The New Orleans Pelicans had a lot of attention coming into this season. They picked the phenom Zion Williamson first overall in the draft, they traded their franchise superstar Anthony Davis for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart, and they have a veteran head coach ready to win in Alvin Gentry.
Expectations in Louisiana were high. The team is young, explosive, and gunning for a playoff seed. Sadly for the fans, the Pelicans are sitting at 0-4 as of the writing of this article. Zion is sidelined with a torn meniscus, Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors are out with knee troubles, and role player Darius Miller tore his Achilles in August likely putting him out for the season.
A fan might see this New Orleans team as one that will not sniff the playoffs; a young team that is not quite there yet. They might say "Maybe in a few years when Zion is healthy, Ingram is an all-star, and Lonzo is All-Defense they will make some noise."
That is a reasonable take, but the Pelicans are not as bad as they look on the surface. They have potential to make a playoff push this season, let alone the years to come.
Early season struggles are expected for young teams. Especially young teams that overhauled half of their roster from the previous season.
The Pelicans have had a tough schedule out of the gate. They played the defending champion Toronto Raptors on opening night. They then played a back-to back against the undefeated Dallas Mavericks followed by the Houston Rockets with their duo of Westbrook and Harden. Their fourth game of the season was against Steph Curry and the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors.
The Pelicans would have certainly liked to beat a weak Warriors squad and the division rival Mavericks, but they escaped this grueling schedule with only one double-digit loss. They are holding their own against prospective playoff teams, and it's nearly all because of their offense.
They are 5th in the NBA in points per game (121.0) on an outrageous (and league leading) 100.8 field goal attempts per game. They land at 8th in the NBA in 3 point percentage (36.6%) and are in the top half of the league in field goal percentage. An assist percentage of 67.6% demonstrates their ball movement and shows that the Pels get off efficient shots. Put this all together and you have an Offensive Rating of 110.8, good for 5th overall.
By all accounts, this is a top tier NBA offense. They are performing this well without Zion Williamson and 2 games of Jrue Holiday. This top 5 offense will only get better as their roster gradually heals from injury. So what's holding them back?
Their bottom-feeding defense.
Looking through these stats reminded me of the famous 1980s Denver Nuggets teams. Fast-paced, all offense, no defense. Much like the Nuggets, the Pelicans get up shots as quickly as possible. Their ball movement is incredibly fast and they love to transition into the fast break after a defensive rebound. But here lies the first of their problems, rebounding.
The Pelicans rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing a pitiful 64.8% of available defensive boards. For reference, 23 of the 30 teams in the NBA are at or above 72% according to nba.com.
This lack of defensive rebounding is the reason why they are the worst team at giving up 2nd chance points (with only the Charlotte Hornets coming close). To put into perspective just how bad they are, the difference between 28th and 30th in 2nd chance points is 3.5 points per game.
They are bottom 5 in opponent 2PT%, opponent free throws made per game, opponent points in the paint per game, and defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions).
They are last place in opponent PTS/G and last place in opponent fast break PTS/G.
Then why should you be optimistic? Their defense is awful and they are led by a fairly inexperienced core.
Holiday and Williamson coming back with Favors at full health has potential to turn this team around defensively.
Last season the Pelicans' defensive rating was nearly 5 points better with Holiday on the floor; over double the difference of when Anthony Davis was on/off. Holiday and Ball is one of the best defensive backcourts in the NBA and will provide lockdown capability along the perimeter.
The Pels' prime concerns are their paint defense and rebounding woes. Favors has played in 3 of 4 games this season, but when he has been on the floor New Orleans' defensive rebounding percentage has been 5.6% higher compared to when he has been off. Their defensive rating gets worse, but his career defensive rating is a very good 103 compared to 117 so far this season. I expect this outlier to right itself after a few more games and for Favors to be a solid interior defender like he has been throughout the rest of his career.
Rookie center Jaxson Hayes recently touched the NBA hardwood for the first time with Favors out and performed well. The athletic 6'11" center averaged over 2 blocks per game in college. He is looking to continue swatting shots in the NBA. Hayes could be the rim presence that New Orleans desperately needs to mitigate points in the paint.
Zion Williamson will not be rushed back. It will not surprise me if we don't see him until the New Year. Whenever he does return, expect the offense to get even better and for the opponents' points in the paint to drop. He is not a prolific defender by any means (looking occasionally lost on defense during summer league and pre-season), but his physical presence is enough to alter shots at the rim. His outstanding vertical leap, physicality, and solid on-ball defensive ability will allow him to be a key contributor on that side of the ball.
The Pelicans have a top 5 offense so far, a fixable defense, and multiple players who are not at full health. They might not be championship contenders, but you should keep an eye on basketball in the bayou. They might sneak up on you.