In the wake of the blowout, the response is more important than the result for the Pelicans

Published: December 30, 2020

Mama said there would be days like this in the NBA, although no one likes them to happen on TNT. 

The New Orleans Pelicans suffered their first blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns 111-86 Tuesday night on the road, marking the first real wall the squad has hit in the new era.

While blowout losses are always a cause for concern, it is not uncommon for any team to suffer one in a league that schedules 82 games for their teams. Now consider that with the fact these games are being played every other night with COVID-19 protocols to follow and travel is still factored in. 

Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Clippers experienced one of the worst losses in NBA history, falling 124-73 at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. The loss is the only loss the Clippers have so far in the young season as their record stands at 3-1. The Western Conference power is still expected to be a high playoff seed after the regular season. Time moves on and so does the regular-season schedule. 

In fact, it isn’t just the Clippers and Pelicans who have been subject to an embarrassing loss. Throughout the NBA, we’ve seen several blowouts in the first week of the season. In the same night the Pelicans faced Phoenix, three of the ten games on the league’s schedule were decided by more than 20 points, including Milwaukee’s 47-point blowout over Miami, the reigning Eastern Conference Champion.

There is no reason to assume the sky is falling for the Pelicans, but as they move into Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City and Saturday’s game against Houston, the thing Coach Steve Van Gundy has to monitor is the response in the aftermath of Tuesday’s result. 

Shallow water

It has become painfully apparent that the Pelicans roster is not deep enough with NBA ready talent. It’s an issue that Van Gundy already addressed, saying that he planned to use a player rotation of about 8 to 9 men and that he would work in younger players as the season progressed. The issue with this is that some players that were being counted on to be a part of this rotation are not producing, making the rotation pool even smaller. Beyond starting center Steven Adams and second-year star power forward Zion Williamson, Van Gundy is struggling to find relief minutes for the frontcourt from bench players Nicolo Melli and center Jaxson Hayes. Last season, Melli and Hayes were an essential part of the rotation, providing scoring and energy from the second unit. Hayes often looks lost in defensive rotations and offensively looks hesitant to make cuts to the basket or shoot from 12-feet out. Melli, a 3-point specialist, has been cold from beyond the arc, not making one from the area this season until late in garbage time Tuesday night. There is a silver lining with Melli after Tuesday though, he was a +2 in player efficiency rating and he isn’t taking a high volume of shots. He grabbed 8 rebounds on the floor, showing he can still contribute for this team.

There is still reason to believe Hayes and Melli can figure out the new system and contribute. What may be missing for Hayes and Melli is better point guard play opening things up for them. Both of these players are at their best when there is a floor general organizing the chaos and creating openings to dish off to them so they can deliver. Maybe Nickeil Alexander-Walker or rookie Kira Lewis Jr. can be candidates to earn the job of leading the second-unit offense at backup point guard. 

In the regular season-opening win, bench guard J.J. Redick scored 23 points. Since then, he’s been ice cold from three, a dangerous element that no longer poses a threat to defensives when it’s absent. It’s possible that better point guard play in the second unit, or more time with the first unit, can help Redick out as well.

Who can help?

In a desperate attempt to find a spark from reserves, Van Gundy finally gave guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker significant minutes and the result was sort of a mixed bag but the guard may have done enough to start cracking the rotation more. Alexander-Walker was still a -9 in player efficiency ratings but he scored 11 points in 20 minutes. He was direct and decisive in his scoring. It is possible the matter of more playing time is what he needs to get on track. What is apparent is that someone new has to earn their way into this rotation soon.

When the stars don’t shine

It seems clear that the Pelicans have a stellar starting lineup and a bench unit that is nearly on a developmental level. That’s not a good recipe for an 82-game season. However, while the bench is under the microscope, every starting player finished with a deep minus in player efficiency ratings.

The team’s stars, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram both had their worst games of the season. Williamson scored 20 points but only grabbed two rebounds, well below his season average of 9.3, showing signs of being overworked on the glass. 

As a team, 3-point shooting was an abysmal 3-of-24. Also, neither Lonzo Ball nor Eric Bledsoe, sharing point guard duties, achieved organization managing the offense, and nor did they shoot efficiently from the floor. 

As bad as it was, there’s no reason to believe this is permanent. It was also anticipated that a Phoenix team led by Chris Paul with Coach Monty Williams and a revamped roster would potentially be one of the best in the West.

It’s time to forgive and forget and think about surviving the weekend for the New Orleans Pelicans. 

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