The New Orleans Pelicans: Underdogs to Topdogs?

2021 Rookies Herbert Jones (5) and Jose Alvarado (15) high-five during a game (Photo: Adam Hagy / NBAE via Gerry Images).

After trading star Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019, the New Orleans Pelicans went into rebuilding mode. Davis won a championship in his first season with the Lakers while his former team finished near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Although the franchise didn’t experience immediate success like Davis, they have seemed to complete their rebuild just three seasons after trading the All-Star.

The Pelicans started the 2021-22 season with a league-worst 1-12 record –– all signs were pointing toward a lost season. However, a trade deadline deal to acquire guard CJ McCollum and the emergence of young players helped turn things around.

New Orleans finished the season 36-46 and landed in the play-in tournament without star Zion Williamson all year. They managed to win both play-in games and sneak into the playoffs but ultimately lost in a tough first-round series against the Phoenix Suns. 

Phoenix entered the playoffs with the NBA’s best record and were favored to make the NBA Finals. Despite that, the Pelicans managed to win two games and played high-level basketball throughout the series.

Heading into the 2022-23 season, 14 players from the previous year remain under contract and are expected to return. Williamson is also expected to return healthy and even signed a five-year maximum extension in early July despite rumors of his unhappiness in New Orleans. 

The Pelicans also added 6’6’’ Australian guard Dyson Daniels with the eighth pick in the 2022 draft. Daniels averaged 11.3 PPG, 5.9 REB, and 4.4 AST for the G-League Ignite in 2021-22. He has great length and is one of the best defenders in the 2022 rookie class. Daniels isn’t a quality shooter, but his high IQ, advanced passing ability, and rebounding skills offset his inconsistent shooting. 

New Orleans has one of the deepest rosters in the league. McCollum, Williamson, and Brandon Ingram are All-Star caliber players. Jonas Valanciunas is a quality starting center and a nightly double-double threat. Rising sophomore Herbert Jones established himself as an elite defender as a rookie and has the potential to compete for Defensive Player of the Year for the next decade. 

Second-year players Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy III have shown the potential to become quality two-way players. Alvarado proved he’s a pest on the defensive end after guarding Chris Paul in the playoffs. Murphy III is a solid defender at 6’8’’ and dominated the Summer League with his shooting. 

The Pelicans also have Larry Nance Jr., Devonte’ Graham, and Jaxson Hayes –– all quality role players who can contribute on any team.

While New Orleans is undoubtedly talented, the extent of their success relies on Williamson’s return. Before missing the entire 2021-22 season, Williamson appeared in 61 of the Pelicans’ 72 games. Not only was he a regular presence, but he regularly dominated games with his nearly unstoppable athleticism.

Williamson showed the NBA just how dominant he can be. He averaged 27 PPG on nearly 70% shooting from the field and notched and All-Star nod at just 20 years old. The NBA hasn’t seen a young player with this much potential to physically dominate the league since Shaquille O’Neal.

New Orleans faces a tough challenge ahead as the Western Conference has more playoff-caliber teams than playoff spots. They currently have the ninth-best title odds in the west at +4125 (via Vegas Insider).

However, at full strength, the Pelicans are talented enough to make a deep run in the 2022-23 playoffs. If the players and staff continue to grow as a unit, there is no limit to how good this team can be.

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