had a busy offseason that many found confusing at best and downright bad at worst. Through a series of trades and free agent signings out went Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams, in came Devonte’ Graham, Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky, Trey Murphy III and Jonas Valanciunas. 

In terms of raw talent, the Pelicans arguably took a step back and there was no major acquisition — say, for example, signing a veteran point guard like Kyle Lowry — that you could point to as the move that would get them into the playoffs. But what David Griffin and Co. did accomplish in their offseason maneuverings was reshaping the roster in a way that makes much more sense around Williamson. 

Last season was a period of transition for the Pelicans, as they officially moved into the Zion Williamson era. Only the roster was a strange mish-mash of veterans and youngsters that didn’t fit together. Eric Bledsoe was extremely disappointing and didn’t even do his usual work on the defensive end. Steven Adams was likewise uninspiring in his first season away from the Thunder, while JJ Redick was publicly frustrated at how his tenure ended. There wasn’t enough spacing or shooting, and the defense was terrible. 

While it would be foolish to suggest the Pelicans have solved all of their issues, this roster is far more practical. Valanciunas, who was quietly a huge part of the Grizzlies‘ playoff push last season, is an improvement over Adams. He gives them another scoring option in the paint who can buoy second units and can also step out and space the floor when playing alongside Williamson. 

On the perimeter, Graham is one of the best catch-and-shoot 3-point threats in the league — 42.3 percent last season — and should feast playing off-ball with Williamson and Ingram. They drafted another high-level shooter in Trey Murphy III, who lit up Summer League. Satoransky, Temple and Josh Hart bring versatility, defense and veteran leadership. And then there are young players like Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis and Naji Marshall who have shown some promise. 

The Pelicans are going to be able to spread the floor, play fast and better emphasize the strengths of their best players, Williamson and Ingram. It’s going to be very difficult to stop this team. Defense is where there are still some questions. Which, speaking of…

3. New coach, new vibes, new defense

When the Pelicans hired Stan Van Gundy prior to last season you could understand the thinking. He was an experienced, defensive-minded coach whose teams rarely missed the playoffs. It didn’t work. Some of that was because of the aforementioned roster limitations, and some of it was because Van Gundy never quite vibed with some of the younger players. 

The Pelicans wisely recognized their mistake and Van Gundy was let go soon after the season ended. In their search for a replacement, the Pelicans still focused on a coach with a high defensive acumen. Other than that, however, former Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green is about as different as possible from Van Gundy. A former 12-year veteran who just retired in 2015, Green is known for his ability to connect with and relate to players. 

“Being in a position where I have experienced a ton,” Green told The Athletic in 2019. “I’ve been a starter. I’ve come off the bench. There’s times where I haven’t played at all. So I can relate to what the players are going through. I’ve also had some really good coaches (as a player), and learned from some really good coaches (as an assistant). Just trying to put all that together is kind of what I bring to the table. I was in their shoes. It’s kind of easy to relate to when you’ve been there before.”

Getting that buy-in from the players will be key as Green tries to fix the Pelicans’ lackluster defense, which finished 23rd in the league last season with a defensive rating of 113.3. There aren’t a ton of great individual defenders on this team, but you can overcome that by being on the same page and giving consistent effort. The hope is that Green’s ability to connect with players, and his experience building the Suns’ defense, will help the Pelicans be more than the sum of their parts on that end. 

4. The underrated acquisition of Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is never going to be the star of the show. It wasn’t the case in Toronto when he was playing alongside Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, it wasn’t the case in Memphis when he was outshined by Ja Morant, and it definitely isn’t going to be the case in New Orleans with Zion Williamson leading the way. 

But while Valanciunas has always flown under the radar, that has not been through any fault of his own. He’s one of the most solid and dependable frontcourt players in the league and has always been a part of winning teams, making the playoffs in six of his nine seasons. 

Even more impressive is that he seems to be getting better with age. He was absolutely terrific for the Grizzlies last season, putting together a career year as he helped them make the playoffs for the first time since 2017. His 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game were both career-highs, as was his shooting percentage of 59.2.

At first glance, Valanciunas might not seem like much of an upgrade over Adams, but at this stage of their careers, he is, especially on the offensive end. He shot 66 percent within five feet last season, despite taking the 10th most attempts per game in that area in the league. He’ll give the Pelicans another much-needed threat around the basket, and his offensive rebounding — second in the league at 4.1 per game last season — will help create second chances. Moreover, he’s just a much better fit than Adams thanks to his ability to step away from the basket when necessary. He’s not Karl-Anthony Towns or anything, but teams won’t be able to just ignore him outside of the paint, which should create more space for Williamson and Ingram. 

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