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In the Race for the West, are the Pelicans the Best?

Let’s state the obvious to start: the New Orleans Pelicans are, at around the 25-game mark, the winningest team in the Western Conference. Wins and losses are bread and butter, but there is always more to the story. Are they truly the best team in the Western Conference? Is this a team ready to contend with playoff-tested Warriors, Suns, and Nuggets teams? A deep dive is warranted. 

Advanced Stats Translating to Tough Play

When you look at the league net ratings, a historic Celtics team is easily at the top, at 8.2. What team is right behind them? The Pelicans, at 6.9. Again, Boston leads the league in offensive rating, and the Pelicans fall all the way down to 5th in the league. Not as eye-catching, but still impressive. This is where it gets interesting. A young Cavaliers team leads the league in defensive rating, and Boston is nowhere to be found. Actually, none of the teams with the best offensive ratings have defensive ratings just as stellar— with an exception. The New Orleans Pelicans are third in the league in defensive rating and fifth in offensive rating. Statistics tell a story of a team that isn’t just made up of two-way players but is, in fact, a true two-way team, an altogether rarer thing. 

The deeper you dig, the more a story of a gritty team that isn’t afraid to fight is revealed. If you haven’t been able to catch enough Pelicans’ games on TV, the statistics will paint a vivid picture. Almost 57 points in the paint per game (second only to the Grizzlies)— when in doubt, take it to the basket and just put the ball in. 2nd in deflections per game. 4th in loose balls recovered per game. They don’t just play well as a defensive unit. This is a group of guys willing to individually fight for the ball. Even if the extra work doesn’t always transfer into a turnover, it shows that the team is playing with effort and intensity every time they step on the court. I challenge you to find a championship team that isn’t constantly fighting with every bit of their heart. 

A Deep, Deep Team

If you aren’t someone easily swayed by stats, I understand. Statistics aren’t always everything. Next, we’ll zoom in on some of the key players on the roster. You can’t talk Pelicans’ basketball without Zion Williamson. Watch just one game, and you’ll see what a beast the 2019 number 1 pick has become. He’s scored 30 points 5 times in his past 10 games. At the point spot, you have veteran guard CJ McCollum who, after years alongside Damian Lillard on the Portland Trail Blazers, knows how to play with a superstar. You have Herb Jones, an Alabama Basketball alum who plays defense with not just intensity but with exquisite touch and talent.

Paired with Zion in the frontcourt is center Jonas Valančiūnas. A solid three-point shooter with a light touch who is excellent at rolling to the rim, he has learned how to play off of what Williamson can create. With this team, the Pelicans are on a 7-game winning streak. All of this, it should be noted, without Brandon Ingram. Though Williamson and Ingram are still learning how to operate with the other young star on the floor, the pure offensive skill he brings to the team cannot be understated. With him looking to return during this road trip, New Orleans is going to loom on the minds of upcoming opponents. 

image source: nba.com

The Takeaway?

New Orleans is a force to be reckoned with in the west. Over the past weekend, they defeated last-years the Suns twice, the reigning Western Conference Champions. On December 4th, they beat the Denver Nuggets by 15. The biggest blotch on their resume is a sizable loss to Memphis in November, but at this point in the season, each team has beaten the other once. Since the very start of the season, with both Laker and Warriors juggernauts stumbling out of the gate, the west appeared wide open. The team that swept in to claim the conference was not one most expected, but you could hardly call it a fluke. While anyone is to say who will be the Western Conference champions when the season concludes, for the first time in many years, the Pelicans decidedly have a better shot than most. 

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