• Musaab Nadeem

Hot Take Marathon: The Pelicans Will Make it to 2nd Round of the Playoffs

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How does Lonzo Ball to Zion Williamson in an open court fastbreak sound?

The New Orleans Pelicans are a must-see League Pass team next year, and rightfully so. They are loaded with young talent, featuring the incoming first overall pick as well as multiple former second overall picks. But at the same time, they are loaded with inexperience, as none of their most intriguing prospects have played in the playoffs. I’m here to argue, though, that sometimes talent is enough. Enough to get to the second round, at least.

The Pelicans are playing fast next year, as they will try to create a system that caters to the strengths of their new franchise cornerstone, Zion Williamson. This should be music to Lonzo Ball’s ears, as Ball’s ultimate ability is running a full-court offense that catches guys in full sprint to the basket. The Ball and Williamson pairing will be a joy to watch. If Ball’s court vision is not the best in the league then it’s certainly near the top, and it will meet its match in the athleticism of Zion.

Another intriguing pairing exists on this team that has mostly flown under the radar, that of Brandon Ingram and Williamson. Although they feature the opposite extremes of the human physique, Ingram and Williamson nonetheless share a similar facet to their respective games. That is, a bulk of their points come from beating the defense on drives to the rim from the perimeter. While Williamson can throw his weight in his march towards the basket, Ingram instead slinks his way around defenders to get to the rim. This mix of fire and ice against the defense should prove discomforting to the opposition, and should be kept an eye on.

To reiterate, there is a lot of talent on this team. And while there isn’t much experience, that isn’t to say that there is no experience. JJ Redick is a proven playoff contributor, and the team will benefit from his elite outside shooting. Jrue Holiday had his finest playoff series in 2018 in a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. And the Pelicans can roll out a wicked defensive lineup in Ball, Holiday, Josh Hart, Ingram, and Williamson should they decide to go small.

I’m not arguing that the Pelicans are going to win the championship, but can the strengths of these players be put on full display for the entire regular season to get them to the playoffs? I’d argue yes. Of the eight teams that made the playoffs in the West last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs are primed to fall out, and the Los Angeles Lakers are ready to jump in. That leaves one spot. The Pelicans have to beat out the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves, among others. Can the addition of Trevor Ariza push the Kings in? Will Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins fill out their potential this year? There are certainly a ton of questions surrounding the Pelicans as well; but in terms of upside, the Pelicans are rocking the most potential heading into the season.

So I have the Pelicans making the playoffs. And I expect them to make some noise. The Pelicans will no doubt be a lower seed should they get into the postseason. At all costs, they will want to avoid both Los Angeles teams, because the first round will be all they see in either case. But should they end up meeting any other team, I’ll give them a puncher’s chance. As good as the Denver Nuggets were as the number two seed last year, they ultimately lost to the lower seeded Trail Blazers. And then the Trail Blazers got swept by the Kevin Durant-less Warriors. No team is invincible.

Especially not the Houston Rockets. This is the Pelicans’ path to the second round: face the Rockets. James Harden’s squad has gotten incrementally worse over the last two seasons. In 2018, they were a Chris Paul-injury away from making the NBA Finals. A year later, they couldn’t beat the same Warriors team without their best player, in the second round.

I definitely believe the Rockets upgraded at point guard by swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. But Westbrook has not had a playoff series win since the departure of Kevin Durant in 2016, even with Paul George alongside him. The first round is as far as Westbrook can now go in the playoffs. And I believe that Russell Westbrook will bring the Rockets down to the level of Russell Westbrook, instead of the opposite where the Rockets elevate Russell Westbrook past his first round struggles. The Rockets have first round vulnerability written all over them, and should they end up playing in New Orleans in April, it will be a huge blessing for the Pelicans.

The Pelicans will take advantage, I believe, and ultimately prevail. They’ll see the second round.

But then that’s it.

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