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RECONSTRUCTED: A preview of the 2020-21 New Orleans Pelicans

It’s no secret that the Pelicans were atrocious on defense last season, including in the bubble, but I’ll talk about that later. This was a team that gave up 111.9 points per game; which ranked 27th out of 30 NBA teams. The path to the postseason seemed nearly impossible after losing 13 consecutive games from Nov.23rd to Dec.18th putting together a record of 6-22. However, all of that changed Jan 22nd when Zion Williamson made his debut. The team put together not one, but three game winning streaks from his debut to Mar. 8th. 

During the NBA restart the Pelicans by far had the easiest schedule, but they went just 2-6 the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention midway through the bubble restart.This was widely viewed as a complete disaster seeing how the team was doing well prior to the postponement of all games. 

HEAD COACHStan Van Gundy
2019-20 RECORD30-42 (.741) 5th in the Southwest Division, 13th in the Western Conference
DRAFT PICKSKira Lewis Jr. (13) – Elijah Hughes (39)(traded to Utah Jazz) – Nick Rihcards (42)(traded to Charlotte Hornets) – Sam Merrill (60)(traded to Milwaukee Bucks) 
FREE AGENCY GAINSEric Bledsoe – Steven Adams 

KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM 2019-20: The Pelicans were one of the many Western Conference teams that had a disappointing end to the season, but hopeful the pairing of Brandon Ingram and Williamson will be the main ingredients to propelling this team from ranked 13th in the Western Conference to a top eight team. Prior to the NBA restart everyone expected the Pelicans to clinch the final playoff seed and play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that due to minute restrictions placed on Willamson and the lack of defensive effort. The team was out of the mix before they even got started. 

GRADING THE COACH: During the 2015-16 season Stan Van Gundy uplifted a struggling Detroit Pistons franchise into its first playoff appearance in almost 10 years. During his 11 seasons in the NBA he’s pulled together a regular season record of 523-384 (.577) and a playoff record of 48-43 (.527). He also led a young Orlando Magic team to the 2009 NBA Finals. It was his defensive savvy that landed him this coach position as everyone – and I mean everyone – noticed how the Pelicans just didn’t play any defense. In his 11 seasons as a head coach all of except one team were in the top half in the NBA for defensive rating — including his last three seasons as the Pistons’ head coach. 

GRADING THE DRAFT:  Rookie Kira Lewis Jr. has been outstanding in training camp and is already surprising and impressing Van Gundy.

“Number one, you can tell his talent is there: Quick, can shoot the ball, plays really hard, good defensive instincts,” said Van Gundy 

Van Gundy continued to say, “He has a lot going for him as a player so that’s exciting. He’s also a great worker with a great attitude. He doesn’t question anything. He just tries to do everything you ask him to do. We are really encouraged by what we’ve seen early on.”

NBA verteran JJ Reddick is also optimistic about Lewis’ potential. 

“It seems like he is a better shooter than I thought,” said Reddick. “I don’t watch a ton of college basketball but watching him in drills and his ability to knock down open threes in practice has been really good. He’s also coachable. He’s got a good demeanor out on the court. I think he responds well. I can see why we took him with that pick.”

GRADING FREE AGENCY:  N.O. acquired Eric Bledsoe in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks (14.9 points & 5.4 assists per game) to the Southwest Division, after their surprising loss in the second round to the eventual Eastern Conference Champions Miami Heat.

“Bledsoe is as good an on ball defender as there is in the league.” Van Gundy said in an interview.

Lonzo Ball and Bledsoe will pair together nicely especially on the defensive end. 

Steven Adams was brought in from a trade with Oklahoma City. Adams is the literal definition of a walking double-double, averaging 10.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game last season. In addition he is a solid interior defender who held opponents to 7.6 percent worse while shooting within six feet of the basket than their normal averages last season, per NBA.com 

STRENGTHS:  With Brandon Ingram back after an outstanding year he and Williamson are going to be the one-two punch that this team needs to reach the playoffs. Adding a defensive minded coach along with two players that are known for their defensive capabilities gives the Pelicans the one thing they were missing last year: DEFENSE. 

OPPORTUNITIES:  It is expected that the Pelicans will improve from their dautening 30-42 record. Key additions of Van Gundy, Lewis Jr, Bledsoe, and Adams will shake up the Southwest Division and could thrust his team into the division’s top seed. 
PREDICTED FINISH (DIVISION/CONFERENCE):  The wild wild West gets better and better each year, although the Pelicans are not in that conversation. My expectation for this team their first year under Van Gundy is a 43-29 potential playoff berth. They have the scoring abilities, the versatile defenders, experienced players and coaches to be a force in the Western Conference for years to come, not just this upcoming season. I also expect this team to finish at the top of their division. I believe the addition of Van Gundy will propel this team into a serious playoff contender within the next few years. This is a team that is already gifted offensively, but now are learning what it takes to be a great defensive team. 

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