Can the Pelicans Be Good?

On Wednesday night, New Orleans received a Christmas miracle.

The Pelicans, currently second to last in the Western Conference standings, beat the Denver Nuggets 112-100 in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN on the road in the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets (21-9) are currently the second-best team in the Western Conference and were enjoying a seven-game win streak before the Pelicans placed a lump of coal in their stocking.

While it is easy to call the win a miracle, the Pelicans, led behind 31 points from Brandon Ingram, looked comfortable inside of a building where it is difficult for opponents to earn a win in the NBA.

The instant attribute that is noticeably different about the Pelicans is an improved defensive effort. According to stats and information provided by the team, over their last five games, New Orleans has a 99.2 Defensive Rating, good for first the league, and is holding their opponents to 101.4 points per game, the second-best effort in the NBA. While pace may the priority for Alvin Gentry’s Pelicans, an identity on defense is emerging, something Associate Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik has to be pleased with.

The team is playing better defense as a whole, but one of the main reasons for their improvement is the return of Derrick Favors, a bonafide veteran center who protects the rim, freeing perimeter defenders to pick up their opponents much earlier in half-court sets.

Favors also changes the team with his contribution on the boards every night. Aside from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, he is the only player in team history to have a game with 13 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 blocks, per team stats. Stats also show that the Pels are 4-1 when Favors plays over 29 minutes.

With a healthy center rotation that includes the progressive development of rookie Jaxson Hayes, suddenly the Pelicans seem to show characteristics of the team they were projected to be. If this holds up, there is enough time for the Pelicans to jump out of the bottom of the West to a top-8 spot. With a 9-23 record, the Pelicans are 15.5 games back from the top spot. Portland, currently sitting in the eighth spot, is just 10 games back from first and they hold a below .500 record at 14-17.

Teams in the West are also showing extreme vulnerabilities right now. No. 13 Minnesota just ended an 11-game losing streak by edging out the Kings in overtime 105-104 in overtime Thursday night. In 11th place, Phoenix is on a seven-game losing streak. The Kings at No. 10 have lost five games in a row and even the Lakers, leading the West, have lost four games in a row with an overall record of 24-7.

With the big rotation more set in stone and contributions from guards like J.J. Redick, Josh Hart, and even Lonzo Ball at times, lineups for both starting and reserve units appear to be much more balanced. The team is also running more offensive sets with cohesiveness rather than resorting to isolation.

These things are all coming together and sensational rookie Zion Williamson is still waiting in the wings to return. Wednesday’s win over Denver looked like a better example of what this team is supposed to be.

As rough as we have experienced it when watching games this season, is the worst over? Are the Pelicans good?

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