Pelicans take a step towards identity

Published: December 28, 2020

For most NBA teams in a rebuilding year, it typically takes at least a month before visual evidence of a defined identity begins to appear on the court. 

For the New Orleans Pelicans though, there is already evidence of a dramatic shift in identity as the young squad under new coach Stan Van Gundy is 2-1 early in the regular season. 

In recent history, the Pelicans were a team that strived for high scores and fast pace under the previous coach Alvin Gentry. Often those years saw large leads in game disappear with a struggling effort to stop opponents and grab rebounds. Though rosters in the past had individual players that were exceptional on defense, those teams did not place an overall emphasis on defense as a whole consistently. 

Recent history may be why Sunday night’s 98-95 victory over the San Antonio Spurs was a surprise. Rarely is there a game in the modern NBA where neither team scores over 100 points. What Van Gundy’s Pelicans proved is that they can find a way to sniff out a win when they are not at their offensive best. Looking back, the Pelicans have held their opponents under 100 points in two of their last three games. Comparing that to last season, the Pelicans only held their opponents under 100 points in four out of 72 games last season. 

There was every reason for the Pelicans to lose Sunday night as they shot 38 percent from the field and an abysmal 5-for-24 from 3-point range but chipping away from the defensive end was how they stayed alive. The Pelicans grabbed 43 defensive rebounds as well as 11 steals that turned into fastbreak offensive opportunities on the other end. Five of those steals were produced by point guard Lonzo Ball applied backcourt pressure on ballhandlers with guard Eric Bledsoe in tandem. The game was sealed on a block from Bledsoe at the end of regulation as the Spurs attempted a 3-shot to go to overtime. 

“We have done a decent job defending the paint,” Van Gundy said in a postgame conference. “We have fouled and sent people to the line. That’s a big part of good defense. We’ve been really good on defensive rebounds, about 80 percent on the defensive boards. And we’re forcing turnovers, making plays with our hands and our length.”

On Sunday the Spurs only shot eight free throws total in trips to the line and the Pelicans made 21-for-29 shots at the stripe.

The recipe for a defensive turnaround so quickly starts with Van Gundy and his attention to detail there. Though the team lost defensive master Jrue Holiday via trade, the return was Steven Adams, Bledsoe, and future assets. Adams has been one of the best defensive centers in the NBA for years and Bledsoe routinely makes the All-Defensive First or Second team every season. We’re seeing franchise stars Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson responding well to the new defensive schemes, Ingram causing havoc with his length, and Williamson jumping into passing lanes. Williamson also grabbed five of the 11 team steals made on Sunday night. 

Lonzo Ball

Brandon Ingram is getting a lot of deserved praise for coming alive late in the second half of Sunday’s win as he was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday. However, Lonzo Ball deserves credit for excellent play on both sides of the floor. Ball had a complete game with his 16 points, eight rebounds, five steals, and five assists. He had a knack for finding the open man and applying pressure on the defense. If this is the Ball that we’re getting this season, the Pelicans may exceed expectations. 

The Stars

Even when moments in the games are rough, the stars are producing. 

Zion Williamson has faced three of the league’s top six best coaches game-planning against him by packing the paint and he’s still producing anyway with averages like 21.7 points per game and 11.7 rebounds per game as a 20-year-old in his second professional season. Forward Brandon Ingram looks like an early and quiet MVP candidate averaging 26.7 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game, and 6.7 assists per game. 

Low turnovers

One issue that seemed to plague the Pelicans as a carryover from last season was turnovers. 

The Pelicans committed 5 turnovers before the fourth quarter on Sunday and the total increased to 8 at the end of regulation. 8 is down from 19 the previous game, and down from 24 in the regular-season opener. It’s a vast improvement. Especially considering teams in the NBA average 13-14 turnovers per game. So the Pels went from a high amount to well below league average.

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